FaithWorld

Turkey’s Alevis fight back against Sunni religion lessons

An Alevi girl dance during a prayer service in Istanbul, 3 April, 2008/Umit Bektas
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Turkey’s ruling AK Party, which has its roots in political Islam, has preached a message of religious freedom as a way to expand liberties for believers in the officially secular country. It has assured the European Union it would respect freedoms for religious minorities. There has been some progress for minorities, but it is halting. The government’s focus seems to be more on assuring religious rights for pious Sunni Muslims, as in ending of the university headscarf ban. Religious minorities still face an uphill struggle to practice as they see fit.

Turkey’s Alevis, some 15-25 million whose faith is rooted in Islam but mixed with other traditions including ….shamanism, form the country’s leargest religious minority but they have never been recognised as a formal religion. This means they can be lumped together with Sunni Muslims, as a recent court case about the mandatory religion classes in state schools showed. The classes, taught in all primary schools, serve as an instruction guide to being Muslim, with topics ranging from how to pray in a mosque to fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.

Alevis dance during a prayer in a Cem house in Istanbul, 3 April, 2008/Umit Bektas
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Alevi Hatice Kose took the education ministry to court to win permission to pull her son out of the classes and change the curriculum to include information about Alevis. She won the case, but the government has said it has no power to change the classes, which it says are protected in Turkey’s constitution.

For more on this, see our feature here. And here’s the full slideshow from the Alevi prayer service pictured above.

EU pressures Turkey to boost rights for non-Muslims

Turkey has signalled it may soon amend a free speech law that has been a stumbling block in its drive to join the European Union. Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin said this on Tuesday soon after the European Commission issued its annual progress report on Ankara’s membership bid. The interesting angle here for this blog is that the EU criticism singled out not only the much-criticised law on “insulting Turkishness” but also current restrictions on freedom of religion.

Demonstrator wrapped in the Turkish flag at a Brussels protest against the Kurdish PKK, Nov. 3, 2007Releasing the report, Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn noted democracy had prevailed over military meddling in Turkish politics this year. “The new momentum should now be used to relaunch the reforms to improve fundamental freedoms, particularly the freedom of expression and religious freedom, so that they prevail in all corners of the country and in all walks of life,” he said (my emphasis).

The report gave Turkey a mixed review concerning religion. “As concerns freedom of religion, freedom of worship continues to be generally guaranteed,” it wrote. But it added: “Overall, the environment as regards freedom of religion has not been conducive to the full respect of this right in practice. A legal framework has yet to be established in line with the European Convention on Human Rights so that all religious communities can function without undue constraints. No real progress can be reported on the major difficulties encountered by the Alevis and non-Muslim religious communities.”