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Why could a Christian not change his name?

Posted: Friday, October 14, 2011 at 11:43 AM CT

If you want to change your first name or last name in Turkey, you have to apply to court.

Favlus Ay, an Assyrian who is a citizen of the Republic of Turkey, applied to court to change his full name to Paulus Bartuma. The case was forwarded to the constitutional court. The constitutional court made a decision of which every Turkish citizen should be ashamed in its ruling that this change of name ran contrary to the legislation in effect.

Our constitutional court concluded that citizens of the Republic of Turkey are not allowed to take the names attributable to foreign races or nations. This decision, made last July, is so ridiculous that it is impossible to make a legal analysis. We can evaluate this decision only to obtain a better understanding of the way the minds of the members of the constitutional court work. I will try to make this evaluation below.

However, before delving into the details to make an assessment, I would like to write a few words about the content and substance of the decision. Consider this: A Turk living in Germany applies to court to take a Turkish name; the motion is rejected. If the court underlines that German citizens may only take names attributable to the German race and nation, and if it rules that names like Ahmet or Mehmet cannot be taken, you could be sure that a huge campaign against this would be launched in Turkey. The Turkish media would have accused the judges serving in that court of fascism or exhibiting a Nazi mentality.

However, our constitutional court does not hesitate in making such a decision and bans Turkish citizens from taking names foreign to his or her own ethnic identity. The constitutional court handed down this decision by a majority vote. Eight judges challenged the stance by the other nine who ruled that Turkish citizens are not allowed to take foreign names. If you take a look at the professional backgrounds of the court judges who support and oppose the decision and who appointed them to the constitutional court, you find yourself looking at an interesting picture.

All of the nine judges who adhered to the anti-freedom interpretation are law school graduates and therefore trained lawyers, whereas only two out of the eight judges who relied on a pro-freedom interpretation and declared that the law on taking foreign names is unconstitutional graduated from law schools. The remaining six studied at schools of political science and economics. Borrowing from Althusser, I would hold that the notion of “the status-quo stance of a lawyer” fits perfectly in this picture. As a law school graduate, I am familiar with the legal training that creates this status-quo stance. Likewise, I cannot help but question the legal system through which judges and prosecutors have gone and I see that the majority of these lawyer-judges had previously served in different courts before being appointment to this one.

You would have an interesting table if you reviewed who appointed these constitutional court judges. Five out of the nine judges who ruled that the name Favlus could not be changed to Paulus were appointed by Ahmet Necdet Sezer and the remaining four by President Abdullah Gül. The eight judges who said people can take any name they want broken down by appointing president or institution is as follows: one by Turgut Özal, one by Süleyman Demirel, two by Ahmet Necdet Sezer, two by Abdullah Gül and one by the Turkish Parliament.

I think that the picture I presented above tells much about the state of democracy and the judiciary and whether the mindset of the government has really changed. In consideration of this picture, I would like to finish my column by asking some questions to the president and government who elected him: Four out of the six judges the president appointed made a decision that violates one of the most basic human rights. What criteria does the president consider when appointing judges to the constitutional court? Does the president consider the attitudes, views and decisions of the judges he appoints based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law? Does he pay attention to whether the appointed judges are mentally open to universal legal norms? If not, then what criteria does the president use in the appointment process? Maybe I should ask a question of the government as well: Do you not think that if legal training creates such an archaic legal understanding, it should be substantially changed and restructured?

To better understand how much Turkey has really changed, I think we should take a look at how much its mentality has changed. To this end, the decisions of the higher judiciary serve as a litmus tests. As you saw above, the judges appointed by both the nationalist President Necdet Sezer and the current president make similarly irrational decisions. Is it possible to argue that a Turkey in which people are unable to exercise the simple right to change their names as they like is becoming democratic?

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