Are Muslims becoming less religious in Turkey

The number of atheists in Erdogan's Turkey is increasing

"There is an obligation to religion in Turkey," complains Ahmet Balyamez. "That bothers more and more people. They ask: Is that the real Islam? If we look at the policies pursued by those in power, we see that they emulate the first epoch of Islam. So what we are currently experiencing is Islam in its original form. "

The 36-year-old Ahmet Balyamez has been calling himself an atheist for more than ten years. "I come from a fairly religious family. Fasting and praying were normal for me," says the computer scientist, describing his life before he decided to turn his back on faith.

Islam also plays a cultural role

Balyamez is not an isolated case. According to a recent survey by the renowned opinion research institute Konda, there are more and more people in Turkey who describe themselves as atheists - their number has tripled in the past ten years. In contrast, the percentage of those who see themselves as Muslims fell from 55 percent to 51 percent.

Ahmet Balyemez comes from a religious family

Conservative circles, however, always emphasize that 99 percent of Turkish society is made up of Muslims. The Ministry of Religious Affairs DIYANET, which is subordinate to the President, also declared in 2014 that 99.2 percent of the population of Turkey described themselves as Muslims. The discussions that the survey is now triggering are all the more intense.

That doesn't have to be a contradiction, argues the religious scholar Cemil Kilic. In his opinion, 99 percent of Turkish citizens are Muslim, but for many Islam plays a role primarily culturally and sociologically. They are, so to speak, cultural Muslims, not believers.

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Kilic doesn't just differentiate between Muslims and atheists. He also differentiates within the believing population. In particular, people who pray regularly, go on pilgrimage or wear the headscarf are referred to as religious, explains Kilic. But Islam is more than rituals. "Whether a person is religious or not should also be decided by whether he or she represents certain ethical and human rights values," said Kilic. "If you just look at the faith that is practiced, I think that no more than 60 percent of the people in Turkey are Muslims."

Prayer as an act of obedience to power

Looking at the latest poll results, the scientist says: "The majority of Muslims in Turkey are like the Umayyids who ruled in the seventh century. Prayer as it is in the Koran is a rebellion against injustice. The Umayyads, however, considered that daily prayer as an act of obedience to the sultan, the state and the power. "

Actually, a prayer should be said for God, says Kilic, and he is certain that this is not the case in Turkey. "Regular prayer has become an expression of obedience to political power. Even in mosques, sermons that reflect the politics of those in power can be heard more and more frequently."

With regard to universal human rights, conscience and reason, Kilic argues: "Some of the atheists behave more ethically and conscientiously than many Muslims."

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He recalled that under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has been ruled for 16 years by rulers who justify their policies on religious grounds. Will the population also become more religious under these circumstances? On the contrary, believes Kilic: "The people rebel against the prevailing understanding of religion, the sects, religious communities, against the Ministry of Religious Affairs and rulers. They reject this type of religion and official piety." This explains the trend towards atheism.

"Religion discredits itself"

Selin Özkohen is like that too. She is the chairwoman of the Atheist Association of Turkey. Erdogan's desire to raise a religious generation put people under pressure. "In addition, the sects and religious communities have recently discredited themselves," said Özkohen. "We have always said that the state should not be governed by religious communities. Because that leads to people questioning the religion they believe in and becoming humanistic atheists."

Özkohen points out that the attempted coup in July 2016 - at least in the interpretation of the Turkish government - was a coup by the supporters of the preacher Fethullah Gülen against their former ally Erdogan. The religious had competed against each other. The result is a wave of repression. "People recognize that and keep their distance. If they then think sensibly, they become atheists," she believes.

"Today people are also more courageous and say that they are atheists," says Özkohen happily. At the same time, however, atheists in Turkey are under social pressure, and that is due to politics: "The pressure is now starting in the neighborhoods and in the mosques. The fact that religion is still a compulsory subject in schools in 2019 is the clearest sign of this . "