Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Power and Discipline?: Religion and Identity Cards

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that religion cannot be listed as a field on Turkish national identification cards, which all Turkish citizens are required by law to carry. In 2006, Turkey began allowing people the right to leave the field blank or change their religious designation by application, though the ECHR ruled that the new regulation did not go far enough. The ECHR decision also said it was not the duty of the state to collect religious information about its citizens, which the Turkish Statistical Institute collects all the same regardless of whether religion is left blank or entered on the ID card.

The case that resulted in the ECHR decision came from an Alevi man who claimed state authorities would not allow him to change the religion on his identifiation card from "Islam" to "Alevi," and that this violated Article 9 ("freedom of thought, conscience, and religion") of the European Convention of Human Rights, as well as the Turkish constitutional prohibition against anyone being coerced to disclose religious beliefs (Article 24).

At the moment, the Turkish government has only a limited number of categories citizen may declare on their identification cards: Muslim, Greek Orthodox, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist, Religionless, Other, or Unknown. As the U.S. Department of State's report on religious freedom in Turkey observes, some religions, such as the Baha'i, have complained about not having their religion included in the listing. As the report also documents, several non-Muslim minorities have complained of exposure to harassment and discrimination as a result of the inclusion of their religion on their identification cards, and as is the case with the Alevi petitioner, others have complained of harassment by local authorities when seeking to change their religious designation. Additionally, some groups, like Protestants and Syriac Christians, have faced particular difficulty opting out of otherwise compulsory religion classes if their identification cards did not include a religion other than "Islam." The courses teach world religions, but minorities, including Alevis, have long complained about a Hanafi Sunni Muslim slant.

There is also the question, of course, of the sheer construction of such categories by the state, in particular the consideration of "Alevi" as apart from "Muslim," the lack of specific categories for Syriac Christians (who are not Greek Orthodox or Rumeli), and as aforementioned, the fact that some religions in Turkey are simply not represented in the choices available.

Also of interest are demands from women and gender groups to remove marital status and gender from religious identification cards, as well as to change the current law governing women's surnames. Divorce can result in discrimination and other difficulties fror women that men simply do not experience, and LGBT and other gender-conscious groups have long decried the blue and pink color of the cards in terms of LGBT rights.

UPDATE I (2/11) -- Ayse Karabat of Today's Zaman has written more about the demands from women's groups. The article expounds on the Bianet article linked above, and gives some more specific examples of discrimination. In regard to surnames, several women's groups are also demanding amendment of Article 187 of the Civil Code, which restricts women's surnames. A local court has petitioned for the Constitutional Court to consider the matter, implying that the article might violate the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). According to the Turkish Constitution, and thanks to the EU-inspired reform process, treaty law supercedes the Civil Code.

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