Moving Beyond the Religious Freedom Report

Altan Atamer, THO Nonresident Fellow

In April 2021, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released their annual report on the state of religious tolerance across the world. Unfortunately, the “experts” that make up the commission recommended that Turkey be placed on a “special watch list” for its intolerant and antagonistic behavior against its religious minorities (USCIRF 2021, 82). This identification is particularly noteworthy not just for the Biden administration that prides itself on a “commitment to human rights” (The White House 2021), but also, as the commission reveals, the findings necessitate an “evaluation of the U.S. – Turkey bilateral relationship” (USCIRF 2021, 82). Since the Religious Freedom Report is an international report that explicitly recommends US foreign policy for numerous states, it is impossible to omit analyses of religious toleration from discussions concerning US foreign policy, in general, and the Turkish – US relationship, in particular. 

When it comes to Turkey, the Religious Freedom Report cites numerous reasons that contribute to Turkey’s inclusion in its “special watch list.” Of particular concern for the USCIRF are a Turkish law that “would increase governmental control over civil society… by subjecting them to intensified oversight and new limitations,” the recent conversion of the Aya Sofya from a museum into a mosque, the demolition of a “Greek orthodox church after many years of neglect,” the continued closure of the Greek orthodox Halki Seminary, the Turkish government’s denial of “legal personality to all religious communities,” and a lack of interfaith dialogue and programs (USCIRF 2021, 82-83). From these observations, and the role that religious toleration and human rights plays in determining US foreign policy, it is difficult to see how Turkey could develop a meaningful relationship with the US. But a closer look at the 2021 Religious Freedom Report reveals serious inconsistencies in its treatment of Turkey when compared to many Western countries. 

For starters, there is not a single negative remark concerning any Western country or Israel in the report and omitted entirely is any mention of Islamophobia. This is contrary to the FBI’s own reporting which shows that anti-Muslim hate crimes have surpassed the levels experienced in the wake of the 9/11 attacks (Kishi 2017) and leaves unaddressed Israel’s frequent raids of mosques (Quinn 2021), its continued policy of settling Palestinian territory (Krauss 2021), and its expulsion of Arab-Israelis from homes that they legitimately own (Frykberg 2021). Omitting such obvious events or trends that other US governmental organizations even admit to already calls into question the observations of the USCIRF’s “experts.” On the other hand, Turkey, which certainly needs to take significant steps in addressing inequality among its citizenry, has more places of worship per capita for its religious minorities than mosques available to Muslim citizens in countries like the Netherlands, Russia, Germany, France, England, and even the US (Anadolu Ajansı 2020). Oddly enough, this also does not appear in the USCIRF report. In sum, it is shocking to see that this report castigates Turkey’s attempts at interfaith dialogue while its commissioner simultaneously suggests that the American government should organize its Middle Eastern foreign policy around the interests of allies like “Saudi Arabia and Israel” (USCIRF 2021, 28) while also omitting the severe lack of Muslim places of worship or rising transgressions against Muslim minorities in Western states.

The specific observations of the USCIRF on Turkey become even more ironic when the United States’ broader inter-state relations are taken into account. For instance, when it comes to increased state surveillance of religious minorities – a charge levied against Turkey – France’s parliament “overwhelmingly approved a bill that would strengthen oversight of mosques, schools and sports clubs… to promote respect for French values” (Ganley 2021). In fact, Macron personally wants to interject the state and reform the practice of Islam itself (McAuley 2020). Conveniently, there is no mention of any of this in the USCIRF’s supposed “international” report. Likewise, the continued closure of the Halki seminary and the Turkish government’s denial of “legal personality” to its minority communities resembles very closely the Austrian closure of Turkish mosques and the expulsion of Turkish imams from the country (Eddy 2018), and the Greek government’s interference in selecting muftis and imams which the Turkish minority living in Western Thrace is actually supposed to elect (Aliyev and Zorlu 2021). Again, the USCIRF report details none of this.

Of course, the media attention directed towards the Turkish government’s conversion of the Aya Sofya from a museum into a mosque made this issue stand out as a particularly distressing signal for the USCIRF. In fact, not only the US but Greece, the EU and UNESCO have also condemned this decision (Wasserstein 2020). Although unfortunate, the practice of converting, demolishing, or repurposing religious institutions, however, is not something unique to Turkey. Spain, for example, converted many of the Moor’s mosques into now famous churches. For example, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in Cordoba, which also holds UNESCO world heritage status, was not just originally a mosque but it also continues to refuse hosting Islamic prayers (Wasserstein 2020). Spain’s continued rejection of Islamic worship in what was originally a significant Mosque deserves no place in USCIRF’s report. Likewise, Greece has also demolished or repurposed into churches, museums, shops, prisons, warehouses, and even adult theatres mosques built during the Ottoman dynasty (Miller 2018; Daily Sabah 2020). In fact, after repurposing or destroying many Ottoman mosques, Athens is now one of the few capital cities in the EU with no mosque despite having 300,000 Muslims residing in the city (Lowen 2012). Again, there is no outrage and any mention of these events or conditions in the Religious Freedom Report.

 While any of the above examples do not by any means excuse the actions of the Turkish government, they do suggest that the USCIRF interprets the extent of sovereign jurisdiction differently depending on the country. It is for this reason that the USCIRF is completely mute regarding the suppression or regulation of Islam, Islamic buildings, Muslim institutions, or Muslims themselves in places like Austria, France, Greece, and Israel, to name a few. In these examples, the various states have seemingly limitless sovereign authority to determine the conditions of their own religious minorities without facing any criticism from the USCIRF. If the Biden administration is actually serious about tackling issues concerning human rights, and if the USCIRF’s report is meant to direct US foreign policy, then the standards of its analysis should be consistent. Turkish – US relations can only prosper if institutions like the USCIRF take a consistent and holistic account of the conditions and practices of Turkey, that of other nations, and the US itself.


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