Islam vs European Secularism in European Court Ruling

October 11, 2007
Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta

A tiny news story from Strasbourg in France where the European Court of Human Rights is based carried the innocuous headline , “Turkish Schools Must Allow More Religious Tolerance, Court Says" The court ruled on October 9, 2007 that compulsory religion classes for Muslim pupils in Turkey violate individual freedoms because they present only Sunni Islam views.

Then my poxy laptop died and was taken away for open heart surgery. Hence I was reduced to staring at the wall and ruminating. It was then that I realised that this could be far more important and sensitive than anybody has realised for many reasons.

Some pertinent quotes from the judgement

The background to Alevism:

7. Hasan Zengin stated that his family were adherents of Alevism.

8. Alevism originated in central Asia but developed largely in Turkey. Two important Sufis had a considerable impact on the emergence of this religious movement: Hoca Ahmet Yesevi (12th century) and Haci Bektaşi Veli (14th century). This belief system, which has deep roots in Turkish society and history, is generally considered as one of the branches of Islam, influenced in particular by Sufism and by certain pre-Islamic beliefs. Its religious practices differ from those of the Sunni1 schools of law in certain aspects such as prayer, fasting and pilgrimage.

9. According to the applicant, Alevism is a belief or philosophy influenced by other cultures, religions and philosophies. It represents one of the most widespread faiths in Turkey after the Hanafite2 branch of Islam. It advocates close contact with nature, tolerance, modesty and love for one's neighbour, within the Islamic faith. Alevis reject the sharia (code of laws in orthodox Islam) and the sunna (forms of behaviour and formal rules of orthodox Islam) and defend freedom of religion, human rights, women's rights, humanism, democracy, rationalism, modernism, universalism, tolerance and secularism. Alevis do not pray by the Sunni rite (in particular, they do not comply with the obligation to pray five times daily) but express their devotion through religious songs and dances (semah); they do not attend mosques, but meet regularly in cemevi (meeting and worship rooms) for ritual ceremonies. Equally, Alevis do not consider the pilgrimage to Mecca as a religious obligation. They believe that Allah is present in each person. According to Alevism, Allah created Adam in his image and all his manifestations in this world are in human form. Allah is neither in the sky nor in paradise, but in the centre of the human heart.

Now as you read this, you will immediately know that this is as far away from traditional Islam as possible. So this sect is definitely haram, forbidden and it is not surprising that this sect’s religious learning is not passed on in schools. The Sunni Ulema (the mullahs, priests and theologians) will spontaneously combust if this happens!

But you see, universal principles of human rights, secularism and liberal traditions of democracy, humanism and universalism demand that the State does not take sides, each religion is equal, and as long as they do not commit any crimes against anybody else, you can worship who you please. But that’s the theory, and the practise is something else. Unfortunately for the Turkish State and Sunni Islam, the European Court of Human Rights is forced to look at theory to judge this case. Read on!

10. On 23 February 2001 the applicant submitted a request to the Provincial Directorate of National Education (“the Directorate”) at the Istanbul Governor's Office, seeking to have his daughter exempted from religious culture and ethics classes. Pointing out that his family were followers of Alevism, he stressed that, under international treaties such as, for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, parents had the right to choose the type of education their children were to receive. In addition, he alleged that the compulsory course in religious culture and ethics was incompatible with the principle of secularism.

11. On 2 April 2001 the Directorate replied that it was impossible to grant the exemption request. In particular, it stated:

“... Article 24 of the Constitution states that 'Education and instruction in religion and ethics shall be conducted under State supervision and control. Instruction in religious culture and moral education shall be compulsory in the curricula of primary and secondary schools. Other religious education and instruction shall be subject to the individual's own desire, and in the case of minors, to the request of their legal representatives.'

Article 12 of the State Education Act (Law no. 1739) ... provides that
'secularism shall be the basis of Turkish national education. Religious culture and ethics shall be among the compulsory subjects taught in primary and upper
secondary schools, and in schools of these levels.'”

For these reasons, your request cannot be granted.”
So the plaintiff took his complaint to the ECHR. Now the Government lawyer said that Jewish and Christian pupils were exempted from this compulsory teaching. Both sides submitted school textbooks on Islam to bolster their respective cases.

The learned judges then referred to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; Recommendations 1396 (1999) and 1720 (2005) of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) General policy recommendation no. 5.

As an aside, the court did a fascinating review of what’s happening in other countries and again it is worthwhile to quote it in full.

