Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Religious Minorities and Politics

Ramazan Kılınç

Recently, India passed a bill to amend its citizenship law. With this bill, religion becomes a major criterion for the approval of new citizens. While the bill makes it easier to get citizenship for persecuted Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Christians, it excludes Muslims, India’s largest minority, with a population of around 200 million.

This bill resurfaces the perspective that sees minority citizens as suspects. India’s problems with Pakistan, the Kashmir region, and historical enmities toward Muslims in India have led right-wing politicians to perceive Muslim citizens as aliens.

Unfortunately, India is not alone in this perception. In my recent book, Alien Citizens: The State and Religious Minorities in Turkey and France, I analyzed how international context, not the liberal notion of equal citizenship, has structured policies toward minorities in Turkey and France.


Turkey’s Alien Citizens: Christians

Turkey’s small Christian minority—less than 0.5 percent of its total population— has been exposed to discriminatory treatment, especially during times of political conflict with non-Muslim countries.

In the 1960s, at the height of a dispute with Greece over the status of the island of Cyprus, the Turkish state confiscated some properties owned by non-Muslim minorities. Later in 1971, it closed down the Theological School of Halki, a seminary of Greek Orthodox Christians on the island of Heybeliada in the Sea of Marmara.

The reforms improving the status of Christians came not in the spirit of equal citizenship but as a strategy to respond to international developments, exemplified by Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union in the 2000s.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reversed the liberal policies that he once initiated after he took a populist authoritarian path in the wake of the Arab uprisings. With rising populist nationalism and a new international environment, the once reformist attitude towards Christian minorities was again altered.


Minorities in the West

Even in Western countries, known for their strong democratic credentials, there have been deviations from the idea of equal citizenship in policies toward minorities.

One might think that the internment of Japanese Americans in the United States during World War II emerged under unique circumstance, yet the lens of “alien citizens” dictates policy today in the West.

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States increased its pressure toward Muslim Americans. Although none of the attackers of Twin Towers were American citizens, the Patriot Act undermined the civil liberties of many Muslims living in the United States.

The violence erupted by small groups of extremists, mostly non-citizens, in the wake of the Syrian civil war led many European countries to tighten their policies toward their Muslim populations.


France’s Alien Citizens: Muslims

French politicians passed restrictive policies towards Muslims after the September 11 terrorist attacks and stricter policies were instituted after the upbringings in many Arab nations in the 2010s,

French Parliament banned wearing of headscarves at schools in 2004 and wearing of the full-face veil on the streets in 2011. In Summer 2016, various French cities even  banned wearing full-body swimwear- the burkinion public beaches. Furthermore, in October 2019, the French Senate approved a controversial bill banning parents of Muslim students from wearing headscarves during school trips.


Populism and Alienation

With the rise of global populism, the mentality of seeing minority citizens as “aliens” grows, making them even more vulnerable. Several times populist leaders have negotiated the status of their minority citizens to gain leverage in domestic and international politics. At other times, minority citizens are being held accountable for what their co-religionists do elsewhere.

In an era of the global surge of populism, the world needs better mechanisms to protect minorities. An initiative toward minority protection should include both constitutional guarantees and vigorous civil society activism. Minorities should no longer be hostages in the hands of savvy politicians — both in the East and in the West.

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