A 2018 survey reveals that, over the last decade, there has been a 4% decrease — from 55% to 51% — in the number of people in Turkey who define themselves as “religious” and that non-believers are becoming “more visible.” (Image source: iStock)
In a radio interview on July 23, Temel Karamollaoğlu — the head of Turkey’s Islamist opposition party, Felicity — accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of driving young people, particularly those from religious families, away from Islam and towards deism, a belief in a non-interventionist creator, or a god of nature.
According to a 2018 survey conducted by Turkey’s leading polling company, KONDA, Karamollaoğlu appears to be correct, at least about the growing number of young Turks who no longer consider themselves “religious” Muslims.
The survey reveals that, over the last decade, there has been a 4% decrease — from 55% to 51% — in the number of those who define themselves as “religious” and that non-believers are becoming “more visible.”
One example of this “visibility” was the September 2018 establishment in Istanbul of the “Deist Society.” During the opening ceremony of the Society, its head, Özcan Pali said:
“Because we do not belong to any religion, we have been exposed to heavy insults. Our dignity has been offended. The government leaders even called us ‘perverts.’ First and foremost, we are like ‘Adam and Eve.’ Just like them, we do not belong to any religion. They had no holy book, no religion, no prophet. They only believed in God. We are like them. If they call us perverts, then they call Adam and Eve perverts, too.”
Given that Erdoğan’s AKP government has spent its 17 years in power enhancing the Islamization of the education system and its curricula, it is perhaps not surprising that Pali and his fellow deists have been verbally assaulted by the political echelon. It is notable, however, that Erdoğan’s efforts to create “devout generations” of Muslims, through the establishment of numerous state-funded Imam Hatip religious schools, may not be having the desired results.
The debate over whether Turkish conservative youths are increasingly distancing themselves from religion and embracing deism or atheism intensified in March 2018, after Professor İhsan Fazlıoğlu, a lecturer at Istanbul Medeniyet University, participated in a panel in which he said:
“Since [last summer], seventeen students with headscarves who identify as atheists have come to my office and [told me that] the reason [for their atheism] is the actions of the people who say they represent religion. This is very serious. If we do not confront these claims, we will be [facing a very different reality] in 30 years.”
The following month, in April 2018, participants in a “Youth and Faith” workshop — organized by the Konya Provincial Directorate of Education in the presence of 50 Islamic Imam Hatip school teachers — reportedly concluded that many students in those schools are leaning towards deism, due to the inconsistencies in religious instruction. Teachers in attendance also noted that many Imam Hatip students question why, for example, God does not prevent evil in the world.
Following the workshop, Erdoğan reportedly reprimanded Education Minister Ismet Yilmaz during an AKP assembly on the spread of deism at state schools. In response, Yilmaz denigrated the workshop and denied that deism was on the rise.
The head of the government-funded Diyanet (Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs), Ali Erbaş, also rejected the allegations: “None of the members of our nation would ever give credence to such a perverted, superstitious mentality,” he said, referring to deism. “Let no one slander our nation and our youths.”
In response, the Istanbul-based Atheism Association issued a statement, saying in part:
“It is completely unacceptable that the atheists who are already excluded by society are insulted by government authorities, isolated by them from society, targeted and even put in the same category as terrorists! We regretfully condemn this mentality that tries to exclude, despise and destroy the citizens due to their religious and philosophical views through their insulting statements!”
Selin Özkohen, the head of the Atheism Association, recently explained the increase in Turks’ questioning of their religious beliefs as a function of the “information age,” saying:
“Mosques or churches in your neighborhoods are no longer your only sources of information… You can immediately translate sources in different languages into your own language and read them. You can get informed about all kinds of developments instantly. In general, atheists become atheists by researching and questioning things. Of course, societal pressures and the situation of the country are also [important] elements, but they are only elements that get the questioning started.
“In Turkey, a shallow type of conservatism has emerged recently, and many people seem close to religion for show, only due to a herd mentality. This situation makes many people ask, ‘Is this what my religion is about?’ or they say, ‘If this is religion, I am out.'”
“The religion that the [Turkish] government is trying to ‘impose’ on society, ” Professor Murat Belge, Head of the Department of Comparative Literature at Istanbul’s Bilgi University who has written extensively on Islam, told Gatestone, “is emotionally unsatisfying: it is loveless.”
Earlier, Yasin Ceylan, a retired professor of philosophy at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University and an expert in Islamic history, said that it is “normal that deism is on the rise among youths in Turkey,” continuing:
“Islam does not seek happiness in this world; it aims for happiness in the afterlife… It sees this world as temporary. … Islam has no ideal of establishing … a Western-type civilization. In Western civilization, there’s science, art, literature, prosperity, joy and poetry… Islam does not have a vision for such a society. I argue that without happiness in this world, success is not possible. And without happiness, there is no morality. Unhappy people cannot be moral. They cannot love… There is no solidarity among those who are unhappy.”
Ceylan claimed that for an “enlightenment” to occur in the Muslim world,
“Islam should… abandon its globalist claims. Religion should stop being a factor in the public sphere, switch to the personal sphere and be reserved for an individual’s free will and lifestyle.”
However, Ceylan concluded, the above will not happen on its own: Muslim scholars “will not have the courage to say, ‘Let’s do something; the 14th century was very different from today’s lifestyle. Let’s create a synthesis [of both eras].’ Modernity will impose itself [on the Muslim world], and Islam will forcibly be pushed to be a personal choice.”
Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.