The de-secularisation of Turkey.


Pro-secular rally in Istanbul.  Source: Wikimedia Commons. Author: Miguel Carminati.

Pro-secular rally in Istanbul.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Author: Miguel Carminati.

“I don’t believe that Muhammad was a prophet. I don’t believe in the existence of a prophethood institution. I find it absurd that anyone could claim receiving special revelations from god. To me, that’s impertinence. Muhammad must have either lied or had hallucinations.”

– It is victimless declarations of non-belief such as this by Turkish intellectual Sevan Nisanyan, that resulted in his harassment by officials, to the point where Nisanyan is now serving a prison term on trumped up charges relating to construction regulations, masking the real reason for his incarceration; blasphemy. He isn’t the only non-religious person in Turkey to be punished in recent times for ‘blasphemy’. In April 2013, Turkish composer and pianist Fazil Say, received a 10 year suspended sentence for tweeting a poem deemed offensive to Islam, by 11th century poet Omar Khayyám.

The crackdown on secular freedoms in Turkey has increased over Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reign. The Prime Minister is arguably the most powerful since Ataturk, and the most likely to radically change the direction of the country. It is clear that Erdogan is fostering religious polarisation in Turkey to an inevitable violent and oppressive end. He appears to regard secularism as Muslims having the privileged and inherent right to grant and rescind protections to minorities, rather than equal protections under the law with no single faith or ideology – including his own – permitted that privileged position. This of course, isn’t secularism. It is tolerance, offered by a prevailing religious ideology whose adherents have decided they are the ones with the inherent and privileged right to grant tolerance. They offer no justifiable explanation for this God-like mentality. Erdogan is cut from the same anti-secular cloth as all other supremacists who demand special protections for their one particular ideology.

As part of his crackdown, the Prime Minister announced that mixed gender dorm rooms would be outlawed, and a policy of gender segregation implemented by the end of 2014. In recent years, he has also attempted to criminalise adultery, and ban alcohol in certain areas. Turkey under Erdogan ranks 154th out of 179 on press freedom (below Afghanistan). All clear attempts to impose strict Islamic ‘morality’ on a secular country. Perhaps Erdogan’s most worrying stance is on blasphemy, for which he demanded:

“…international legal regulations against attacks on what people deem sacred, on religion”

– In essence; Blasphemy laws. Erdogan, the Prime Minister of a secular country, wishes to enforce restrictions of what he deems to be ‘offensive’ to religions. No other concepts – political ideologies – seem to be a concern for Erdogan. Does he deny that people also hold political beliefs to be as sacred as religious beliefs? What is considered an “attack”? Cartoons? Critiques? Who has the right to define that? Well, apparently the Prime Minister has decided what is and isn’t an “insult”. Speaking to Kanal D TV’s Arena program, Erdogan said:

“These descriptions [the term “moderate Islam”] are very ugly, it is offensive and an insult to our religion. There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam and that’s it.”

– If you identify as a moderate Muslim, the Prime Minister of Turkey believes you have insulted the faith. To insult the faith, Erdogan believes the state should be in the business of punishing this.

As seems to be the case with all of those demanding blasphemy laws protecting their specific religion; there is often a very clear double standard. There is never a demand to punish those who burn the American flag, or antisemitic rants by Muslim media outlets, or threats of state punishment for Muslims who insist that non-believers will infact burn in the pits of hell, or for putrid homophobia.

Throughout history, and across national borders, antisemitism often begins at the premise of a vast Jewish conspiracy lurking in the shadows, waiting to control the World, different from the rest of us and plotting to destroy. Today, it is the mantra of the far-right; both political and religious. In the past, Martin Luther perpetuated the sentiment in the 16th Century with his 1543 work “On the Jews and their lies“, which I write about here. Erdogan seems more than willing to demand blasphemy laws when it offends his religious sensibilities, whilst at the same time being as offensive as possible to other groups:

“The Jews have begun to crush the Muslims in Palestine, in the name of Zionism. Today, the image of the Jews is no different than that of the Nazis.”

