Atheism in Turkey

Deniz Emre Sahici


It is important to consider recent Turkish history in order to understand the concept of atheism in Turkey. As it is known, the Republic of Turkey is a state which was founded on a heritage which had been governed for centuries in accordance with Islamic rules and has the principle of secularism in its constitution only since 1937. Many institutions were adopted from western countries in the early periods of the foundation of the state and attempts were made to adapt them to the society which had been oppressed with Islamic rules. However this effort was not successful. A cold conflict started between the Muslims, constituting the vast majority of the society, who ordered their lives within the framework of Islamic rules, and the founders of the Republic who adopted secularism.

Political personnel who came to power after World War II regarded Islamism as an antidote against the so-called threat of communism and followed the policy of Islamizing Turkish society rapidly. In this period, a Western concept of education was adopted in order to modernize the rural countryside of Turkey and village institutes were closed down a very short period after their opening on the grounds that they were “a nest for communists.”

Although the Turkish Armed Forces claimed that they supported modern institutions, especially secularism, they ignored social circumstances and compulsorily imposed the institutions adopted from Western countries and not accepted by an important part of society. The Turkish Armed Forces carried out 3 military coups against the elected governments within an interval of 10 years, claiming that the constitution had been violated. The number of Islamic divinity schools, which served to train religious functionaries, increased in every corner of the country against the so-called threat of communism. After the military coup of 1980, an attempt was made to convert Turkish society into a religious society by force and the number of Islamic divinity schools, which were already more numerous than necessary, continued to increase. Additionally, compulsory religion lessons were included in the syllabus, focusing on Sunni and Hanafi beliefs, starting from the normal primary state schools.

It is necessary to explain here that Islamic divinity schools provide religious education which is completely based on the Sunni and Hanafi sects of the Islamic religion and provide scarcely any or inadequate scientific education. In these schools, students are raised with the idea of Islamism and they gradually become a tool of Islamic pressure which becomes clearer in society. These schools primarily aim at training religious functionaries for mosques; but then they started to enroll more and more students. Under the rule of the Ak Parti, many general high schools were converted into the status of Islamic divinity schools and they became the basic high schools of the Turkish education system. Again, in that period, many students who did not want to receive religious education were forced to study religion in these schools. Many parents who did not want their children to receive religious education applied to the European Court of Human Rights and sued. As a result, Turkey was convicted many times. Some of the lawsuits are still in progress.

Although some of the founding personnel have since the proclamation of Republic made some futuristic changes in order to reduce the effects of religion, these changes ignored social realities and it was attempted to impose them on society by force. Consequently, they could not receive an adequate level of support from society. Moreover, some Islamists, bearing an uncompromising hostility against Western modernism, used them as a propaganda tool. Religiosity took hold of education with the help of momentum created by the military coups in the 1980s. Islamists have gradually become more and more radical since the 1990s and have carried out many terrorist activities. The first examples of this were the murder of Turan Dursun, an ex- religious functionary who became an atheist in 1991 and the incident taking place in Sivas in 1993 in which 33 people were burnt to death. After that, the Hezbollah terrorist organization murdered many scholars until the end of the 1990s on the grounds that they resisted the basic principles of Islamism. It was learnt afterwards that the Hezbollah terrorist organization was actually supported by the government against some left-wing entities.

After these periods, being an atheist in Turkey came to mean dying, being murdered, being burnt to death or being excluded from society in all likelihood.

Although atheists shared and expressed their opinions on such social media platforms as Facebook and Twitter until 2014 when the Atheism Association was founded, these posts were generally made from accounts having different names because many people hesitated to expose their identities.

However, this privacy was not only an external attitude of the person. It was also maintained towards the family of the person. This is because religious education and the religious lifestyle of the previous generation are based on the concept that atheism is an evil thing and atheists should be regarded as evil people. This does not imply that the meaning of the word “atheism” is understood. In other words; a person who hates atheism does not necessarily understand that “atheists deny the existence of God.” People who do not like atheism and atheists in Turkey do not even know the actual reason. In a recent interview, almost no-one could give a correct answer to the question “What is an atheist?” However, social exclusion of atheists through this limited information is at a very high level.

There are many examples of this kind of exclusion. People who learn that their friend or relative is an atheist link this information to such nonsensical reasons as “he/she was possessed by the Devil” or “he/she was possessed by Evil,” etc. And they behave as if he/she had became sick. Likewise, one of the most popular and beloved theology professors in Turkey wished “a good health and recovery” for atheists and people who do not believe in God. This can serve as an indicator of the general attitude of the whole society, but this idea is the most moderate one.

Opinions against atheists or atheism are scarcely moderate in Turkey. Opposition to them is very strong in general. One consequence of the nonsensical opinion which regards atheists as sick is to exclude them from society. Thus, many people in Turkey cannot express that they are atheists. This is because their own family especially will exclude them from society and they will feel lonely. They will not be able to find jobs or get married. So, the majority of atheists remain in deep silence by behaving as if they were Muslims. Many of them even perform their Islamic religious duties unwillingly because of social pressure.

