04/18/2022, 18.26
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Battle over compulsory Islam in schools and rights denied

Turkey’s Constitutional Court upheld two rulings by the European Court of Human Rights against the government’s failure to respect certain rights. One father started the legal battle against the mandatory Islamic education course for his daughter. Turkey’s right-wing and government officials slam the decision. Few expect the ruling to be implemented.


Istanbul (AsiaNews) – Turkey’s Constitutional Court recently upheld two rulings by the European Court of Human Rights that criticised Turkey for imposing mandatory Islamic religious education on minors.

For the country, this is a major if not an historic decision in terms of religious freedom, given past controversial cases and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s support for nationalism and Islam.

The justices ruled that forcing children and teenagers to attend religious classes against the will of their parents is a clear violation of their rights.

Still, few expect the government to accept the decision and adapt its policies to the court’s ruling.

The affair follows a long legal battle started more than a decade ago by Huseyin El, who fought to prevent his daughter, Nazli Sirin El, from attending Islamic classes. The school principal wanted the fourth grader to take the mandatory class because she was neither Christian and Jewish.

Non-Muslims are exempt for from the exemption, but Nazli’s family is Alevi, a branch of Islam whose members meet in places of assembly called cemevi rather than in mosques.

“We argued that forcing a parent to reveal or document his faith is also a violation of Constitutional Article 24, which says no one can be forced to reveal religious beliefs and convictions,” El’s family lawyer Esra Basbakkal told Al-Monitor.

A lower court had ruled in favour of the student 13 years ago based on Turkish laws and international conventions, but the Ministry of Education appealed to the Council of State, which overturned the decision. Eventually, the case reached the Constitutional Court in 2014.

Eight years later, Turkey’s top court ruled that forcing pupils to attend mandatory religious class violates their human rights and their family’s right to choose the educational path for their children.

“This is a delayed decision, but it is a step in the right direction,” said Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a human rights lawyer familiar with El and two similar cases taken to the ECHR. “Local courts often ignore the ECHR decisions, but they now have to heed the Constitutional Court's.”

Reactions to the court’s decision are mixed. Among right-wing circles and within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the response has been negative; however, no senior government officials, including President Erdoğan, have yet to make any comment.

The court’s decision was a “scandal,” this according to ultra-right-wing daily Yeni Akit. “Branding religion lessons for the youth of these lands shaped by Islam as a human rights violation is nothing but treason. Our people would not allow such treachery,” said AKP lawmaker Mehmet Akif Yilmaz, a member of the Turkish parliament’s education commission.

Religious education was optional until the military coup of 1980. The junta led by Kenan Evren changed that with the aim of controlling radical or fanatical ideas and enshrined it in the 1982 constitution. However, the classes offered ended up promoting Sunni Islam causing unease among secular students and parents, who demanded more history of religions and fewer Islamic teachings.

The evolution of mandatory religion in schools is a sign of the gradual withering away of secular values in education, compared to earlier republican administrations. This trend accelerated when the AKP came to power in 2002 and reformed the school system in 2012 adding more “optional” courses on the Qurʾān, the Life of the Prophet Mohammed and Basic religious knowledge.

Son enough, in most schools, these courses became mandatory for lack of alternatives. For lawyer Basbakkal, the best thing would be to make them optional again but, given the current government’s outlook, this seems very unlikely, however desirable it might be. 

In fact, last September the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) announced plans to introduce mandatory Qurʾānic courses to pre-schoolers and implemented pilot courses in a number of cities.

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