Secularism In Turkey

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Republic Protests took place in 2007 in support of the Kemalist reforms, particularly state secularism anddemocracy.
Secularism in Turkey defines the relationship between religion and state in the country of Turkey. Secularism (or laicity) was first introduced with the 1928 amendment of theConstitution of 1924, which removed the provision declaring that the “Religion of the State is Islam”, and with the later reforms of Atatürk, which set the administrative and political requirements to create a modern, democratic, secular state, aligned with Kemalist ideology.
Nine years after its introduction, laïcité was explicitly stated in the second article of the then Turkish constitution on February 5, 1937. The current Constitution of 1982 neither recognizes an official religion nor promotes any. This includes Islam, to which at least nominally more than 99% of its citizens subscribe.
Turkey’s “laïcité” does not call for a strict separation of religion and the state, but describes the state’s stance as one of “active neutrality.” Turkey’s actions related with religion are carefully analyzed and evaluated through the Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı (English: Presidency of Religious Affairs). The duties of the Presidency of Religious Affairs are “to execute the works concerning the beliefs, worship, and ethics of Islam, enlighten the public about their religion, and administer the sacred worshipping places”.
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The history of secularism in Turkey extends to the Tanzimat reforms of Ottoman Empire. The second peak in secularism occurred during the Second Constitutional Era. The current form was achieved byAtatürk’s Reforms.
Ottoman Empire
The establishing structure (Ruling institution of the Ottoman Empire) of the Ottoman Empire (13th century) was an Islamic state in which the head of the Ottoman state was the Sultan. The social system was organized around millet. Millet structure allowed a great degree of religious, cultural and ethnic continuity to non-Muslim populations across the subdivisions of the Ottoman Empire and at the same time it permitted their incorporation into the Ottoman administrative, economic and political system. The Ottoman-appointed governor collected taxes and provided security, while the local religious or cultural matters were left to the regional communities to decide. On the other hand, the sultans were Muslims and the laws that bound them were based on the Sharia, the body of Islamic law, as well as various cultural customs. The Sultan, beginning in 1516, was also a Caliph, the leader of all the Sunni Muslims in the world. By the turn of the 19th century the Ottoman ruling elite recognized the need to restructure the legislative, military and judiciary systems to cope with their new political rivals in Europe. When the millet system started to lose its efficiency due to the rise of nationalism within its borders, the Ottoman Empire explored new ways of governing its territory composed of diverse populations.
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Sultan Selim III founded the first secular military schools by establishing the new military unit, Nizam-ı Cedid, as early as 1792. However the last century (19th century) of the Ottoman Empire had many far reaching reforms. These reforms peaked with the tanzimat which was the initial reform era of the Ottoman empire. After the tanzimat, rules, such as those relating to the equalized status of non-Muslim citizens, the establishment of a parliament, the abandonment of medieval punishments for apostasy,as well as the codification of the constitution of the empire and the rights of ottoman subjects were established. The First World War brought about the fall of the Ottoman Empireand the subsequent partitioning of the Ottoman Empire by the victorious Allies. Therefore, the Republic of Turkey was actually a nation-state built as a result of an empire lost.
Reforms of Republic
During the establishment of the Republic, there were two sections of the elite group at the helm of the discussions for the future. These were the Islamist reformists and Westerners. They shared a similar goal, the modernization of the new state. Many basic goals were common to both groups. The founder of the modern Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s achievement was to amplify this common ground and put the country on a fast track of reforms, now known as Atatürk’s Reforms.
islam 8 The Sultan Ahmet Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, was built during the Ottoman Empire.
Their first act was to give the Turkish nation the right to exercise popular sovereignty via representative democracy. Prior to declaring the new Republic, the Turkish Grand National Assembly abolished the constitutional monarchy on November 1, 1922. The Turkish Grand National Assembly then moved to replace the extant Islamic law structure with the laws it had passed during the Turkish War of Independence, beginning in 1919. The modernization of the Law had already begun at the point that the project was undertaken in earnest. A milestone in this process was the passage of the Turkish Constitution of 1921. Upon the establishment of the Republic on October 29, 1923, the institution of theCaliphate remained, but the passage of a new constitution in 1924 effectively abolished this title held by the Ottoman Sultanate since 1517. With the negation of the Caliphate the final vestiges of Islamic Law are regarded as having disappeared from the Turkish landscape. The Caliphate’s powers within Turkey were transferred to the National Assembly and the title has since been inactive. While very unlikely, the Turkish Republic does in theory still retain the right to reinstate the Caliphate, should it ever elect to do so.

