İÖG (Turkey) / Freedom of Belief Initiative Interview with Atheist Forum Editor
"Living as an atheist in Turkey is very hard. Many of your basic liberties are limited. First of all, under the current circumstances, your freedom of speech in which you even declare that you are an atheist is limited, as well as expressing your atheistic views or your ideas that lead to your atheism."
İÖG (Turkey) / FoRB Initiative): How many atheists/agnostics do you estimate are in Turkey? Is there official data or research on which this estimate is based on?
The general thought is that the percentage of atheists in Turkey is very low, approximately 1-3%. But I am unaware of any concrete or reliable statistical work on this. Most of the existing work applies to certain groups, such as university students etc. Accuracy and reliability of the other work is questionable, since the questions asked, or the way they are asked can affect the outcome of the study in this type of polls. In a society where even the meaning of the term ‘atheism’ is not properly understood, and the term faces serious prejudice and bias, doing research on this topic is hard. There are atheists in Turkey who do not accept the label for various reasons, or people who don’t even realize that they are atheists. I personally believe the percentage of atheists in Turkey is much higher than the official number. And if you add the other segments of Turkish society that are not theists (agnostic, deist or pantheists for example) then the percentage increases significantly. Some people’s understanding of atheism includes all these segments of the population that are not theists in their definition of atheism. In that case the percentages climb very high. But the general approach is understanding atheism in a narrow sense, which is not just the rejection of the theistic worldview, but a clear and precise rejection of the concept of God as well. If this approach is adopted, I also agree that the percentage of atheists in Turkey is very low. But I still believe it is a lot higher than the aforementioned 1-3 %.
İÖG (Turkey) / FoRB Initiative): What are some of the difficulties atheists face in Turkey? In general which protection of human rights is most problematic? Do atheists leave the religion section of their identity cards blank or do they write atheist? Are there difficulties in this area?
Living as an atheist in Turkey is very hard. Many of your basic liberties are limited. First of all, under the current circumstances, your freedom of speech in which you even declare that you are an atheist is limited, as well as expressing your atheistic views or your ideas that lead to your atheism. Article 216 of the Criminal Code is related to this issue. It covers the denigration of religious values that are adopted by certain segments of society. This is considered a crime and even carries up to 1 year of prison sentence. Many people who expressed non-theistic opinions, or opposed religion in their writings (books and articles), websites, youtube videos, etc. were sued and were subject to court proceedings due to these activities in the recent years in Turkey. Many of them had police come to their doors, their computers were confiscated and they were dragged to the prosecutor’s office to have their statements taken. Most of them were cleared of charges later on, but this is an intimidation and harassment campaign against atheists and others who oppose religion.
These are the cases for people who are activists. But even for others, who are common citizens, declaring your atheism may cause problems if you are not careful about how you do it or where you do it.
Of course there are those who do not face any significant issues (or any issues at all) when they declare their atheism in their personal circle of acquaintances, but there are also those who cannot even tell their moms and dads that they are atheists. Or their classmates, colleagues at work, their circle of friends, or their neighbours, etc.
When they come out, they may face a strong negative reaction, or even physical attacks. In this country, teachers who teach evolution sometimes face serious problems. There were cases where people said “That teacher is teaching the kids that people come from monkeys”, and the teacher was harassed and even physically attacked, beaten, etc. Or some students were attacked and beaten since they didn’t fast during Ramadan.
There are atheists in Turkey who fast during Ramadan, or go to mosque to do ritual prayers, or recite the opening chapter of the Koran when they visit grave sites, or agree to imam weddings, etc due to social pressures.
Many atheists have been able to use their legal right to leave the religion section of their identity card blank. Many people have explained on ‘Ateistforum’ (Turkish discussion board on atheism) how they were able to do this procedure with no issues. But some, especially those who have had to do this from long distance or by mail, have run into problems even on this issue. For example in one example I know quite closely, a father who lives overseas, while he was getting his two sons’ national identity cards (they were born overseas), he requested that the religion section to be left blank. When the cards came, one child’s religion space was blank, the other read “Islam”. It is true that he could have insisted, and probably get this done eventually, but witnessing these issues even in the application of such a basic and fundamental right is sad.
Many atheists don’t even want to bother with this. They don’t want to spend time and money to struggle over leaving the religion section of their identity card blank. I’m one of those. The way I see it, the practice of registering the religion in the ID cards does not make any sense. The root of the nonsense is that there is even such a section for religion on the identity cards. How can anyone at someone’s birth know what religion or system of faith that person will choose later in life? There is no such section on the ID cards in the modern, civilized countries. And what needs to be done in our country is not giving the people the right to leave that section blank (which will only serve as a means to label and flag that person, therefore will only be attempted by those who are rigid about this issue or attach extreme importance to it), but to get rid of that section on the ID cards entirely.
