Turkey’s Atheism Association threatened by hostility and lack of interest

The Atheism Association is Turkey’s first civil platform for non-believers. Founded in 2014, it had just 170 members, but last week media reports said the association had dissolved itself after being targeted by pro-government media

The head of the association, Zeynep Ayça, denied the reports and said its members had not been instructed by either the state or members of the government to close down. “We organised marches, events, and meetings, but we have never experienced a serious problem,” she said.

zeynep akça
Zeynep Akça, the president of Atheism Assoc.

Members’ interest in the organisation has declined in the past two years, Ayça said. “But, people had to deal with different problems. Economic and political problems have become more important than everything else,” she said.

Media reports saying it had shut down were misleading, she said.

“There are friends who want the association to continue its activities,” she said. Members of the organisation would decide its fate at the next board meeting later this month.

Famous fashion designer Barbaros Şansal is an active member of the organisation. Şansal was attacked by a mob in 2016 and later imprisoned for two months for saying in a video he posted on social media, “Drown in your shit, Turkey.”

Barbaros Şansal
Barbaros Şansal, fashion designer and a prominent member of the Atheism Assoc.

Şansal, who frequently appears on reports related to the Atheism Association on Turkish pro-government media, also said members would decide on a roadmap for the organisation in a board meeting scheduled for Oct. 14.

Şansal said the association was not founded to spread atheism, but to defend freedom of belief. He said Article 216 of the penal code, which bans discrimination on grounds of social class, race, religion, sect, gender or regional differences, had only been used when someone had attempted to criticise the Sunni version of Islam.

“Those insulting Armenians, Jews, Alevis, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists are not prosecuted. The Atheism Association is an organisation established to defend the rights of the victims in accordance with Article 216,” said Şansal.

Şansal complained that pro-government media falsely reported that atheists had demanded an atheist graveyard and said he was constantly faced with threats and attacks. “My homeland is Turkey, I have no other place to go … I have every right to seek political asylum, but I am not leaving Turkey.”

The association’s spokesman, Süleyman Karan, said the organisation was the first legal platform of atheists in the Middle East.

“They are trying to establish an atheism association in Lebanon. I can say that they have been inspired by our existence,” he said. “We are not trying to drive people away from religion as some think … We show that atheism is a way of existence, thought, and expression.”

Süleyman Karan
Süleyman Karan

Karan said the association aimed to defend the rights of non-believers, and promote measures such as stopping the listing of religious affiliation on identity cards and abolishing compulsory religion classes at school.

There is no crematorium in Turkey and even well known non-believers have sometimes been buried according to Islamic rites against their wishes. When internationally acclaimed opera singer Leyla Gencer died in 2008, her body had to be first taken to Milan to be cremated in order for her ashes to brought back to Istanbul and scattered on the Bosporus according to her wishes.

“Having a funeral somewhere else than a place of worship after death is one of the fundamental human rights,” Karan said, adding that the association had made requests to two municipalities to build crematoriums.

“They said it was our right, but kept on dragging their feet. We are in talks with a private company, but we don’t want it to be in a church,” he said.

ihsan eliaçık
İhsan Eliaçık

İhsan Eliaçık, spokesman for the Anti-capitalist Muslims Platform, said the existence of an atheism organisation showed there were no issues over freedom of belief in Turkey. He said the Quran does not forbid non-believers, but provides a large space for freedom of belief. “It says that an atheist group and a Muslim group can co-habit in the same place forever,” he said.

“I do not judge an atheist from the perspective that he is a non-believer,” Eliaçık said. “Of course in a country like that an atheism organisation brings risks. They are fanatics and other types. But they should not be shut down.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.