The website of Turkey’s first atheist association, Ateizm Dernegi, was recently hacked. The hackers put a photo on the main page which said, “Have minarets [tall spires adjacent to mosques] pricked you?”
The question was followed by the Koranic verse, Al-Hijr surah (15:2), which says: “Those who disbelieve will wish that they had been Muslims.”
The Atheism Association issued a written statement on the hacking on its website:
“Ever since we have announced the founding of our association. We have been targeted in the media, as well as on some social media accounts. They claim that we have waged a war against religions and that we pose a threat to religions.
“However, we are never disturbed by minarets, steeples of churches or synagogues. We are dignified people who risk their lives for religious liberty and freedom of expression.
“What makes us different [from those who attack us] is that we love and respect human beings because they are human beings. That is why no belief system disturbs us. We are disturbed only by bans, pressures and threats. These things disturb our honor, humanity, logic and morality.”
The association added that they will continue defending the rights of non-theists and atheists in the country and will file a legal complaint against the hackers.
Insults, Death Threats, Censorship
Turkey’s Atheism Association was officially founded in April, 2014, with the stated aim of “becoming a legal address in an effort to stand up for the rights of non-theists and atheists.”
The members of the association have since then spoken out about how the word “atheist” is used as an insult or equated with Satanism or terrorism. They have also said that they have received death threats and hate mail and that being an open atheist causes discrimination at their workplaces.
Only three weeks after its foundation, due to death threats, the association had to install a panic button, which is directly connected to the police center near its headquarters in Istanbul.
It took less than a year for a Turkish court to block the website of the association in March, 2015.
The court also imposed sanctions on a total of 49 websites, including the website of the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine, ruling that they “humiliated the religious values of the people.”
In fact, all websites that contain Charlie Hebdo’s Mohammed cartoons have been banned in Turkey, according to the Turkish weekly paper Sol, which said that “Censorship against atheism is silently on the rise.”
The pressures against the Atheism Association are not only about hacks, digital bans or death threats.
The risks of being an open atheist in Turkey
Zehra Pala, the president of the association, said that members are not provided by state institutions with required security services.
“During our public meetings and gatherings in the past two years, we have requested the police and gendarmerie forces to send security guards for us. Only in one of our meetings, they did that.
“After the July 15 coup attempt, we received a phone call in which someone told us that they would raid our association and shoot us all. We had to close our association for a week, and we had to cancel two of our events because we needed to protect the security of the volunteers working with us.”
Pala also stressed that members struggle against social pressures and threats of violence on a daily basis.
“In one of our latest events in Ankara, we were to meet at the Segmenler Park, a very large public park, with our followers and supporters in the city. When we organize events, we normally hang out our banner which reads ‘Atheism Association.’ But on this occasion, our supporters in Ankara warned us that it would be dangerous to hang up something with the name of our association on it. So we did not hang it up. Our supporters came to the park to meet us, but it was painful to see the fear in their eyes. For they know the dangers of publicly declaring one’s atheist views in Turkey.
“In February, we went to Ankara to hold a seminar on ‘the freedom of faith’ with the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly. We were badly shaken up by the bombing attack that took place nearby one day before the seminar. We feel we are on tenterhooks.”
According to the section of “Principles” of the Atheism Association:
“In many parts of the world, including the allegedly secular country of ours, it can be seen clearly that rejecting the existing religions, being agnostics or atheists, declaring one’s views is dangerous, and it is common practice that these people are being put on target, labelled as ‘enemies of religion,’ prosecuted because of their expressions of religious standings.”
The vast majority of Turkish citizens are known to be Muslim. In fact, according to official data, 99.2 % of the Turkish population is Muslim. It is impossible to quantify the exact number of atheists and agnostics in the country, as they are not counted in the official census.
But one fact is obvious: that life is never easy for an atheist in Turkey. According to the 2015 Freedom of Thought Report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), atheists and non-religious in Turkey are exposed to “severe discrimination.”
Although constitutionally a “secular” regime, the Turkish state – particularly through the government-funded Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) established in 1924 – grants special privileges to Islam and Muslims.
Moreover, the findings of the 2014 survey, “Nationalism in Turkey and the World,” revealed that Islam is the primary factor shaping Turks’ national identity.
Turkish Professor Ali Carkoglu, one of the scholars who conducted the survey, told the newspaper Hurriyet:
“One issue that differentiates Turkey from the rest of the world is that our national identity is primarily shaped by religious identity. What makes a Turk a Turk is not so much due to ethnicity, or the language people speak, but is primarily about being Muslim.”
It seems that if ethnic Turks do not believe in Islam, they are not considered Turkish by the vast majority of fellow Turks.
Continued pressures, threats and discrimination against atheists and the non-religious in Turkey, as well as the government’s lack of protection of the community, are further realities that prove that Turkey can be called anything except for a secular country.
Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist formerly based in Ankara. She is presently in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/uzayb