I was in Berlin last week to participate in a conference titled “Achieving religious equality in Turkey” organized by the Order of St. Andrew the Apostle, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the US, on Dec. 4-5.
Alongside representatives of various religious minority groups, academics, professionals and politicians from Turkey concerned with issues of religious freedom discussed at length at the conference the restrictions on the rights of not only non-Muslim minorities but also the Muslim Sunni majority and Alevi minority imposed by the Kemalist, authoritarian kind of secularism in force since the founding of the republic.
I was asked by the organizers to moderate a panel attended by representatives of Turkey’s parliamentary parties, and to make one of the brief concluding talks at the end of the conference. I do not, unfortunately, have space here to share with you the highly interesting responses to my questions from the panelists. I shall, however, share the remarks I made in my talk. This is a summary of what I said:
I belong to a generation in Turkey whose views on religion have substantially changed over time. I was born to a family of exchangees who left their homes in what is today Greece to be settled in Turkey in accordance with the forced population exchange agreement signed between the two countries in 1923. My parents were happy to leave behind the years of turmoil that began with the Balkan Wars and find a safe haven in their new home. They deeply admired Mustafa Kemal Paşa, and believed whatever he did was right. Due to the family influences and surely to the indoctrination I was subject to in primary and secondary school, I adopted the Kemalist idea of authoritarian secularism, which basically attempted to restrict religious beliefs to private consciences and exclude religion from public life.
When attending university in Ankara in the second half of the 1960s my transition from a Kemalist to a Marxist understanding of religion (as the “opium of the people”) was smooth. Living and studying as a political refugee in Stockholm during the 1970s, my disillusionment with communism led to a rethink and gradual paradigm shift away from Marxism. On the basis of life experiences and continued studies I arrived at the following conclusion: Human beings do not only have material but also spiritual needs, and religion will remain an integral part of culture as long as humanity survives. Nineteenth-century theories about modernization leading to secularization have grossly failed. Most of the world has remained highly religious, believing even without belonging. What is important is to resist kinds of religious belief that do not respect the freedom to choose. Freedom of conscience as well as religion, the right to believe as well as not to believe need be equally respected.
I am very happy to have participated in this conference. I sincerely hope it will soon be possible to organize a conference similar to this one in Ankara where all in the majority and the minority who feel that their freedom of religion and conscience is being trampled on can without exception openly voice their grievances. One of the greatest needs of Turkey today is the adoption of a liberal and pluralist kind of secularism based on state neutrality instead of the authoritarian kind of secularism which puts religion under state monopoly and control and restricts religious freedoms. A country where the state illegally and secretly continues to keep records that classify its non-Muslim citizens according to race and similarly registers the religious affiliations of its Muslim citizens can be regarded as neither democratic nor secular.
A final remark is about our neighbor Greece. Restrictions on religious rights and official discrimination against religious minorities in Greece are as serious a problem as in Turkey. I will not go into detail but would like to invite all participants in this conference to at least read the US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report on the situation in Greece. A conference on “Achieving religious equality in Greece” is equally worth organizing.