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Legally Armenian: Tolerance, Conversion, and Name Change in Turkish Courts

  • Ceren Özgül (a1)

Over the last fifteen years, hundreds of Muslim citizens claiming Armenian descent have submitted petitions to Turkey's secular legal authorities asking for changes to both their name and religion in the public record. In this article, I discuss the name-change cases of Armenian return converts to further the debates on Turkish secularism and to critique the body of scholarship that welcomes the governing Justice and Development Party's legal reforms as a measure of growing religious tolerance. In the article's first part I analyze the historical foundations of the regulation of religion and name changes in Turkey by fully and explicitly engaging with law as a site where minority difference is constructed, authorized, and challenged. The article's second half offers an alternative reading of how tolerance functions as an aspect of the Justice and Development Party's reforms. Based on my investigation of specific legal forms of argument that converted Armenians and their lawyers put forward in today's secular courts, and how legal officers of the state respond to them, I demonstrate that legal reform has shifted the definition of religion as a marker of minority difference in legal space. I argue that the historical context of name change and religious conversion forces the limits of existing understandings of freedom of religion in Turkey, and that this renders visible historical injustices that cannot be resolved simply through the notion of “religious tolerance” in the courts.

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