– This is a quote from 1998. Further back, in 1974 Erdogan wrote, directed, and starred in his own play entitled “Maskomya”, an acronym for “Masons, Communists, Jews”. The historian Rifat Bali, who specialises in the history of Jewish Turks, said of the play:

“…a theatrical play that was staged everywhere in the 1970s, as part of the ‘cultural’ activities of MSP Youth Branches. The unabbreviated version of Mas-kom-Ya is Mason-Komunist-Yahudi [Mason-Communist-Jew]. It is known that the play was built on the ‘evil’ nature of these three concepts, and the hatred towards them.”

– It is without doubt that the antisemitism of the Prime Minister fuels the antisemitism of the wider population in Turkey. In March 2005, Arslan Tekin, a writer for Yenicağ, not so subtly made it clear to readers that he believes Jewish people themselves should feel responsible for the rise of Hitler:

“Can a Hitler rise in America? It can happen… What was [true] for Germany before Hitler came to power is [now] exceedingly true for America. Big banks, big TV organs, big newspapers, all the tools that can trap the public opinion are in the hands of the Jews… Politics is run by them too.

“What is the proportion of the Jewish [population] in America of 200 million [sic]. Must not even be two percent. They have an image beyond what their numbers merit. I am sorry for the Jews… How come they do not think about the effect their disproportionate ‘grandeur’ would have on the majority of the [American] people! In Germany, Hitler did not rise just single-handedly. He only answered the questions asked by his people.

“Hey Jews! The world cannot bear to have another Hitler [because of you]. Your disproportionate [presence]; your recklessness; your daring to burn the world for [even] one Jew, makes the American people and everyone in the world ask the question: ‘what’s happening here?’ Do you know how the US is seen now? [It looks like] the biggest Jewish empire of the world.

“I, like everyone else, am seeing this situation… Hitler’s Mein Kampf must be read especially by the Jews.

“A madman like Hitler does not just come about [without a reason]… The book which you define as ‘nonsense’ has set the world on fire. The Jews should think about the reasons [why].”

– A Turkish, Islamist writer here has managed to blame Jewish people for the horrifying events of the holocaust and the imperial desires of Hitler. I’m not sure it gets more insulting than that. This is absurd victim shaming, coupled with bigotry and hostility that tends to go hand in hand with Islamists of all nationalities. It is similar logic to extremists blaming their tendency toward blowing people up, on the country that those victims come from.

Similarly, columnist Yusuf Kaplan of the daily Turkish newspaper Yeni Şafak, wrote conspiratorially:

“Jewish desire to dominate everything in the Western countries, and the way they easily and arrogantly exploit organizations and individuals to serve Jewish interests, may end up causing a short circuit within the democratic institutions of the West. Their nosy interference with everything, and their actions beyond the reach of their size, have already started to draw serious reactions in the Western countries. Because the Jewish paranoia is blown to extreme, forced and artificial dimensions, it can explode any day and take care of them [the Jews] and cost them dearly.”

– It is an ironic peace on paranoia. Ironic, because it is actually the paranoid delusions of non-Jews over the centuries, convinced of a World-wide Jewish conspiracy, that led directly to the inevitable conclusion, with the rise of Hitler. Had this same piece been written in order to shame Muslims, and claim an Islamic conspiracy for World domination, the writer would now most definitely be in jail in Turkey, and the piece used by anti-secularists like Erdogan, to promote his attempts to enforce blasphemy legislation.

The paranoid delusions continue, with Erdogan himself who, on commenting on the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, said:

“What is said about Egypt? That democracy is not the ballot box. Who is behind this? Israel is. We have the evidence in our hands.”

– The ‘evidence’ later turned out to be Bernard-Henri Lévy – a French man, also happens to be Jewish – in 2011 telling a news conference that he doesn’t like the Muslim Brotherhood. For Erdogan, this was enough to claim a vast Israeli conspiracy. Such irrational, absurd, and dangerously paranoid people should not be in positions of power. They should be in therapy.

