Last week, sitting at a restaurant across the table from two Turkish professors, I received a free lesson on Middle Eastern politics. As the conversation flowed from the usual small talk to more meaningful topics, one of their interventions struck me more than the rest. They were complaining about how in their country they were considered Muslims because they were born into the religion, even though they didn’t identify with it. They went on to express their vexation about having this information stated on their ID card.

As a European, I couldn’t help but feel the inevitable mental association with my continent’s most notorious and appalling history. Similar images from different horrors would probably appear in the mind of other continent’s nationals were they in my position. Our American companions were as unaware that Turkey was implementing that policy as I was, and just as shocked.

For a policy initiative that has been crucial in setting the grounds for some of the bloodiest episodes of ethnic cleansing  ever perpetrated, I find it puzzling that the most prominent media organizations on the planet would have also shared my perplexity. To date, at least 9 countries‘ laws force their citizens to display their religious affiliation on their identity cards. The funny note to this story is that from January this year Turkey no longer belongs to that list. The disappearance of this regulation received very little media coverage (only three articles from Middle Eastern media announce it), which makes my table mates’ oblivion perfectly understandable.

Political parties' flags in Istanbul before the 2009 elections. Source: Wikimedia
Political parties’ flags in Istanbul before the 2009 elections. Source: Wikimedia

Being used to globalization’s frequent overload of information, its absence always makes me weary. Research on the topic revealed a mildly comforting tendency towards the removal of confessional categories on national ID cards, of which Turkey and Jordan are the most recent examples. The Palestinian Authority decided to remove religion from its ID cards in 2014 and Greece in 2002.

Case-by-case analysis, however, offers a less optimistic perspective. These types of regulations both reflect and create deeply engrained social cleavages within a country’s population that are likely to outlive the religion field on national identification. By enforcing this policy, the state is assimilating religious groups’ polarization. It is claiming citizenship is connected to faith, and that individuals should be classified in accordance to it. By means of institutionalizing pre-existent divides, these are widened.

Oftentimes, the result is that some groups are privileged over the rest. In Turkey, citizens who wanted to modify their registration from “Muslim” to other religions or leave it blank faced confrontation with the administration or their fellow citizens. In Egypt, where religion is still noted on national identity cards (its removal is being discussed), only three religions were recognized by the government and could be listed by the citizens, until a Supreme Court ruling forbade this in 2009.

The controversy that, in these cases, blocks any attempts of change and stalls them for many years is the incorporation of the dominant religious identity as an indispensable part of the national identity. In Greece, Hellenism and the Orthodox church were so intertwined that many Greeks could not believe there could be one without the other. In Egypt and Jordan’s talks, opponents feared removing group categorization would undermine the use of Islamic sources of the law and the countries’ Muslim character. In the case of the Palestinian Authority, some factions regarded the move as a symbol of more tolerance towards Israeli settlers and therefore as a potential threat to their own identity.

Palestinian ID card before the removal of the religion field. Source: Wikimedia
Palestinian ID card before the removal of the religion field. Source: Wikimedia

Some political parties (Turkish AKP, Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood) present themselves directly or indirectly as the guardians of this forged essence of the state. The electorate’s ethno-religious identity, that transcends the personal and  private realms to enter the public political sphere, drives them towards supporting or opposing their leadership.

The display of religious affiliation on national ID cards represents a constraint of citizens’ right to privacy. It manifests a perception of creed as unchangeable and as determinant of an individual’s place within the state. It suggests or predicts the development of political processes that treat social groups as mutually exclusive. It takes more than a change of legislation to destroy these paradigms, although it is a positive start.

Sources:

Armenian Weekly: http://armenianweekly.com/2016/02/18/turkey-id-cards/

Albawaba: http://www.albawaba.com/loop/jordan-loses-religion-identity-cards-859618

Cairo Scene: http://www.cairoscene.com/BusinessAndPolitics/Jordan-Removes-Religion-from-New-Smart-ID-Cards

The Christian Science Monitor: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2009/0420/p06s12-wome.html

Faith in Europe: http://www.faithineurope.org.uk/idcards.pdf

Gatestone Institute: http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/4180/palestinians-religion-id-cards

Human Rights Watch: https://www.hrw.org/news/2007/11/11/egypt-allow-citizens-list-actual-religion-id-cards

Human Rights Watch: https://www.hrw.org/reports/2007/egypt1107/3.htm

Harriet Daily Times: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-to-introduce-new-ids-in-line-with-eu-visa-deal.aspx?PageID=238&NID=93870&NewsCatID=341

International New York Times: http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/15/anti-sectarian-campaign-in-egypt-urges-citizens-to-remove-religion-from-i-d-cards/?_r=0

The Jordan Times: http://www.jordantimes.com/news/local/authorities-begin-releasing-smart-ids-mid-may

Middle East Eye: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/religion-be-left-new-identification-cards-turkey-326099214

Prevent Genocide International: http://www.preventgenocide.org/prevent/removing-facilitating-factors/IDcards/

Prevent Genocide International: http://www.preventgenocide.org/prevent/removing-facilitating-factors/IDcards/survey/index.htm

Rûdaw: http://rudaw.net/english/opinion/31052016

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: https://www.ushmm.org/learn/timeline-of-events/1933-1938/reich-ministry-of-the-interior-invalidates-all-german-passports-held-by-jew

Yahoo News: https://www.yahoo.com/news/donald-trump-has-big-plans-1303117537878070.html

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