İÖG (Turkey) / FoRB Initiative): On your website you mentioned that the atheists of Turkey are unwilling to formally organize because of concerns over security. Can you unpack this a bit? What kind of worries are there? What is desired and why is it not done?
In Turkey, the term “godless” is used almost synonymously with “immoral.” When the Koran allows atheists to be killed, most atheists cannot even dream of organizing. If you set up a foundation and put up the sign “Atheist Foundation”, you have no guarantee that you are not going to be bombed today or the next day. We know of intellectuals such as Turan Dursun who were killed in the past. This country is still full of people who have such a mindset that they can shoot an atheist in the head and then talk about it proudly. In a country where women are not allowed on buses because they are wearing shorts or a sweat suit, to expect an atheist organization, in the name of atheists or atheism, is very difficult. It is possible for organizations which do not have atheism directly in their name to protect the rights of atheists, in fact these organizations exist. But we are not aware of any well known, influential organization which deals directly with atheists and atheist’s problems. In some schools there are some atheist student clubs. But I don’t know of any serious organization.
In the Turkish online atheist message board ‘Ateistforum’, these topics (atheist civil rights organizations or foundations) are often brought up. Or other ideas such as atheist magazines, and radio or TV stations. An atheist magazine can probably be published. In fact, there are already magazines with atheistic content in Turkey, but they do not have the word atheism in their title. But there is still not sufficient number of courageous people for the other projects to become reality.
These demands often appear on Ateistforum, but people always expect others to take them on. They ask why we don’t have a foundation, why we are not organizing. Even though many people have these requests, none of them want to actively participate in these activities or shoulder the burden themselves. People fear of their own safety, or their family’s safety. And many of those who do not have concerns over safety are not in the front lines due to their unwillingness to battle the social prejudice, or the risk of damaging the reputation of their families or their social circles, etc. Due to all these reasons, the very much desired goal of organising the atheists hasn’t become a reality yet. (At least not the way it is desired or intended).
Turkish atheism is imprisoned on the internet.
İÖG (Turkey) / FoRB Initiative): Ateizm.org website has been closed down by court order. The same thing happened to ateizm1.org and ateizm2.org. Can you explain what happened? Whose complaint caused this and what was the reasoning for shutting these sites down? How are you dealing with this?
Actually the ban on ateizm.org website has been officially lifted. But many of the TTNET (internet service provider) users still see the following when they try to access the site: “This website has been closed by court order.” Users of other internet service providers (such as superonline) do not face this issue. We think the situation with TTNET originates from the fact that the old ban has not been properly removed technically. Some TTNET subscribers can access the website on some days, and they cannot on other days. Some have no problem anytime accessing the site. Of course there are also others we know about who have never reached the site, who always see the announcement of the ban.
When we call TTNET about this issue, we cannot even find someone who can help, or someone we can talk to. They leave us no alternative but to hire a lawyer and pursue this issue legally. It is possible that we will have to try this soon.
With regard to the ban itself, this story goes back to 2007. A group that had a lot of websites banned ever since (which is Adnan Oktar and his network) filed a complaint with the court with an accusation that our site had personal insults against them, and were able to obtain a preliminary injunction to temporarily block the access to the website as a precautionary decision (until it is determined whether the website actually had any illegal content). If we had contended with them before the law, this ban would probably have been removed back then without further application. But due to security reasons, neither the site’s official owner, nor the other administrators who run the site wanted to appear before the court as the officially accountable personnel of the website. Instead, the site was moved to a different domain (ateizm1.org) and that domain was also banned soon under the precedent of the first ban.
After the second ban, we started a broad campaign on the internet and successfully made this injustice known. Then later we continued broadcasting from the ateizm2.org domain and this third domain was not blocked like the others, the ban only remained on certain syntaxes of the domain. (For example, for a long time the “www.ateizm2.org” was blocked, but if you entered “ateizm2.org” on your browser, you could access our site). At this time we are no longer using the ateizm1.org domain. Ateizm.org ve Ateizm2.org are both officially unblocked. (Of course I already mentioned the unofficial ban above).
As for the reason why the ban was lifted, we think it is due to the conclusion of the court cases regarding the allegations of personal insult towards Adnan Oktar, which were filed against two people in Turkey who were thought to be legally responsible for our website. Those people were also sued in the criminal court based on article 216. But these charges were later dropped by the court.
At least this is what we think is the reason for the removal of the official bans, since the bans were lifted without us initiating any legal attempt as the official owners and/or administrators of the website. But we do know that some people were sued in Turkey over our site and the court cases were dropped.
Our site is hosted on a server in the USA, and legally it is a US website. Therefore, any official and valid court case against our site must be filed in the US.
