Okan Akyuz, member of the Turkish Atheist Society and Atheist Alliance International, lost his faith in God during his adolescence and talks openly about how fear and a lack of resistance are currently enabling religious fanatics to spread their influence. How is tolerance at fault and how can humanists adequately rise to the occasion?
An allegedly staged coup by Erdogan, Darwin’s theory of evolution banned from schools and atheists receiving threats on social media, is apparently the most ‘common thing’ when you live in the Middle- East.
According to Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world, the current press status in Turkey is more than somewhat alarming. The government remains oppressively irresponsive to protest and the demand for answers. But didn’t Turkey adopt a Freedom of information law back in 2003? How did Turkey transform itself from secular haven to oppressive state?
Akyuz lights a cigarette and tells me about the threats he receives on a daily basis, mainly on social media. Crude, hostile and sexual messages (details spared) include him and his close ones. When I asked him if these threats scare him, he is quick to reply that the only thing that he is scared of is Islam taking over the world: “Islam will succeed, partly because places like Europe have too much respect for other people’s belief systems.” He continues: “Tolerance is good, but not being able to draw a line is not. In Europe, people don’t want to look racist or intolerant towards others. This is a tendency in humanistic thought, but it only works when you are able to fight back when necessary. And I think that at the moment, fighting back is very necessary.”
His mother however, is scared out of her mind for her son and pleads to him: “Please stop writing, they will kill you!” He just laughs. He seems to do that a lot for a self-proclaimed misanthrope. Until Akyuz was 15, he believed in God. Then, he discovered science and was converted to demanding physical proof. Now, he is part of a strong community that consists of agnostics, atheists, secularists and ‘mild’ Muslims All united against a common enemy: Recep Tayyip Erdogan Forming a community is essential according to Akyuz: “like-minded people have to unite in activism if anything is to be achieved.”
When I ask him about the Darwinist theory of evolution being removed from school curricula, he explains that ten years ago, a group (led by Adnan Oktar) spread videos (in Turkish, but they provide an insight in the anti-Darwin propaganda) about how the theory of evolution is evil. This indoctrination caused people to believe it was even satanic. To such an extent, schools now refuse to teach it. Darwinism has been labeled as a ‘forced’ believe system in Turkey. He sends me a creepy video of Adnan Oktar looking at young girls dancing in front of him. “Tell me”, Akyuz asks me, “how can it be that people take this guy seriously? Everyone is just scared, scared of what will happen if they don’t!”
So how do secular parents in Turkey deal with this? “They home-school their children. They did that anyway.” Akyuz seems unfazed by it all and my questions about his mental state amidst such oppression seem silly after a while. His usual answer to questions about feelings of despair is “No”. His motivation seems fueled by what he witnesses in the modern world and what he eloquently calls “dumb” or “stupid”. Akyuz does not shun crude vocabulary to express his discontent with people who support Erdogan.
Akyuz sees the Gezi protests as a turning point. He looks surprised when I ask him why that is and says: “I will teach you”. He wants to show me something about the protests on Wikipedia, and has to change to VPN because the government has blocked several websites as a direct result of the protests.
After listening to Akyuz’ description of modern-day Turkey, I can’t help to ask him, don’t you have a desire to leave? With surprise, he exclaims: “It’s just too much fun here!” Now it’s my turn to look surprised and he elaborates: “It’s like watching a play. Erdogan tells the most extreme lies and everybody just believes him. I think it is entertaining. Have you ever seen a cat act silly and you just can’t stop watching? It’s a comparable level of amusement when you watch one of Erdogan’s speeches.”
Akyuz seems to have little interest in moving to Europe. “Your tolerance provides fanatics with too much space to grow.” So is Europe a big pond for a growing fish? What should Europe do? “Election”, Akyuz calmly answers. “I’m not a racist, but letting all these refugees in with little to no control, enables dangerous thoughts to spread more easily. This is why I call myself an islamophobic: I believe, without a doubt, that Islamic fanatics will destroy the modern world. And they can, precisely because the modern world is too tolerant towards obvious danger.”
Nearing the end of the interview, Akyuz admits he does get fed up sometimes. “Like anyone else”, he says, “I have hobbies to divert my thoughts.” He tells me about getting his motor cycle license. (His contact photo features him with a black helmet on, unrecognizable). ‘’Riding makes me feel free, even here.”
What does he want to achieve with consenting to this interview? Akyuz replies: “Well, nothing. I am an activist and this is what activists are supposed to do.”(He laughs again). I want to know why he snickers so much while discussing the worrisome state of his country. A country he still claims to love: “This is the country of my ancestors, my roots, and it’s beautiful”. He explains that the sarcasm and jokes help him to deal with the situation: “I can’t think of an alternative reaction that is healthier.’’ He suddenly smiles and says that people should read the interview in a nice park, because “home smells like humans”. Now we both laugh, but the question I can’t help to ask remains: why does Akyuz fight for human rights when he doesn’t seem to like humans much? “Humans destroy everything”, he states, “I mean, look at the animals! They have to live in the mess we make. I do not fight for everyone, but I do fight against something: fanatics who make the ludicrous possible. The problem is: too many people just let them.”
“Sometimes I get so frustrated that I just hurl the newspaper away, but nothing a motor ride can’t solve. I highly recommend this hobby to activists! I never thought about not being an activist myself. You have to do something now that humanism has given way to dictators like Erdogan. Take your responsibility as a human, since we are all in a way accountable for this mess I am speaking of. Humanism is not exactly dead, but it needs a more critical attitude towards anything that threatens our freedom.”