Being an Atheist in Turkey

, Ekin Karaca

According to data of the research company, KONDA, rate of those who define themselves as atheist has risen to 2.9 from 2.3 in the last six years. So, roughly estimating the number of atheists in Turkey has increased from 1,700,000 to 2,200,000 in six years.

But  in Turkey saying “I am an atheist” causes you to receive similar reactions as saying “I was born from a plant”. Actually, being an atheist in this country bears some meanings beyond facing these naive questions, especially after AKP (Justice and Development Party) whose existence is based on religion finished November 1 general elections ranking first by receiving 49 percent of votes…

Let us recall some of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s remarks on atheists at various times:

“We have only one concern: Islam, Islam, Islam… We cannot accept Islam to be cast shadow upon. We have to manifest the will of denying terror all together without looking at its source and identity. (…) We see some people who defend terrorists but also atheist organizations because of denominational differences.” (July 30, 2015, speech at National Security Academy in Indonesi’s capital, Jakarta)

“We’ve constructed a boulevard in Ankara. Despite who? Despite those leftists, those atheists. These are atheists, these are terrorists. However, CHP (People’s Republican Party) calls them ‘our youngsters’.” (February 28, 2014, Balıkesir meeting)

“Marginal, atheist, nonbeliever movements that are detached from values of this land cannot redefine our affection”. (March 23, 2015, Assembly held with village headmen)When President Erdoğan used to say? “We embrace everybody”, “I am president of everyone”, etc…, he obviously did not mean atheists.

It is obvious that circles apart from Sunni Muslims are being marginalised but it is atheists, , or as they are called  “godless ones” (this description is used as swearing) who face the harshest marginalization. Atheists have always been marginalized by both the state and society, and there is no doubt that this marginalization will continue .

So, how is this marginalization being lived?

Religion in Turkey is no choice
As soon as you are born, “Islam” is written in your ID’s religion section. As you reach the age of 18, you are allowed to have the section cleared by submitting a petition but you are assumed to be a Muslim until the age of 18. This also means mandatory religious courses during our childhood and being subjected to loud religious recitements.

The religion you don’t believe in accompanies you even after you dieYou need to exort a tremendous bureaucratic effort to not have a funeral ceremony in mosque. It is not possible to be burried  be not buried in a non-Islamic cemetery. It is fine if you are Jew or Christian. You are then free to severe your connection with the world pursuant to your belief but if you are an atheist, all challenges are with you. .

Another matter is “Respect for beliefs”. Imagine that you represent an extremely small portion of the society and 99 percent of it expects you to respect them but majority of the 99 percent don’t feel in any way the need to respect you. For an atheist like me, it means I am obliged to respect religionIat schools, streets, as you are born, as you die, as you bury your relative. Without however, receiving anything in return. Indeed, disrespect is given back to me.  

For instance, the Leader of Saadet Partisi (the Felicity Party) which can be defined as radical Islamist, Mustafa Kamalak, says the following:

“Both drunkards and atheists of this mighty nation are Muslims. (…) Whenever they find themselves in trouble, they say ‘Allah’ and eat the food with the right hand. (…) Hail to our atheists, drunkards, as well as rounders!”During the time that  Kemalist tutelage in Turkey was the hegemonic ideology, religious people used to say they were being excluded. And indeed, they did run into certain difficulties.  For instance, women students in head scarf weren’t allowed to enter universitiesBut it seems to me they ave never faced the sort of exclusion from which nonbelievers suffer..

And whereas I used to struggle to allow head scarves entering our Universities, no one raises his foice over my rights and no one supports me against the state who uses my identity as atheist as a swear-word.

When you enter a marketplace or talk to a taxi driver, you might hear statements meant as swearing such as “He doesn’t even believe in god”. Using nonbelief as a form of swearing happens all the time, without anyone being concerned about the disrespect this means for atheists. 

How about the future?
The present situation unavoidably brings along  concerns. For how  for how much deeper will the AKP government  force religion into the center of our lives in the next four years?

As religion occupies more space in the center of our lives, the reactiveness of people increases accordingly.

Şaner Atik from Atheism Association says that the majority of society glance at him strangely when he says he is an atheist. He states that anything he says is perceived as “insult” by the majority and adds: “This necessarily drives the atheists to a struggle”.

As an example, I’ve witnessed an atheist friend who defended freedom of belief for many years . But at  the moment when it became impossible to hear each other because of the volume of the azan (the call to prayer)  he said, “This is harassment. I don’t respect this anymore.  I just don’t want to be harassed . Why would I respect the ones who harass me via their beliefs?”.

The lack of respect for atheists and the dominance or religion, is as I believe one of the reasons to why there is an increase of 500,000 in number of atheists in the last six years .But this growth of atheists, also increases the pressure on them.

For instance, a friend of mine whom I mentioned about this article suggested me to not use my real name as it might cause me trouble .

I look forward to the day  when believers don’t disrespect nonbelievers, and vica-versa, and people won’t worry because of the things they believe in or don’t believe in. But in Turkey this day is yet to come.

Ekin Karaca
I graduated from Bilgi University, Department of Media and Communication Systems. I did my masters at Bilgi University, Department of Cultural Studies.
I did internship at Hürriyet daily Foreign News Department in 2005. I worked as reporter at Nokta magazine between the years of 2006-2007, and Aktüel magazine between 2008-2011. I work at bianet (www.bianet.org/english) as editör and co-editorial director as of 2011.
I mainly make news on human rights, freedom of expression and actual politics.