Commentary / World

Islamic case for religious liberty

by Mustafa Akyol

ANKARA — Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of the Orthodox Church recently said on American TV that he feels “crucified” in Turkey, upsetting many Turks. Sadly, he is right. Yet his complaint is not with Islam but with the secular Turkish Republic.

The Turkish state has kept the Halki Seminary, the only institution able to train Orthodox priests, closed since 1971. Even the patriarch’s title “ecumenical” is lashed out at by some Turkish authorities and their nationalist supporters. Every year, international reports on religious freedom point to such pressures on the patriarchate with concern, and they are right to do so. But why does Turkey do all this? What is the source of the problem?

Things were better long ago. The first Turkish ruler to reign over the Ecumenical Patriarchate was Mehmed II, the Ottoman sultan who conquered Constantinople in 1453. In line with the Islamic tradition of accepting the “People of the Book,” the young sultan granted amnesty to the patriarchate. He also gave the institution many privileges and authorities, no less than that which existed under the Byzantine emperors. Armenians and Jews later enjoyed the same autonomies.

In the 19th century, the non-Muslim peoples of the empire also achieved the rights of equal citizenship with Muslims. That’s why the late Ottoman bureaucracy and the Ottoman Parliament included a great number of Greeks, Armenians and Jews — something you never see in republican Turkey. The Halki Seminary, opened in 1844, is a relic from that bygone age of pluralism.

Nationalism is what destroyed this Pax Ottomana. It affected the peoples of the empire one by one, including, toward the end, the Turks. Many conflicts took place between the latter and the rest, and the great empire’s colossal collapse left a bitter taste in the mouths of all. The Armenians, who suffered the worst tragedy in 1915, never forgot nor forgave.

What the Turks remember, however, was the perceived “treason” of the other components of the empire, especially that of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The latter had cheered the Greek armies when they invaded western Anatolia in 1919. From that point on, the Patriarchate, in the eyes of many Turks, became a “fifth column.”

When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the Republic in 1923, he defined the Patriarchate as “a center of perfidy.” As an alternative, he promoted a rival “Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate,” which became a bastion of ultranationalist ideology. (Some members of this artificial “Patriarchate” are currently on trial in the so-called Ergenekon case, a covert network of officers and civilians accused of conspiring to stage a military coup against the current Turkish government.)

Over the years, Ataturk’s ideas evolved into an official ideology called “Kemalism,” which had two main pillars: A self-styled secularism that bans anything but “the secular way of life,” and a fierce nationalism that defies anything it deems “non-Turkish.”

The Ecumenical Patriarchate, as both a religious and “non-Turkish” institution, fits in neither category. Hence, throughout the Republican regime, and especially at times of military dominance, it faced official pressure and confiscation of property, as did all other non-Muslim and Muslim religious institutions.

So part of the problem is the curse of history. But you can either trap yourself inside history or take lessons from it and move on. To date, unfortunately, Turkey’s nationalists, within both state and society, have opted for the former option.

If one cause of the repression of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is nationalism, though, the other one is the other pillar of the Kemalist ideology: secularism. Turkey’s Draconian laws on “national education” ban any sort of religious education unless it is strictly controlled by the state. The real motive behind this is the regime’s distaste for Islam. The Ecumenical Patriarchate, as a foreign observer observes, receives “collateral damage.”

A telling manifestation of this was seen recently in a live discussion on CNNTurk, the Turkish counterpart of the international news channel. A deputy from the CHP, the staunchly Kemalist People’s Republican Party, Muharrem Ince, who opposed the reopening of the Halki Seminary became angry. “Do you know who most wants to open the seminary in this country,” he loudly asked. “The Islamists! They want this, because they want to open Islamic schools as well.”

Yes, this is indeed the position increasingly adopted by Turkey’s Islamic opinion leaders — who are striving not for jihad or an “Islamic state,” but just a modest preservation of tradition. They realize that religious freedom must be championed for all. And they have a good frame of reference in the pluralism of the Ottomans.

This more liberal approach to non-Muslims can be observed in today’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) government, in power since 2002. Although labeled as “Islamist” by its opponents, the AKP has been much more willing to liberalize Turkey than its secular counterparts, most of which are zealously nationalist. The Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom makes this point nicely:

“In November 2006, the [AKP dominated] Turkish Parliament, as part of the reforms related to possible EU accession, passed a new law governing Lausanne religious minority foundations, easing procedures to establish foundations and allowing non-Turkish citizens in Turkey to open them. . . . Then President Ahmet Necdet Sezer [a staunch Kemalist], however, vetoed the legislation.

“In February 2008, the parliament passed a similar law on the return of property confiscated from non-Muslim minorities . . . President Gul signed the legislation, which was also supported by Prime Minister Erdogan, but was vehemently opposed by Turkish nationalists on the grounds that the law granted too many rights to minority communities.”

The Ecumenical Patriarch himself acknowledged in a recent interview that the AKP has shown goodwill on this issue. His All Holiness also said that the real obstacle is probably “the deep state” — a reference to Turkey’s Kemalist state establishment that considers itself above any elected government and democratic law.

Mustafa Akyol is an Istanbul-based political commentator and the author of the forthcoming “The Islamic Case for Liberty.” © 2010 Project Syndicate

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