Deutsche Welle: Are young Turks really atheistic Turks?

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For those of you who follow international news in the former Byzantine empire, there was an interesting piece in the German broadcast network Deutsche Welle (DW) about how atheism is growing in Turkey.

For those of you who wonder why the Germans would be interested in this, do remember that 5 percent of Germany’s population (or 4 million people) are of Turkish origin. Turks began migrating to Germany in 1961, earning the sobriquet gastarbeiter or (guest workers) but since then, the relationship between these two countries has grown complicated.

Still, there’s a plenty of ties, so DW covers trends there, including religious ones.

According to a recent survey by the pollster Konda, a growing number of Turks identify as atheists. Konda reports that the number of nonbelievers tripled in the past 10 years. It also found that the share of Turks who say they adhere to Islam dropped from 55 percent to 51 percent.

"There is religious coercion in Turkey," said 36-year-old computer scientist Ahmet Balyemez, who has been an atheist for over 10 years. "People ask themselves: Is this the true Islam?" he added. "When we look at the politics of our decision-makers, we can see they are trying to emulate the first era of Islam. So, what we are seeing right now is primordial Islam." …

Which means people aren’t ready to return to the 7th century.

Diyanet, Turkey's official directorate of religious affairs, declared in 2014 that more than 99 percent of the population identifies as Muslim. When Konda's recent survey with evidence to the contrary was published, heated public debate ensued.

The theologian Cemil Kilic believes that both figures are correct. Though 99 percent of Turks are Muslim, he said, many only practice the faith in a cultural and sociological sense. They are cultural, rather than spiritual, Muslims.

Oddly, there is not a supporting paragraph that backs up the lead two sentences. How many people is 51 percent? And what about Erdogan’s attempts at the shariaization of Turkey? Turkey has been a secular republic for the past century, thanks to Kemal Attaturk, but Erdogan is trying to shift matters toward Islamic rule as fast as he can.

I’m guessing he doesn’t want to be ruled by mullahs like neighboring Iran but his shift out of secularity is a puzzle. It’s not secret that Iran’s millions of young people are weary of 39 years of “religious edicts and isolation,” as the Wall Street Journal describes it. Haven’t folks learned that theocracy doesn’t work?

Kilic said a lack of belief did not, of course, mean the lack of a moral compass. "Some atheists are more ethical and conscientious than many Muslims," he said.

For nearly 16 years under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, first as prime minister and since 2014 as president, Turkish officials have increasingly used Islam to justify their politics — possibly increasing the skepticism surrounding faith in government. "People reject the predominant interpretation of Islam, the sects, religious communities, the directorate of religious affairs and those in power," he said. "They do not want this kind of religion and this official form of piousness." This, Kilic said, could help explain why so many Turks now identify as atheists.

There was a lot out there this past year on young Turks rejecting Islam from BBC and Al Monitor while at the same time the country’s Atheism Association shut itself down possibly more out of concern for endangering its members than for lack of interest. Still, only 170 people belonged.

So it’s tough to know what direction the country is heading. The Economist says there’s sympathy for atheism among Turkish Muslims and explains why atheism is a hard sell in Muslim countries. Turkey and Lebanon were supposed to be on the liberal side of the spectrum compared to other Islamic republics. The secularization of Turkey over the past century is a well-known story.

At the same time, the magazine explained, these countries are polarized. The religious are getting more devout and the irreligious are getting more secular.

This Facebook page is for Turkish atheists, which are no doubt an embattled minority. The more hardline a government gets, the more atheistic the populace gets, so I’m not surprised at these revelations of unbelief in Turkey, I’d also like to know what part Turkey’s Kurdish minority plays in all this and whether they are considered unbelievers as well. Kurds have not been treated well by much of the Muslim world, so I wonder if they too are open to atheism.

Selin Ozkohen, who heads Ateizm Dernegi, Turkey's main association for atheists, said Erdogan's desire to produce a generation of devout Muslims had backfired in many ways. "Religious sects and communities have discredited themselves," she said. "We have always said that the state should not be ruled by religious communities, as this leads to people questioning their faith and becoming humanist atheists." …

But the government continues to coerce people to conform to perceived religious standards. "Pressure is exerted in the neighborhoods and mosques," she said. "And the most visible sign of this is that in 2019, schoolchildren are still obliged to study religion."

DW also carried this piece on Turkish atheists as well as this piece on atheism around the Middle East, so hopefully the coverage will continue. There’s even a German organization that helps Muslims leave their faith. As always, researching these stories is always going to be tough. When there’s a death penalty in one’s religion for converting out of Islam, the publicly identified will be few.

In any case, I’m hoping journalists in Turkey can coax at least some of them to talk. These folks are the weather vane for the rest of Turkish society and where they are headed says a lot about where the country may eventually go.

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