30. In Europe, religious education is closely tied in with secular education. Of the 46 Council of Europe member States which were examined, 43 provide religious education classes in state schools. Only Albania, France (with the exception of the Alsace and Moselle regions) and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are the exceptions to this rule. In Slovenia,
non-confessional teaching is offered in the last years of state education.

31. In 25 of the 46 member States (including Turkey), religious education is a compulsory subject. However, the scope of this obligation varies depending on the State. In five countries, namely Finland, Greece, Norway, Sweden and Turkey, the obligation to attend classes in religious education is absolute. All pupils who belong to the religious faith taught in the classes are obliged to follow them, partially or fully. However, ten States allow for exemptions under certain conditions. This is the case in Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Ireland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, San Marino and the United Kingdom. In the majority of these countries, religious education is denominational.

32. Ten other countries give pupils the opportunity to choose a substitute lesson in place of compulsory religious education. This is the case in Germany, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Serbia, Slovakia and Switzerland. In those countries, denominational education is included in the curriculum drawn up by the relevant ministries and pupils are obliged to attend unless they have opted for the substitute lesson proposed.

33. In contrast, 21 member States do not oblige pupils to follow classes in religious education. Religious education is generally authorised in the school system but pupils only attend if they have made a request to that effect. This is what happens in the largest group of States: Andorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Croatia, Spain, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Moldova, Poland, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Romania, Russia and Ukraine. Finally, in a third group of States, pupils are obliged to attend a religious education or substitute class, but always have the option of attending a secular lesson.

34. This general overview of religious education in Europe shows that, in spite of the variety of teaching methods, almost all of the member States offer at least one route by which pupils can opt out of religious education classes (by providing an exemption mechanism or the option of attending a lesson in a substitute subject, or by giving pupils the choice of whether or not to sign up to a religious studies class).

To cut a long story short, the court found that the Government of Turkey had violated Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Too bad the court did not rule on Article 9 but its an interesting judgement, nevertheless.

So here we go, we have a situation that will force Sunni Majority Turkey, bastion of Militant Secularism, ruled by a mildly Islamist party to decide what to do. It is now forced into an unpalatable decision. You see, it is impossible for a theological position to emerge where different interpretations of Islam can co-exist. The continuing debates, protests, riots and demonstrations (both state and religiously sponsored) over apostasy and blasphemy show that tolerance at worst and theological supports at best are simply not there.

If the Turkish government decide to follow the court’s judgement and actually allow heretical sects such as Shia, Alevism, etc. to propagate their own theology in schools that will mean that the majority Sunni ulema and faithful will go up in flames. They cannot allow people to call themselves as Muslims and still exclude themselves from Sunni teaching as that gives a governmental recognition to these sects. The government cannot remove the compulsory teaching either as that will also make the majority Sunni ulema and faithful will go up in flames. It cannot remove secularism and say Sunni Islam is majority religion and you have to learn it or lump it because it has signed up to the European treaties (such as Council of Europe and the European Human Rights Convention). This is assuming the Turkish Military, the militant protector of Ataturk’s secularism, would be silent. Very interesting days ahead, folks.

All this to be taken with a grain of piquant salt!!!

Dr. Bhaskar Dasgupta works in the city of London in various capacities in the financial sector. He has worked and travelled widely around the world. The articles in here relate to his current studies and are strictly his opinion and do not reflect the position of his past or current employer(s). If you do want to blame somebody, then blame my sister and editor, she is responsible for everything, the ideas, the writing, the quotes, the drive, the israeli-palestinian crisis, global warming, the ozone layer depletion and the argentinian debt crisis.
eXTReMe Tracker
Keep reading for comments on this article and add some feedback of your own!

Comments! Feedback! Speak and be heard!

Comment on this article or leave feedback for the author

October 11, 2007
07:19 AM

Nice overview on the subject. Yet another, of many, immense hurdles on Turkish road to Europe. Will they ever stop mmounting?

November 4, 2007
09:35 PM

Very interesting, too bad all Islam is not like that. .
Good for Denmark! The Islamofascists are the racist ones. They are against the Christian Race, and the Jewish Race and the Buddhist race and the Atheist race and the...

draw not Muhammad -
Islamic law can only
apply to Muslims...

Muslims not bound by Buddhist
Christian or Jewish doctrine

absurd thought -
God of the Universe says
you have NO rights

to hate religions
that demand to convert you

absurd thought -
God of the Universe calls
for sick ideologies

that deny human rights
KILL adulterers and gays

absurd thought -
God of the Universe says
don't learn about jihad

wanting to know or teach it
is RACIST say the WACKOS


Add your comment

(Or ping:

Personal attacks are not allowed. Please read our comment policy.

Remember Name/URL?

Please preview your comment!