Following quickly upon these developments, many social reforms were undertaken. Many of these reforms affected every aspect of Turkish life, moving to erase the legacy of dominance long held by religion and tradition. The Unification of education, installation of a secular education system, and the closure of many religious orders was happened on March 3, 1924. This extended to closure of religious convents and dervish lodges on November 30, 1925. These reforms included the extension to women of voting rights in 1931 and the right to elected office on December 5, 1934. The inclusion of reference to laïcité into the constitution was achieved by an amendment on February 5, 1937, is seen as the final act in the project of instituting complete separation between governmental and religious affairs in Turkey.
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Constitutional principles
The Constitution asserts that Turkey is a secular and democratic republic, deriving its sovereignty from the people. The sovereignty rests with the Turkish Nation, who delegates its exercise to an elected unicameral parliament, theTurkish Grand National Assembly. Moreover, Article 4: declares the immovability the founding principles of the Republic defined in the first three Articles:
1. “secularism, social equality, equality before law”
2. “the Republican form of government”
3. “the indivisibility of the Republic and of the Turkish Nation”,
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Constitution bans any proposals for the modification of these articles. Each of these concepts which were distributed in the three articles of the constitution can not be achieved without the other two concepts. The constitution requires a central administration which would lose its meaning (effectiveness, coverage, etc.) if the system is not based on laïcité, social equality, and equality before law. Vice versa, if the Republic differentiate itself based on social, religious differences, administration cannot be equal to the population when the administration is central.The system which tried to be established in the constitution sets out to found a unitary nation-state based on the principles of secular democracy.
Impact on society
The Turkish Constitution recognizes freedom of religion for individuals whereas the religious communities are placed under the protection of state, but the constitution explicitly states that they cannot become involved in the political process (by forming a religious party for instance) and no party can claim that it represents a form of religious belief. Nevertheless, religious sensibilities are generally represented through conservative parties.
In recent history, two parties have been ordered to close (Welfare Party (Turkish: Refah Partisi) in 1998 and Virtue Party (Turkish: Fazilet Partisi) in 2001) by the Constitutional Court for Islamist activities and attempts to “redefine the secular nature of the republic”. The first party to be closed for suspected fundamentalist activities was the Progressive Republican Party on June 3, 1925.
The current governing party in Turkey, the conservative Justice and Development Party (Turkish: Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or AKP) has often been accused of following an Islamist agenda.
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Issues relating to Turkey’s secularism were discussed in the lead up to the 2007 presidential elections, in which the ruling party chose a candidate with Islamic connections, Abdullah Gül, for the first time in its secular republic. While some in Turkey have expressed concern that the nomination could represent a move away from Turkey’s secularist traditions, including particularly Turkey’s priority on equality between the sexes, others have suggested that the conservative party has effectively promoted modernization while reaching out to more traditional and religious elements in Turkish society. On July 22, 2007 it was reported that the more religiously conservative ruling party won a larger than expected electoral victory in the parliamentary elections.
Turkey’s preservation and maintenance of its secular identity has been a profound issue and source of tension. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has spoken out in favor of limited Islamism and against the active restrictions, instituted by Kemal Atatürk on wearing the Islamic-style head scarves in government offices and schools.
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The Republic Protests (Turkish: Cumhuriyet Mitingleri) were a series of peaceful mass rallies that took place in Turkey in the spring of 2007 in support of the Kemalist ideals of state secularism.
The constitutional rule that prohibits discrimination on religious grounds is taken very seriously. Turkey, as a secular country, prohibits by law the wearing of religious headcover and theo-political symbolic garments for both genders in government buildings, schools, and universities; a law upheld by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights as legitimate on November 10, 2005 in Leyla Şahin v. Turkey.
