The ECtHR, Turkish Alevis and the rights of religious minorities

Turkey’s human rights record in relation to its religious minorities is, to put the most charitable interpretation on it, rather patchy – and here we go again.

The facts

Unless they are Christian or Jewish, schoolchildren in Turkey have to take part in a mandatory course on religious culture and ethics. In Mansur Yalçın & Ors v Turkey [2014] ECHR 938 [in French] fourteen Turkish Alevis, unhappy with the content of the course, had asked the Ministry of Education in 2005 to initiate a consultation with leading members of their community with a view to overhauling the curriculum to include Alevi culture and philosophy. The Directorate of Religious Education attached to the Ministry of Education rejected their request and they and 1,905 others then challenged that decision in the Ankara Administrative Court.

An expert opinion on the textbooks used in the course was sought from a professor of Islamic studies and lecturers in education and religious sociology – which concluded that the curriculum did not give precedence to any particular faith and adopted a supra-denominational approach. The applicants disagreed, arguing that the textbooks treated Alevism as a tradition or culture and not as a belief system in its own right. They contended that the syllabus was based on the Sunni interpretation of Islam and that its presentation of Alevism was sketchy and factually inaccurate [12]. In 2009 the Ankara Administrative Court found against the applicants, relying on the expert report and in 2010 their appeal on points of law was dismissed by the Supreme Administrative Court.

Admissibility

The Second Section considered the applications of Mansur Yalçın, Yüksel Polat and Hasan Kılıç, whose children were at secondary school at the relevant time, on the grounds that they had an admissible claim to be the direct “victims” of a violation of their rights under Article 2 of Protocol No 1 and Articles 9 and 14 ECHR. The other applicants had simply complained in the abstract about the impact of the curriculum on their religious beliefs, without explaining how they had been personally affected.

The judgment

The Court held unanimously that there had been a violation of Article 2 of Protocol No 1 (education) but held by four votes to three that there was no need to consider whether or not there had been any violation of Article 9 (thought, conscience and religion) and Article 14 (discrimination) in conjunction with Article 9 and Article 2 of Protocol No 1.

Religious education was not contrary to the Convention, always provided schoolchildren were not forced to participate in a particular form of worship or exposed to religious indoctrination [64].  Only Christian and Jewish children were exempt from the course on religious culture and ethics and no other exceptions, whether partial or total, were contemplated by the Turkish education authorities [65]. There was no dispute between the parties that the course had undergone significant changes in its content [66]. The section on religious culture in the textbooks had adopted a supra-confessional approach, focusing on values ​​such as the Q’uran and the Sunnah and did not favour any of the branches of Islam. Furthermore, the Government explained that the content of the textbooks available to teachers from 2011–12 had been prepared taking into consideration the views of the Alevi Bektashi community [67]. Neverthless, the main point of dispute between the parties was the mandatory nature of the course content on the Islamic religion. The Government claimed that it was non-sectarian and supra-denominational but the applicants reject that view, arguing that its approach was predominantly Sunni [69].

It was not for the Court to take a position in a debate about Islamic theology; however, the Court reiterated that

“… in the exercise of its regulatory power in this area and its relationship with various religions, faiths and beliefs, the state, as the ultimate guarantor of pluralism in a democratic society, including religious pluralism, must be neutral and impartial” [68].

That duty of impartiality was incompatible with preferential treatment of any particular religious belief and required the state to ensure toleration between competing groups [70]. The fact that the syllabus in question gave more importance to Sunni Islam over various minority interpretations and over other religions and philosophies could amount to a breach of the principles of pluralism and objectivity; and given the peculiarities of the Alevism over the Sunni understanding of Islam, the applicants could legitimately consider that the methods of teaching the subject were likely to result a conflict of allegiance between the school and their children’s own values [71]. Article 2 of Protocol No 1 gave parents the right to require the state to respect their religious and philosophical beliefs in teaching religion; and that required the state, so far as possible, to avoid causing pupils conflicts between school religious instruction and the religious or philosophical beliefs of their parents [72].

Absent an appropriate system of exemption, the mandatory nature of the course could not avoid facing students with such conflicts and did not, therefore, meet the criteria of objectivity and pluralism in respecting religious or philosophical convictions [75]. As the Court had noted in Hasan and Eylem Zengin v Turkey (2008) 46 EHRR 44, [2007] ECHR 787, the fact that the Turkish system offered exemption for children whose parents were Christian or Jewish (but only for such children) necessarily suggested that the course content was likely to cause them conflicts between what they were taught in school and their parents’ religious or philosophical beliefs; and the conclusions in Zengin applied, mutatis mutandis, to the present case [76]. In short, there had been a violation of Article 2 of Protocol No 1. Turkey should introduce a system for exempting pupils from religion and ethics classes without their parents having to disclose their own religious or philosophical convictions.

The minority

The three dissenters on the Article 9 point believed that the discrimination complained of raised more important additional questions. The more general problem of alleged discrimination against Alevis in the Turkish education system had been raised in Zengin and ignored on that occasion. The situation required proper analysis because the petitioners had argued that the Turkish education system regarded Alevism as a culture and religion of a lower rank in religious education terms than the Sunni Islam of the majority. Unlike Christianity and Judaism, Alevism had not been granted the status of a separate religion and was not treated with the same respect given to other branches of Islam.

Comment

Though there does appear to have been a degree of change since 2007, that change has evidently been slow and, possibly, insufficient. It will be interesting to see what, if any, is the Turkish Government’s response, given that the new President (and former Prime Minister), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has tended to position himself as a supporter of Islamic values.

According to a report AsiaNews.it, the answer seems to be that it will be muted. Erdogan’s new Turkey to requires all students to study the Qur’an reports that Turkey has just extended compulsory Islamic religious education to all school grades, though Armenian and Orthodox schools are exempt. The report does not mention Alevis. The report also states that recently in Anatolia, a local school principal required Jewish students to register for Islamic religious courses because of their Turkish-sounding names but that “Following an outcry from world Jewish leaders, Turkish authorities suspended the measure in the case of Turkish Jews”.

See also Georg Neureither’s post on Religion-Weltanschauung-Recht  

3 thoughts on “The ECtHR, Turkish Alevis and the rights of religious minorities

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