100 years of the Turkish Republic: Limited place for human rights through shifting paradigms

29 October 2023 marked the centenary of the Turkish Republic. It is not easy to account for the many human rights and wrongs that occurred over the last 100 years.

Naturally, these days in Türkiye the 100 years of the Republic are remembered or celebrated and analysed. Many hold on to the gains such as democracy, secularism and equality between women and men, others focus on the achievements of the last twenty years when the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) has been in power. Polarisation is alive and well here too, the former group highlights the role of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic while the latter highlight the role of Türkiye’s current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Despite shifting paradigms, however, deeply rooted challenges to human rights have lasted over the last hundred years. These have ensued from Turkish state’s determination of who an acceptable citizen is and what state interests are considered legitimate to restrict human rights. Its treatment of religion and more specifically Islam as a reference point in public policy has been a critical factor in this process.  Can Türkiye move from a zero-sum approach to a win-win approach? The answer to this question will be critical to the human rights struggle in the next centenary. 

The Republic’s emergence in 1923 largely coincided with the division of the Ottoman Empire into nation-states, and the Turkish Independence War, the establishment of a new constitutional regime, pervasive nationalism and devastating poverty. The abolishment of the monarchy, khalifate, sharia courts as well as Islamic religious communities (tarikat) has had a deep and widespread impact on the place of Islam and religion in state affairs and public life.  

Secularism was enshrined in the Constitution as a defining feature of the Republic in 1937. The implementation of secularism has opened the way for a myriad of progressive policies and practices that upheld human rights, among others equality of women and men, and the adoption of a secular civil code as opposed to religious personal laws. Perhaps the reform with the most lasting impact has been that under a secular Republic, religion/Islam could no longer be the source of law.  

The way secularism has been implemented, however, also had a deeply negative impact on human rights, especially for practicing pious people, among others with the headscarf ban and monopoly on Islamic religious services through the Presidency of Religious Affairs. The position of non-Muslim and ethnic minorities while formally having equal status has also weakened throughout the Republic. Despite constitutional protection of equal citizenship status before the law, minorities have not flourished mostly due to policies attributable to the ethno-Turkish nationalism that is pervasive and lasting in politics and state apparatus.  

Throughout the Republic, the state has determined the attributes of an acceptable citizen. For many years the acceptable citizen has been a secular Turkish Sunni Muslim citizen, perhaps more so a heterosexual man. The framework has shifted over the years, now, the acceptable citizen is the conservative Sunni Muslim Turkish citizen. Despite the changing framework, the lasting practice has been that the state determines who an acceptable citizen is. Thus, determines who is excluded, among others, non-Muslims, atheists, seculars, secular women, LGBTIQ+, and Kurds. A zero-sum game. 

The protection of the state and its public order has been the raison d’être of the legal system with courts legitimising the acts of the executive. Notions such as secularism or national interests have been utilised to further the interests of the state. In the last decade, public morality has been increasingly integrated into the interests of the state and its public order. The notion of public morality has largely drawn from the understanding of Islam as articulated by the state-driven Presidency of Religious Affairs. It has capitalised on the notion of the protection of the family as a glorified goal.  

Human rights may be restricted through measures pursuing the protection of public order or public morals, if they comply with strict criteria enshrined in international human rights law. However, when religion, religious values, and sensitivities become an integral part of restrictions it becomes much more complex and difficult to disentangle these and carry out a proper assessment of restrictions or even advocate for human rights. The reason for this is that the religion/Islam card supersedes other arguments. Many people in today’s Türkiye apply self-censorship when it comes to issues touching upon Islam, Islamic values, and Islamic sensitivities. As a result, not only in the legal sphere but also in social settings freedom of speech is highly restricted.   

How to counter these lasting impediments before the enjoyment of human rights by everyone? It appears that a good part of the next hundred years will increasingly be taken up by struggles against restrictions on human rights based on grounds that are linked to religious/Islamic and national values. A hundred years ago reforms were initiated and carried out by the state. This time, however, it is not the state but the society with its institutions that must find ways to advocate for human rights, as well as the rule of law, democracy and secularism. But this time, not to end up once again at a zero-sum game, the guiding principle must be human rights for all – a win-win approach.

Mine Yildirim / NHC

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Mine Yildirim

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