Turkish father wins fight to get girl out of religious class

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A Turkish father has won his six-year struggle to have his daughter removed from compulsory religious education classes in a case that highlights the tensions between Turkish secularism and its hopes of European integration.

Hasan Zengin's struggle dates from 2001, when he failed to convince local authorities to exempt his daughter from religious lessons at school. Three years after it agreed to view his case, the European Court of Human Rights has finally ruled that Turkey breached its obligation "to respect the rights of parents to ensure education in conformity with their own religious ... convictions".

Like at least 10 per cent of Turks, Mr Zengin is an Alevi, member of a sect whose beliefs, influenced by Sufism and pre-Islamic practices, are distantly related to Shia Islam. The ECHR described the syllabus as so slanted towards Sunni Islam that it "cannot be considered to meet the criteria of objectivity and pluralism".

Mr Zengin's lawyer, Kazim Genc, believes the judgment could not have been better timed. The rights and wrongs of compulsory religious courses has been heavily debated recently as part of discussions over plans for a new constitution. "The ECHR has solved the problem – religious lessons have to come out of the new constitution," he says.

Persecuted under the Ottomans, most Alevis wholeheartedly aligned themselves with the secular Republic founded by Kemal Ataturk in 1923. Over time, though, they have become increasingly dismayed by the Turkish state's efforts to turn Sunni Islam into an instrument of social control. The state pays the salaries of 80,000 Sunni imams and the upkeep of their mosques.

The cem houses where Alevis meet for ceremonies that culminate in men and women dancing a stylised, circular dance, meanwhile, are neither funded nor recognised as places of worship.

"Do you know what is really meant by 'how happy is he who can say, I am a Turk'," asks Nuriye Bagriyanik, a teacher in the solidly Alevi, east Anatolian town of Tunceli, referring to one of Ataturk's most popular slogans. "How happy is he who can say 'I am a Sunni Muslim'." The resurgence of Alevi identity began after more than 100 Alevis were killed during pogroms in the late 1970s. The movement strengthened after the electoral victory in 2002 of a party with its roots in political Islam.

Out of the 360-odd AKP MPs in parliament between 2002 and 2007, not one was Alevi. There is one now, but Alevis have no doubt this is a staunchly Sunni party.

"Previous governments may have been cowardly on the Alevis issue, but at least we could talk to them," says Izzettin Dogan, the head of Turkey's largest Alevi group, the Cem Foundation. "With the present government, all contact has been lost."

Mr Dogan took the Ministry of Education to court in 2004 over the lack of mention of Alevism in the religious syllabus. The ministry responded by inserting a few paragraphs he describes as an attempt "to hoodwink Brussels".

Ankara used a similar argument in response to the ECHR's latest decision. "We took copies of the syllabus with us [to court], but they were apparently disregarded," the Education Ministry said last week. "The mentality of the new school books is quite different."

Mustafa Cemil Kilic, a religious education teacher who knows the syllabus well, is unconvinced. "Most [teachers] are conservative Sunni Muslims who see themselves more as missionaries than teachers," he says. Other than scrapping religious lessons altogether, he thinks the only solution lies in re-educating teaching staff, and supervising them. "The trouble is, the people who would be doing the overseeing come from the same religious background."