İÖG (Turkey) / FoRB Initiative): In international law, freedom of thought and religion/faith includes the right to not believe. Would you evaluate that freedom’s protection in Turkey? Is it being protected? If not, what needs to be done to protect it? Who are the groups, institutions or people who effectively protect or don’t protect this freedom?
This freedom is not protected well in Turkey. We cannot even say it is protected in the law, but not in practice, since even though the freedom of expression exists in domestic law, there is that Article 216 (iög- of the Turkish Criminal Code) and similar ones in our legal system that are used or could be used to inhibit the freedom of speech for those who do not believe in any religion.
This protection must first be placed clearly and unambiguously in the domestic legislation. Of course the work on this issue first falls onto the legislators.
When this is provided, then there is burden on many people who can have an influence on people in the proper application of this law, such as the law enforcement, or the intellectuals who educate people, or writers, press and others.
İÖG (Turkey) / FoRB Initiative): As far as we know atheists as a group had no contribution to the working on the constitution. Why was this? Taking as a basis the things brought up at Forum, can you tell us what the expectations would be?
Atheists cannot even form an organization, let alone participate in the discussions on the new Constitution, or any other project, as a civil rights group.
I already mentioned the underlying reasons for the lack of organization of atheists, or the difficulties faced in the attempts to organise them.
Our expectation is that the freedom of expression for atheists, and the right to declare that one is an atheist should be clearly and indisputably protected in the new Constitution, therefore the creation of laws such as Article 216 and similar ones can be prevented right at the beginning.
İÖG (Turkey) / FoRB Initiative): What do you think of Turkey’s state-religion relationship? In that vein how does the required Religion and Ethics Course affect agnostics and atheists?
Turkey is an interesting country. We say we are a secular state but we have an institution called the Department of Religious Affairs. On top of that, this institution represents only one specific religion and one denomination’s understandings and interpretations of that religion. Their work is performed in this direction and they make their decisions accordingly. Obligatory “Religious Culture and Ethics” classes that are forced on students have no place in a secular state. Recently, there have also been attempts to increase the dose and pressure of religious education of a particular religion and a particular denomination of that religion on young students by adding elective classes on religion (Islam), and Arabic lessons in elementary and middle schools. In a truly secular society, these issues should not be faced. We are kidding ourselves by claiming that we are secular.
These type of decisions negatively affect not only atheists and agnostics, but different groups of Muslims (for example Alevis).
İÖG (Turkey) / FoRB Initiative): How would you evaluate Article 216 of the Turkish Criminal Code in regard to content and application?
I touched upon this regulation several times above already. This regulation is used now for the purpose of putting pressure on non-religious ideas and publications. The problem is not with the intention of the regulation. For example, this regulation is clearly intended to prevent the kind of problems Jews faced in Nazi Germany in the past. But the article is worded in such a way that it seems to require that you have to have a religion in order to take advantage of the protection of this law. Of course the application of the rule’s content against non-religious people is contrary to the spirit of the rule. Therefore, the rule should be interpreted in such a way that it also applies to and protects non-believers. All the people who were prosecuted in the recent years due to their works opposing religion should in fact be considered as the kind of people who this law intends to protect, since in fact they are the ones under attack, and the reason for this attack is their difference from the majority in terms of their attitude towards majority’s religion and belief system. What the law protects is discrimination against the difference from the rest of the society in terms of religion and belief, and non-belief also qualifies if it is what causes the difference. Therefore, this law should also be applied to non-believers and should also protect their right.
With the vast majority of the society being Sunni Muslim, it should not even be thought that a tiny percentage of people’s writings, drawings could cause damage to the society to a degree that the public peace /order would be disturbed (one of the conditions in the rule). Based on this, it is clear that this rule is actually being used in a way that is completely opposite of its intention.
While part of the problem with this rule is itself, and/or the way it is stated, the other part is its application.
In a country like ours, a law like that would be used for the benefit of the powerful majority.
İÖG (Turkey) / FoRB Initiative): Is there something you would like to add or to which you want to draw attention?
Actually we have touched on most of the items. I would especially like to re-emphasize that Article 216 is being used to obstruct the freedom of expression of the non-religious people in the recent years in Turkey, and it is being used in a way that contradicts its own intention and spirit.
Beyond that, we have a long way to go in terms of the society’s understanding and accepting non-belief. But these are not easy or short term issues. They cannot be fixed just by writing a new law, or amending an existing one. They can only be addressed and improved by generations of education.
But it has to start somewhere. Therefore, especially intellectuals, writers, politicians and the media need to educate people, and teach them tolerance towards other people in the other segments of society that are different from them.
On this issue, we have a lot of work to do.