Another effect of social exclusion is “othering.” An atheist cannot express his/her ideas in any public area (on TV, radio, etc.) because he/she would then be excluded from society if he/she did this. And it is a kind of pressure. Likewise, many members of our association were fired from their jobs because of their interviews in newspapers, on TV and in magazines. “Mr. Tolga Inci, the chairman of our association was banned from visiting state institutions by his company since most of them are under the control of religious people. They were afraid Inci would be recognized and the institution would then not do business with them.” Thus, atheists cannot freely express that they are atheists.

However, in addition to all these difficulties, atheists are exposed to strong legal pressure. For example; if an atheist appearing on TV tries to mention the reasons of being an atheist on the grounds that theocratic opinions written in verses of the Koran are not related to the real world, people who get disturbed by these statements may denounce him/her. Unfortunately, our prosecutors, many of whom studied in religious education institutions, are very keen on launching an investigation in such cases.

Likewise, access to our web site was blocked upon the request of Telecommunications Communication Presidency, without any right of appeal, by the Court of First Instance, because it published a fact which is also available in the Islamic religion; but there are no results from the legal proceedings to restore access to the web site so far. Similarly, hundreds of internet sites which published criticisms of Islam were also blocked by court decisions.

Thus, atheists who want to express their ideas by taking risks and even endangering their lives still face censorship. If a person makes a criticism of the executions and crimes against humanity carried out by Islamic terrorist organizations such as especially ISIS which has recently been active in the Middle East, it means that he/she may be subjected to a legal proceeding. Provision of “humiliating a religion in which a specific part of the population believes” specified in 216/3 Article of Turkish Criminal Code carries much more flexibility than it should for a criminal rule and prosecutors can easily pursue public prosecutions against anyone they wish. For example, Fazil Say, a world-wide known Turkish musician, can be subjected to legal proceedings and punished because of a post which he retweeted. In this case, people feel themselves to be exposed and begin auto-censorship. Similarly, Richard Dawkins’ web site may also be blocked through a petition on the grounds of this article of the Criminal Code.

This article of the Criminal Code which is very open to abuse by politicians because of their voting anxiety serves as a shackle on free thought in Turkey and so the Atheism Association has been fighting for the abolition of this article since its foundation by organizing petition campaigns. Among people who are on trial because of this article, there are atheists as well as Muslims and members of other religions who are not atheists but express criticism of the verses and rules of the Koran which are not appropriate for the modern world which is based on rights and liberal ideas and beliefs of the 21st Century.

Finally, a public prosecution was launched against our Association’s Chairman Tolga Inci because of his ideas about the President remaining within the boundaries of criticism. The reason for this is not only his posts, etc. It is also the fact that he is the Chairman of the Atheism Association. So, he has become a target. Thousands of people who cannot accept the foundation and activities of the Atheism Association make numerous denunciations against and threaten our Chairman Tolga Inci and the members of our association every day.

Their names were also explicitly mentioned in one of several threatening interviews of a sharia association published in a local newspaper and they were threatened with death and so it is essential to understand the importance of the subject.

Being the Chairman of such a brave association as Atheism Association under the circumstances in Turkey and the Middle East means being a target in advance. Thus, chairmen cannot carry out their duties without fear.

When we consider the past, it is clear that the death threat from this sharia association is not a manipulation or a bluff. Murdering such people as Bahriye Üçok, Turan Dursun, Aziz Nesin, Ahmet Taner Kislali and Gonca Kuris who have produced writings and ideas against the Islamic religion or modern Islamic concepts shows that this threat is really serious. While government should be taking action against this threat and judging these people in order to keep democracy and secularism alive, it has launched legal proceedings against Tolga Inci. This shows that democracy and secularism is only on paper in Turkey.

Despite all of this, we continue our brave activities. Although the Republic of Turkey has become a stage for activities which are against secularism and democracy since its foundation, we know that brave people who appreciate human rights are always with us and this makes us increasingly brave and motivated in our struggle.

Today circumstances in Turkey are a little more comfortable than in many Middle East countries, which are governed by sharia, where people are convicted because of being atheists or opposing religion even though they are not atheists; but these circumstances are gradually becoming worse under the regime of the Islamic AKP Government.

Unfortunately, it has been a long time since Turkey began the process of becoming a traditional Middle East country governed by Islamic rules. Thus, it becomes more and more difficult to be an atheist in Turkey. Our Association which we founded with hopes and great efforts continues its legal struggle against this increasing pressure; but our future is still unclear.

We hope that the number of people who can act in accordance with such institutions as democracy, human rights and secularism will increase in Turkey. Otherwise Turkey’s future is unpromising for Atheists and Atheism.

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