Atheism grows in Turkey as Recep Tayyip Erdogan urges Islam

More and more Turks are turning to atheism. That could very well have to do with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's increasingly theocratic politics, observers say.

According to a recent survey by the pollster Konda, a growing number of Turks identify as atheists. Konda reports that the number of nonbelievers tripled in the past 10 years. It also found that the share of Turks who say they adhere to Islam dropped from 55 percent to 51 percent.

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"There is religious coercion in Turkey," said 36-year-old computer scientist Ahmet Balyemez, who has been an atheist for over 10 years. "People ask themselves: Is this the true Islam?" he added. "When we look at the politics of our decision-makers, we can see they are trying to emulate the first era of Islam. So, what we are seeing right now is primordial Islam."

Balyemez said he grew up in a very religious family. "Fasting and praying were the most normal things for me," he said. But then, at some point, he decided to become an atheist.

Balyemez said atheism provided an attractive alternative to religious coercion

Diyanet, Turkey's official directorate of religious affairs, declared in 2014 that more than 99 percent of the population identifies as Muslim. When Konda's recent survey with evidence to the contrary was published, heated public debate ensued. 

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The theologian Cemil Kilic believes that both figures are correct. Though 99 percent of Turks are Muslim, he said, many only practice the faith in a cultural and sociological sense. They are cultural, rather than spiritual, Muslims.

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Kilic said Muslims who regularly pray, go on pilgrimages or wear veils could generally be considered pious, though, he added, being true to the faith means much more than just performing rituals or opting for certain outerwear. In his view, "judging whether a person is religious should also be based on whether he or she subscribes to certain ethical and humanitarian values." When only taking into account people who practice Islam, he said, "no more than 60 percent of people in Turkey can be considered Muslim."

"The majority of Muslims in Turkey are like the Umayyads, who ruled in the seventh century," Kilic said. "The prayers contained in the Koran reject injustice. But the Umayyads regarded daily prayer as a form of showing deference towards the sultan, the state and the powers that be."  

In Turkey, Kilic said, the relationship between organized religion and the state endures. "Regular prayers have become a way to signal obedience toward the political leadership," he said. "And prayers in mosques increasingly reflect the political worldview of those in power."

Kilic said a lack of belief did not, of course, mean the lack of a moral compass. "Some atheists are more ethical and conscientious than many Muslims," he said.

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For nearly 16 years under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, first as prime minister and since 2014 as president, Turkish officials have increasingly used Islam to justify their politics — possibly increasing the skepticism surrounding faith in government. "People reject the predominant interpretation of Islam, the sects, religious communities, the directorate of religious affairs and those in power," he said. "They do not want this kind of religion and this official form of piousness." This, Kilic said, could help explain why so many Turks now identify as atheists.

Kilic said atheists' morals were often more consistent than those expressed by the pious

'Questioning their faith'

Selin Ozkohen, who heads Ateizm Dernegi, Turkey's main association for atheists, said Erdogan's desire to produce a generation of devout Muslims had backfired in many ways. "Religious sects and communities have discredited themselves," she said. "We have always said that the state should not be ruled by religious communities, as this leads to people questioning their faith and becoming humanist atheists."

Ozkohen cited the unsuccessful coup in 2016, in which followers of the preacher and religious scholar Fethullah Gulen are accused of rising up against Erdogan, a former ally of the theologian's. The coup, she said, was a clash between opposing religious groups — which was followed by a major crackdown by Erdogan. "People have noticed this and distanced themselves," she said. "Those who reflect rationally on this turn to atheism."

As a result, Ozkohen said, "today, people are more courageous and willing to openly say they are atheists." But the government continues to coerce people to conform to perceived religious standards. "Pressure is exerted in the neighborhoods and mosques," she said. "And the most visible sign of this is that in 2019, schoolchildren are still obliged to study religion."

Turkey's Ataturk still prevalent in everyday life

Ataturk rocks

Having lived and worked in Turkey since early 2012, DW's Bradley Secker has traveled extensively around Turkey. Driving from Izmir city from the airport, this huge bust of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk on the outskirts of the city is hard to miss.

Turkey's Ataturk still prevalent in everyday life

Waxing lyrical

A waxwork of Ataturk dressed in a military uniform sits at a desk in his former home in Istanbul, which is now a museum.

Turkey's Ataturk still prevalent in everyday life

Sculpting the past

A sculptor makes the final touches to a cast of Ataturk before varnishing it at a workshop in the northern Istanbul area of Levent. It will be placed in a school playground.

Turkey's Ataturk still prevalent in everyday life

Mixed company

Carpets depicting Ataturk hang alongside other well-known figures, such as Che Guevara, Bashar Assad, Imam Hussein and the Virgin Mary at a market in the southern Turkish city of Antakya, close to the border with Syria. The city is ethnically and religiously mixed, and a proportion of the population supports Assad for ideological, political or religious reasons.

Turkey's Ataturk still prevalent in everyday life

Back to life

Turkey has one remaining Ataturk lookalike who works professionally in television, film, and at public events. Goksal Kaya, who's from Izmir, travels around Turkey and Europe for various events where he appears as a symbolic, personal version of Ataturk. Everywhere he goes he's surrounded by people asking for selfies, with some even crying when they see him.

Turkey's Ataturk still prevalent in everyday life

Sending a message

During a rally of the main opposition party, the Republican People's Party (CHP), a man in the crowd shows his allegiance to Ataturk.

Turkey's Ataturk still prevalent in everyday life

Vantage point

Along a quiet stretch of the central Istanbul coastline, near the tourist hub of Sultanahmet, Ataturk looks out over the city toward the Bosporus, the strait which separates the western European side of the city from its eastern Asian part.

Turkey's Ataturk still prevalent in everyday life

Shadow games

For almost a month every year in Ataturk village, a short drive from Turkey's eastern border with Georgia, the sun sets at a certain position casting a shadow over a valley. For around an hour, that shadow perfectly resembles Ataturk's profile. The local council has built a viewing area.

Turkey's Ataturk still prevalent in everyday life

On every corner

For a while, during the Gezi park protests in Istanbul in 2013, an elderly man walked around the city drawing portraits of Ataturk like this one, inside the shape of a heart. Because defacing or destroying an image of Ataturk is frowned upon in Turkey, the drawings mostly remain around the city.

Turkey's Ataturk still prevalent in everyday life

Side by side

A portrait of Ataturk and Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan hang next to a Turkish flag in Erdogan's former football club in Kasimpasa, Istanbul. The neighborhood in which Erdogan grew up is predominantly working class, and Erdogan's supporters see him as one of their own due to his humble roots.

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