The strict application of secularism in Turkey has been credited for enabling women to have access to greater opportunities, compared to countries with a greater influence of religion in public affairs, in matters of education, employment, wealth as well as political, social and cultural freedoms.
Also paradoxical with the Turkish secularism is the fact that Identity document cards of Turkish citizens include the specification of the card holder’s religion. This declaration was perceived for some as representing a form of the state’s surveillance over its citizens’ religious choices.
The mainstream Hanafite school of Sunni Islam is entirely organized by the state, through the Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı (Religious Affairs Directorate), which supervises all mosques, educates the imams who work in them, and approves all content for religious services and prayers. It appoints imams, who are classified as civil servants. This micromanagement of Sunni religious at times seems much more sectarian than secular as it violates the principle of state neutrality in religious practice. Groups that have expressed dissatisfaction with this situation include a variety of extra-governmental Sunni / Hanafi groups (such as the Nurci movement), whose interpretation of Islam tends to be more activist; and the non-Sunni Alevilik, whose members tend to resent supporting the Sunni establishment with their tax monies (the Turkish state does not subsidize Alevi religious activities).
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Critics argue that the Turkish state’s support for and regulation of Sunni religious institutions – including mandatory religious education for children deemed by the state to be Muslims – amount to de facto violations of secularism. Debate arises over the issue of to what degree religious observance ought to be restricted to the private sphere – most famously in connection with the issues of head-scarves and religious-based political parties (cf. Welfare Party, AKP). The issue of an independent Greek Orthodox seminary is also a matter of controversy in regard to Turkey’s accession to the European Union, the reason being that it makes no sense for Turkey to completely oppress a small theological education center when it funds thousands more. Also the fact that only Sunni Muslims receive state salaries when working as appointed clergy is another issue being criticised.
Reforms going in the direction of secularism have been completed under Atatürk (abolition of the Caliphate, etc..).
However, Turkey is not strictly a secular state:
• there is no separation between religion and State
• there is a tutelage of religion by the state
However, each is free of his religious beliefs.
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Gul at the Ministry of DDiyanet
Religion is mentioned on the identity documents and there is an administration called “Presidency of Religious Affairs” or Diyanet which exploits Islam to legitimize sometimes State and manages 77,500 mosques. This state agency, established by Ataturk (1924), finance only Sunni Muslim worship. Other religions must ensure a financially self-sustaining running and they face administrative obstacles during operation .
When harvesting tax, all Turkish citizens are equal. The tax rate is not based on religion. However, through the “Presidency of Religious Affairs” or Diyanet, Turkish citizens are not equal in the use of revenue. The Presidency of Religious Affairs, which has a budget over U.S. $ 2.5 billion in 2012, finance only Sunni Muslim worship.
This situation presents a theological problem, insofar as the religion of Prophet Muhammad stipulates, through the notion of haram (Qur’an, Surah 6, verse 152), that we must “give full measure and full weight in all justice”.
However, since it was set up, Diyanet, through taxation, use the resources of non-Sunni citizens to fund its administration and only Sunni places of worship.
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For exemple, Câferî Muslims (mostly Azeris) and Alevi Bektashi (mostly Turkmen) participate in the financing of the mosques and the salaries of Sunni imams, while their places of worship, which are not officially recognized by the State, don’t receive any funding.
Theoretically, Turkey, through the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), recognizes the civil, political and cultural rights of non-Muslim minorities.
In practice, Turkey only recognizes Greek, Armenian and Jewish religious minorities without granting them all the rights mentioned in the Treaty of Lausanne.
Alevi Bektashi Câferî Muslims, Latin Catholics and Protestants
are not recognized officially.
Situation of religions in Turkey
Religions Estimated population
Official recognition through the Constitution or international treaties Government Financing of places of worship and religious staff
Islam – Sunnite
70 to 85% (52 to 64 millions)