As a result, growing numbers of Jewish people in Turkey (there are currently around 15,000 Jewish people in Turkey, mainly in Istanbul) are beginning to leave the country, through fear of the social consequences of the government’s promotion of antisemitism. The deputy chairman of the Association of Turkish Jews in Israel, Nesim Güveniş, told Hürriyet:

“Look at the environment in Turkey at the moment. We are uncomfortable with being ‘othered’. I am more Turkish than many. But we couldn’t make them believe it.”

– This is the result of de-secularisation. The poisonous notion that minority groups that are in some way conflicting with the prevailing ideology, are not to be considered equal to adherents to that prevailing ideology, whose rights are then oppressed, or who are at least made to feel less of a citizen. Secularism is the only defence against such a hideous notion.

It isn’t just Jewish people that are victims of the emerging antisemitic, Islamic supremacist ideals in Turkey. The BBC tells the story of an ex-Muslim, who converted to Christianity, and was secretly filmed at a Christian summer camp by Turkish media, who then branded him “an evil missionary”, which in turn resulted in him losing his family. I am yet to find an example of any Muslims in Turkey being similarly harassed for preaching Islam to non-Muslims.

In 2007, Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal – both converts from Islam to Christian – were arrested and on trial for “insulting Islam” by trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. The appalling deed? Well, apparently they had said that Islam was a:

“…primitive and fabricated religion.”

– State punishment for words that offend authoritarian ideologies, is so utterly grotesque, no secularist would seek to justify it. The government of Turkey is working to ensure that Islamic supremacy replaces secularism as the base ideology upon which all other considerations – sexuality, gender, expression – must be held against under the law. This is dangerous.

In 2010, after several nations began to refer to the Armenian genocide as a genocide (genocide as a term dates to 1943, not 1915; the beginning of the Armenian genocide by the Caliphate), Erdogan issued a threat to restart the genocide if we all insist on calling it a genocide:

“In my country there are 170,000 Armenians. Seventy thousand of them are citizens. We tolerate 100,000 more. So, what am I going to do tomorrow? If necessary I will tell the 100,000: OK, time to go back to your country. Why? They are not my citizens. I am not obliged to keep them in my country.”

– This nasty little threat summarises the mentality of the Turkish Prime Minister perfectly. It is the mentality of a dictator who thrives on controlling others. Indeed, Turkish novelist and screenwriter Orhan Pamuk was taken to court for daring to utter his belief that the genocide, was a genocide. The charges were dropped the week the EU began a review of the Turkish judicial system, predictably.

And so, if you’re Jewish, a Christian convert from Islam, a non-believer, a moderate Muslim, a critic of the long dead Caliphate, or Armenian; the “secular” Erdogan is more than willing to threaten your fundamental rights whilst claiming this to be secular in nature.

As previously noted, when a state – especially a state like Turkey, with almost a century of secular governance – works to protect one authoritarian ideology, when it punishes criticism or satire of that one authoritarian ideology, when the state’s values start to mimic the dictates of that one ideology, when that one authoritarian ideology starts to creep into judicial procedure, when that one authoritarian ideology is permitted privilege above all others; the result will always be social unrest and oppression. This is true in Turkey. Less moderate Muslims in Turkey suddenly seem to have a new found sense of superiority. The Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul has been bombed in recent years; in 2007 three Christians – Necati Aydin, Tilmann Geske and Ugur Yuksel – were kidnapped, bound, and brutally murdered by religious fundamentalists; Father Andrea Santoro was shot dead in Trabzon by a 16 year old with “Islamist sympathies”. Being Jewish, or an ex-Muslim in Turkey is becoming increasingly dangerous. Similarly, non-Muslims and secular Muslims, take to the streets, as they did in 2013, to protest an increasingly anti-secular, authoritarian system of governance. The predictable result, was government brutality.

One thing is certain; if a state becomes increasingly supremacist, under the power of an increasingly despotic, paranoid, bigoted and oppressive anti-secular leader; its accession to the EU should not be considered.

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