Compulsory Religious Education (RE) classes were introduced in Turkey after its last military coup in 1980.
They have been controversial for two reasons. For one, many people argue that religious education should not be compulsory. Secondly, although the name of the class is “Religious Culture and Ethics”, students are mostly instructed in religious practices of Sunni Islam, rather than learning about different religious beliefs.
Alevism not taught in school
The loudest criticism has come from the millions of Alevis in Turkey, some of whom consider their belief as a branch of Islam, and some of whom do not. They condemn the fact that Alevism is not taught in these classes.
While it is theoretically possible to apply for one’s child to be exempt from these classes, critics have pointed out that local education authorities have often refused such applications, forcing parents to go to court. In addition, children have become targets for teachers and other students due to their beliefs.
In a recent landmark decision, the State Council decreed that it was inadmissable to oblige students to attend the RE classes “with their current content.”
Minister Celik: Constitution is binding and curriculum has changed
Minister of Education Hüseyin Celik has now spoken out in favour of compulsory RE classes. However, Ertugrul Cenk Gürcan from the Constitutional Law branch in the Political Sciences Department at Ankara University has argued:
“Even if the current situation is supported by the constitution, the decrees of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) are relevant. Celik’s arguments are not valid. The class must stop being compulsory.”
Celik had argued that the ECHR and the State Council decrees which condemned the obligation to attend RE classes as rights violations were referring to “the old curriculum.”
“Because the curriculum has been changed, these decisions are not applicable. In the new curriculum, we talk about Alevism.”
He added that while the constitution decreed that RE classes were compulsory, a court could not overrule that obligation.
Article 90 accepts ECHR decrees
Gürcan has dismissed Celik’s defense of the classes, saying:
“The fact that compulsory RE classes are part of the constitution is irrelevant. According to Article 90 of the Turkish Constitution, ECHR decisions are binding and above other laws. Therefore, they have to change the status of the classes.”
“Even if the content of the classes has changed, as long as they are compulsory, the ECHR would probably decree again that they violate rights. This is because they force people to say ‘I don’t want to attend this class’ and to express their religious views. This is a violation of rights. There is also the issue of the pressures children face when their name is taken off the list and they have to explain their religious belief.”
Gürcan: Change content and make class optional
For Gürcan, the solution lies in both changing the content of the class according to the ECHR decision, thus really reflecting the title of “Religious Culture and Ethics” and in offering it as an optional class.
Hypocritical stance of AKP
He draws attention to the hypocrisy of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) as far as democracy and freedoms are concerned:
“When it came to the headscarf, they said, ‘If necessary, we can change the constitution.’ That is right, because they should support freedoms. However, when the AKP then defends the compulsory RE classes by saying ‘the constitution binds us’, this shows us the pragmatic approach the AKP has towards democracy.”
“Rights and freedoms are a whole. If they talk about the ‘freedom to wear a headscarf,’ then they also need to change Article 301.
What did the ECHR say?
The ECHR found Turkey guilty in an appeal by Hasan Zengin and his daughter Eylem, who had wanted to be exempt from the RE classes because of their Alevi beliefs.
The court had pointed out that the RE classes favoured Islam over other beliefs, did more than just give general information on religious practices by teaching ways of prayer, cultural rituals and the Hajj pilgrimage, and expecting children to memorise suras from the Koran.
The court had also pointed out that forcing non-Muslim children to announce their religious beliefs in order to be exempt from classes was a violation of rights. (TK/AG)