Twelver Islam – Bektasi
15 to 25% (11 to 19 millions)

Twelver Islam – Alevi Câferî
4% (3 millions)

Alawite_children_in_AntiochAlawite children in Antioch, now in Turkey, 1938
Alawite Children
Twelver Islam – Alawite
300 to 350 000

20,000 Yes

Christian – Protestant

Christian – Orthodox – Armenian (Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople)

Christian – Catholics Chaldean Christians (Armenian)

Christian – Syriac Orthodox and Catholics Churches


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In 2013, with over 4.6 billion TL (Turkish Lira), Diyanet or Ministry of Religious Affairs, occupies the 16th position of central government expenditure. The budget allocated to Diyanet is:

Diyanet’s Budget in 2013 – Source : TBMM, Turkish Parliament, 2013.
• 1.6 times larger than the budget allocated to the Ministry of the Interior
• 1.8 times larger than the budget allocated to the Ministry of Health
• 1.9 times larger than the budget allocated to the Ministry of Industry, Science and Technology
• 2.4 times larger than the budget allocated to the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning
• 2.5 times larger than the budget allocated to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism
• 2.9 times larger than the budget allocated to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
• 3.4 times larger than the budget allocated to the Ministry of Economy
• 3.8 times larger than the budget of the Ministry of Development
• 4.6 times larger than the budget allocated to MIT – Secret Services
• 5,0 times larger than the budget allocated to the Department of Emergency and Disaster Management
• 7.7 times larger than the budget allocated to the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources
• 9.1 times larger than the budget allocated to the Ministry of Customs and Trade
• 10.7 times greater than the budget allocated to Coast Guard
• 21.6 times greater than the budget allocated to the Ministry of the European Union
• 242 times larger than the budget for the National Security Council
• 268 times more important than the budget allocated to the Ministry of Public Employee
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Diyanet’s budget represents:
• 79% of the budget of the Police
• 67% of the budget of the Ministry of Justice
• 57% of the budget of the Public Hospitals
• 31% of the budget of the National Police
• 23% of the budget of the Turkish Army, that is 23% of the budget of NATO’s second army.
Headscarf controversy
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Many of the passages citations can be found at the UNHCR
With a policy of official secularism, the Turkish government has traditionally banned the wearing of headscarves by women who work in the public sector. The ban applies to teachers, lawyers, parliamentarians and others working on state premises. The ban on headscarves in the civil service and educational and political institutions was expanded to cover non-state institutions. Authorities began to enforce the headscarf ban among mothers accompanying their children to school events or public swimming pools, while female lawyers and journalists who refused to comply with the ban were expelled from public buildings such as courtrooms and universities In 1999, the ban on headscarves in the public sphere hit the headlines when Merve Kavakçı, a newly elected MP for the Virtue Party was prevented from taking her oath in the National Assembly because she wore a headscarf. The constitutional rule that prohibits discrimination on religious grounds is taken very seriously. Turkey, as a secular country, prohibits by law the wearing of religious headcover and theo-political symbolic garments for both genders in government buildings, schools, and universities; a law upheld by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights as legitimate on November 10, 2005 in Leyla Şahin v. Turkey.
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According to Country Reports 2007, women who wore headscarves and their supporters “were disciplined or lost their jobs in the public sector” (US 11 March 2008, Sec. 2.c). Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that in late 2005, the Administrative Supreme Court ruled that a teacher was not eligible for a promotion in her school because she wore a headscarf outside of work (Jan. 2007). An immigration counsellor at the Embassy of Canada in Ankara stated in 27 April 2005 correspondence with the Research Directorate that public servants are not permitted to wear a headscarf while on duty, but headscarved women may be employed in the private sector. In 12 April 2005 correspondence sent to the Research Directorate, a professor of political science specializing in women’s issues in Turkey at Bogazici University in Istanbul indicated that women who wear a headscarf “could possibly be denied employment in private orgovernment sectors.” Conversely, some municipalities with a more traditional constituency might attempt to hire specifically those women who wear a headscarf (Professor 12 April 2005). The professor did add, however, that headscarved women generally experience difficulty in obtaining positions as teachers, judges, lawyers, or doctors in the public service (ibid.). More recent or corroborating information on the headscarf ban in the public service could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate.
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The London-based Sunday Times reports that while the ban is officially in place only in the public sphere, many private firms similarly avoid hiring women who wear headscarves (6 May 2007). MERO notes that women who wear headscarves may have more difficulty finding a job or obtaining a desirable wage (Apr. 2008), although this could not be corroborated among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate.
Medical care
According to the Sunday Times, headscarves are banned inside Turkish hospitals, and doctors may not don a headscarf on the job (6 May 2007). Nevertheless, MERO reports that under Turkey’s current administration, seen by secularists to have a hidden religious agenda (The New York Times 19 February 2008; Washington Post 26 February 2008), doctors who wear headscarves have been employed in some public hospitals (MERO Apr. 2008).
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Ban lifted
On 9 February 2008, Turkey’s parliament approved a constitutional amendment that lifted the ban on Islamic headscarves in universities. Prior to this date, the public ban on headscarves officially extended to students on university campuses throughout Turkey. Nevertheless, according to Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2007, “some faculty members permitted students to wear head coverings in class”. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty notes that since the 1990s, some rectors have allowed students to wear headscarves.
On 5 June 2008, Turkey’s Constitutional Court annulled the parliament’s proposed amendment intended to lift the headscarf ban, ruling that removing the ban would run counter to official secularism. While the highest court’s decision to uphold the headscarf ban cannot be appealed (AP 7 June 2008), the government has nevertheless indicated that it is considering adopting measures to weaken the court’s authority.
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Wearing of head-covering
According to the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation around 62% of women wear the headscarf in Turkey.
Turkey’s strong secularism has resulted in what have been perceived by some as strictures on the freedom of religion; for example, the headscarf has long been prohibited in public universities, and a constitutional amendment passed in February 2008 that permitted women to wear it on university campuses sparked considerable controversy.
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In addition, the armed forces have maintained a vigilant watch over Turkey’s political secularism, which they affirm to be a keystone among Turkey’s founding principles. The military has not left the maintenance of a secular political process to chance, however, and has intervened in politics on a number of occasions
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