April 26, 2018 | Parliament of Canada, House of Commons - Subcommittee on International Human Rights

Human Rights Situation in Turkey

Read the full testimony here


The Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has strong Islamist roots, has ruled Turkey since November 2002. During these fifteen-and-a-half years, the Turkish government has had a very mixed record on freedom of religion or belief; these freedoms have shown slight improvement in some areas while they deteriorated in many others. There has, however, been an alarming lack of respect for fundamental rights and freedoms across the board since the abortive coup of July 2016, and the ensuing state of emergency, which the government recently extended for the seventh time.

Turkey’s Mixed Track Record Historically, Turkey’s shortcomings concerning freedom of religion or belief stem from two main causes: 1) the country’s sui generis understanding of secularism, and 2) the prevalence of hostile attitudes toward religious minorities.

Turkey is nominally a secular republic. In 1928, four-and-a-half years after the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, the article stipulating Islam as the state religion was removed from the Constitution. Nine years later, the principle of secularism (laiklik) was introduced to the Constitution. Secularism is currently enshrined in the Constitution’s preamble as well as Articles 2, 13, 14, 68, 81, 103, 136, and 174. However, most Turkish politicians and voters across the political spectrum fail to perceive secularism as “separation of mosque and state” and freedom both “for and from” religion. Rather, the term continues to be perceived and implemented as “the state’s control over religion.” In practice, this peculiar understanding has resulted in a sectarian regime based on the Hanafi rite of Sunni Islam, in which the government’s preferred and privileged form of faith dominates all other faiths and confessions.

The widespread negative perception of and hostile attitude toward religious minorities continue to be one of the leading threats to freedom of religion or belief in Turkey. For the most part, religious minorities are either perceived as “fifth columns” acting on behalf of Turkey’s enemies, or conducive to foreign meddling, and hence seen as suspect. Furthermore, as a result of an attitude that is a relic of Turkey’s Ottoman past, religious minorities are perceived as “subjects” to be “tolerated” and treated with “benevolence” rather than as equal citizens with equal rights.

There is also a prevalent perception of religious minorities as “hostages” since religious minorities, even if they are Turkish citizens, are still considered to be foreign. This often leads to either slips of the tongue on the part of Turkish officials, who refer to them as foreigners, or instances in which officials treat them as hostages to be traded. For example, the Turkish government has made a commitment to opening the Halki Seminary, the main theology school of the Ecumenical Patriarchate located in Istanbul, in exchange for the Greek government opening the first mosque in Athens. Turkey’s religious minorities have spoken out againstsuch demeaning treatment. In 2006, for example, over 100 members of Turkey’s religious minorities signed a joint declaration stating that they are not “hostages.”

The problematic premises of Turkey’s existing regime of mosque-state relations have led to a patchy track record concerning freedom of religion or belief. On the one hand, elected officials and civil servants have been guilty of systematic discrimination and egregious hate speech targeting religious minorities as part of an alarming trend of scapegoating of, and incitement against, religious minorities. On the other hand, an interest in improving Turkey’s tarnished image abroad has led to a limited number of positive, albeit incomplete, steps to remedy long-running grievances. The Turkish government, through wellchoreographed steps, is particularly enthusiastic to showcase globally its benevolence toward, and tolerance of, certain religious minorities, particularly Jews and Christians. Paradoxically, such patronizing and condescending treatment of religious minorities ends up presenting an obstacle to the institutionalization of a framework based on equal citizenship, pluralism, and social inclusion.

Read the full testimony here

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir.

Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.