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Jan 15 2019

Turkish religious teacher dismissed after defence of atheists stirs controversy

A Turkish theologist has been targeted with legal action and removed from his teaching position at an Istanbul high school after his comments on religion sparked outrage from a fundamentalist newspaper, German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle’s Turkish language news site reported on Tuesday.

On January 6, Cemil Kılıç, a writer and teacher at the Rami Atatürk Anatolian High School in Istanbul, was interviewed by DW after a poll by the Konda research firm revealed a rise in the number of Turks who identified as atheists from 1 percent to 3 percent.

It was a relatively minor shift, given the margin of error, but the poll results captured the headlines in Turkey, where some observers questioned whether almost two decades of rule by the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) had chipped away at the country’s overwhelming Muslim majority.

“Nowadays the Muslim prayer has been made an expression of obedience to political power,” Kılıç said in the interview. “As a matter of fact, we are seeing sermons that reflect the policies of the political authorities more frequently in mosques, too.”

Kılıç went on to say that Turkey’s atheists and deists tended to act more morally and conscientiously than the country’s self-professed Muslims.

Days after the interview was published, columnist Faruk Arslan targeted the theologist in an article for the fundamentalist Islamist newspaper Yeni Akit under the headline, “Why is a religious education teacher who is an enemy of religion being protected?”

The January 14 piece laid out a series of Kılıç’s controversial moments, including social media posts and statements quoted in a previous piece published by Yeni Akit.

The contentious statements included a declaration that it is being drunk, and not simply drinking alcohol, that is forbidden according to Islam, and another in which he linked Turkey’s religious Imam Hatip high schools to membership of the extremist jihadist Islamic State.

Kılıç’s controversial social media posts included one in which he wondered how such a disparate group, including heterodox religious communities, leaders and members of an Islamist cult, and the Queen of England could all have expressed support for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Another was interpreted by Arslan as an implied threat that Erdoğan could share the fate of the deposed last sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

On Tuesday, Kılıç informed his 121,000 followers on Twitter that he had been removed from his teaching role, adding in a later tweet a call for support at his planned protest against the decision on Wednesday.

An investigation has also been launched against the theologist for allegedly insulting the president, a crime in Turkey punishable by up to four years in prison.

“I have been preparing myself psychologically for such a decision for some time,” Kılıç told DW on Tuesday.

“I trained to be a teacher. I’m very sad about the decision. I’m being separated from the students and profession I love,” he said.

For Kılıç, the decision was driven by his firmly secular approach to his subject. “They saw my ideas as political activity,” he said.