The God-given rights of the atheists
To many observers, it is pretty obvious these days that Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is at the worst stage of its nearly 11-year-long incumbency. Especially since the beginning Gezi Park protests of in June, the government has been very defensive, aggressive and paranoid. The conspiracy theories promoted by government circles imitate the xenophobia of the ultranationalists that used to be their greatest opponents. The pressure on mainstream media has become scandalous, as journalists who are too critical of the government are losing their jobs one by one.
So there is no reason to sugarcoat the reality: The Turkey of today looks less like a liberal democracy and more like an illiberal one, where free elections are held but civil liberties (such as the freedom of peaceful assembly) are not fully respected.
But why? The answer readily given by many Western observers is that the AKP is an “Islamist” party. Accordingly, there is an irreconcilable conflict between Islam and freedom, and therefore political movements inspired by Islam are destined to be authoritarian.
I disagree with this truism, though. I admit that there are many authoritarian political expressions of Islam, but there can be liberal ones as well, which the AKP in fact seemed to exemplify in its earlier years. I also think that the current troubles with the governing party come from more mundane sources, such as Turkey’s typically paranoid and confrontational political culture, and the simple rule that power corrupts.
Meanwhile, there are still liberal expressions of Turkish Islam, which give hope for the future of country.
One of them was the recent speech by Professor Dr. Mehmet Görmez, the top cleric in the country. At an iftar dinner hosted by his institution, the Religious Affairs Directorate, Görmez defended the rights of both the Alevi minority and atheists, saying the following about the latter:
“Every human being who lives in Turkey should [be able to] express the values of their religion freely without any discrimination. Both modern law and our belief system order us to do so. The Quran always gives people a choice whether to believe it or not. If someone decides to deny the Quran, it won’t be appropriate for me, as a religious man, to deny his thought. God already gave everyone this choice.”
It was quite valuable that, with this statement, Görmez based freedom from religion on not only “modern law,” but also religion itself. Atheists have the right to deny God and express their atheistic thoughts not because Muslims have to respect Western liberalism, but because individuals have a God-given right to believe or disbelieve.
Such views are not too marginal in Turkey, yet still it was important that Görmez, as the top official authority, said them out loud. It was also notable that he has not received a condemnation (even a criticism that I know of) for these remarks. People’s right to believe or disbelieve seems to have been internalized by Turkish society.
Such signs make me optimistic for the future of this country, especially with regards to the perceived conflict between freedom and Islam. But this does not mean that some of our political actors who are inspired by Islam are not also driven by machismo, hubris and paranoia. They are very much so, and that is a much bigger problem than their religious side.