Politics & Policy

God & Turkey

Church and state in Istanbul.

“Christian missionaries infiltrating our country! Islam is slipping out of our hands!” These words represent the epitome of a very hot debate in Turkey in recent weeks. What made them more surprising than ever was that they belonged not to a conservative Muslim, but to Rahsan Ecevit–the influential wife of Bulent Ecevit, Turkey’s former prime minister and long-time guru of left-wing, secularist ideology. Nobody had heard Mrs. Ecevit worrying about the future of Islam before; instead, she used to speak about the “threat” of it.

Actually, Mrs. Ecevit is not the only secular Turk who is furious at Christian missionaries, whose only “crime” is distributing free Bibles on Turkish streets and opening small, in-house chapels for the tiny Christian community in Turkey. In recent years, the hyper-secular circles who are defined by their attachment to “Kemalism”–the hard-core nationalist ideology claiming to represent the views of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk–are engaged in a concerted effort against the imagined plot to “Christianize” Turkey. Even Dogu Perincek, a veteran Maoist and committed atheist, is rallying to the forefront of the anti-Christian crusade.

However, most people think that the Kemalist wrath against the crucifix actually has a secret agenda. It is believed that what figures like Mrs. Ecevit and Mr. Perincek really loathe is the current reform process in Turkey, which is driven by the desire to join the European Union, a desire encouraged by the United States. The reforms abolish decades-old privileges of the traditional ruling elites who used to indoctrinate and oversee all of society through authoritarian manipulation. Many taboos are falling away. Kurdish citizens are now free to speak, sing, and educate in their native language–a freedom denied them since the end of the good old days of the multiethnic Ottoman empire. Military tribunals are gone and torture has been, at least hopefully, abandoned. “Thought crimes” are becoming a thing of the past, and Turkey is moving further away from being a police state than ever.

Moreover, these reforms are being led by the current conservative AKP government, whose leaders do not come from the citadels (and bars and clubs) of the Kemalist elite, but from “Turkey’s midwest,” the traditional, conservative, austere Anatolia–a region always looked down upon by the “White Turks” of Istanbul and Ankara.

Thus, most consider the recent attack on missionaries to be a tactical move in the big game that the Kemalist elite are playing against democratization. By arguing that the bearers of the Cross are invading Turkey and that the AKP government is allowing this to happen, they hope to convince the conservative voters that the whole democratization process is a great conspiracy to destroy Turkey by weakening its national ethos. No wonder that the Nationalist Action Party–Turkey’s far-right political movement whose leader, Devlet Bahceli, sometimes sounds quite like Jean-Marie Le Pen–has struck an awkward alliance with the ex-Communist, yet still “anti-imperialist,” Perincek. While they hate the U.S. and the EU, they admire Russia and China, the arch-symbols of authoritarianism.

It is a pity that some conservative Muslims, or at least their pundits, are buying into this propaganda. Horrified by the imagined threat from Christianity, they appeal to the authoritarian measures of the state. They demand that Bible-distributing Christians should be arrested, or chapels in their homes should be put under police scrutiny. Alas, they are forgetting that they themselves have been victims of such persecutions from the authorities for many decades. They should realize that the real issue here is religious freedom, and if it is to be preserved, it must be extended to all.

At the end of the day, what Turkey must comprehend is the need for a separation of church and state. This was put forth brilliantly in the New Testament two millennia ago: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s; Render unto God what is God’s.” In Turkey, the Caesar has been very lustful and dominant for many decades. The time has come to limit his powers and render unto God what is God’s. Missionaries should have the right to preach the Gospel and open their churches. Muslims should have the right to advocate Islam and run their mosques. (At present they are supposed to believe in “official Islam,” attend the state-controlled mosques, and act as non-Muslims in the public square.) And every other creed should be free to sermonize according to its own teaching.

This stance may come as a shock to those who say, “We have no king but Caesar.” Yet, they must learn to accommodate it. They should examine their own obsessive yearning for a mighty state that rules over the lives and minds of its subjects. Theirs is indeed a secular religion in which the state is seen as omnipotent and omniscient–in short, deified.

But that faith has very little, if any, justification. All Caesars make mistakes, sometimes terrible ones. And, after all, Caesars inevitably die; it is only God who lives forever.

Mustafa Akyol is a writer and columnist living in Istanbul. He is the author of the forthcoming The Opium of the White Turks, a critique of the Turkish secular elite.

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