Thursday, March 22, 2012

Turkey: A Religious Freedom Downgrade Elicits Strong Dissents

Originally published by

Turkey: A Religious Freedom Downgrade Elicits Strong Dissents

by Yigal Schleifer

The annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), released this week, contained some fairly bad news for Turkey. The commission, a bipartisan federal watchdog that monitors religious freedom around the world, this year put Turkey on its list of "countries of particular concern" (CPC). That puts the NATO member, European-Union aspirant and stalwart NATO ally in the company of repressive countries such as Burma, Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and Uzbekistan, a "who's who of dictatorships and closed societies," as one report put it. “It’s no coincidence that many of the nations we recommend to be designated as CPCs are among the most dangerous and destabilizing places on earth,” USCIRF Chair Leonard Leo said in a statement. “Nations that trample upon basic rights, including freedom of religion, provide fertile ground for poverty and insecurity, war and terror, and violent, radical movements and activities.”

Needless to say, Turkish officials were not pleased with the USCIRF's downgrade (Turkey was previously on the commission's less damning "watch list"). Reports the Washington Post:

Turkey’s ambassador in Washington decried the decision.

“Any unbiased eye will immediately realize that that’s not where Turkey belongs in the USCIRF annual report,” said Ambassador Namik Tan.

“The categorization of Turkey as a CPC list country not only damages the credibility and relevance of the USCIRF, but also raises serious questions about the political motivation that drives this exercise.”

Turkey has in recent years been hammered on its worsening freedom of expression record (the country is the world's leading jailer of journalists), but is its record on religious freedom as bad as Saudi Arabia's or Iran's, places where apostasy is considered a crime punishable by death? The commission's report actually gives a fairly muddled answer. On the one hand, it lists several important steps Turkey has taken in the last few years to make life better for its religious minorities, including new laws that allow for the return of confiscated property, high-level consultations with religious minority leaders about a proposed new constitution and the reopening of historic churches. On the other hand, the commission expresses what seems like a strong sense of frustration with what it sees as reform fatigue on behalf of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has now been in power for a decade but has failed to address some of the deep structural problems that limit the ability of minority religious groups in Turkey to function freely.

Further muddying the USCIRF's position on Turkey is the fact that four out of its nine commissioners vocally dissented to putting it on the CPC list (the Washington Post says a fifth commissioner is now "second guessing" his vote). Turkey is the only country in the report which elicited such a large number of dissents, forcing the commissioners who voted with the majority to attach a statement of their own explaining why they voted to put Turkey on the CPC list. The statement makes for interesting reading, laying out the majority's position quite clearly, but also employing some very harsh language -- referring to "the hangman‘s noose of religious freedom restrictions" in Turkey -- as well as bringing up the issue of religious freedom in Northern Cyprus, a disputed region which is not part of Turkey nor directly controlled by Ankara.

Turkey should not be given a pass when it comes to religious freedom or regarding the importance of restarting its reform drive, but a close reading of the USCIRF report leaves one with the sense that along with defending religious freedom, the commissioners in the majority also had some political axes to grind.