- A deeper look into the history of Turkey reveals that, unfortunately, Turkey has never been either truly secular or democratic. In Turkey, freedom of conscience and religion is respected — but only if you are a practicing Sunni Muslim.
- The problem is that “modern” Turkey claims to be a “secular” republic; a secular republic is supposed to treat all people — Muslims and non-Muslims — equally. The objective of the Diyanet (Presidency of Religious Affairs), on the other hand, is to keep religion (Islam) under the control of the state, and to keep the people under the control of the state by means of religion.
- “Those who are not genuine Turks can have only one right in the Turkish fatherland, and that is to be a servant, to be a slave. We are in the most free country of the world. They call this Turkey.” — Mahmut Esat Bozkurt, Turkey’s first Minister of Justice, 1930.
When many Western analysts discuss the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, they rightfully criticize it for its religious intolerance, authoritarianism and lack of respect for secular principles and minorities. They also tend to compare the AKP to former Kemalist governments, and draw a distinction between the Islamist AKP and former non-Islamist governments.
They claim that Turkey was “secular” and somewhat “democratic,” until the AKP came to power.
A deeper look into the history of Turkey, however, reveals that, unfortunately, Turkey has never been either truly secular or democratic.
The modern Turkish state, since its founding in 1923, has never kept its hands off religion. It has engaged in religious matters on almost all levels — by institutionalizing Sunni Islam and by persecuting (or annihilating) other faiths.
Intolerance, even hatred, for non-Muslims was openly promoted — even by the heads of the state — from day one.
Diyanet: The Presidency of Religious Affairs
The root of secularism is the separation of religion and state; in Turkey, such a split has never existed. One of its most important institutions is the Presidency of Religious Affairs, referred to in Turkish simply as the Diyanet.
The Diyanet was not, however, established by the Islamist AKP government. It was established in 1924, after the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate, by the then-ruling Kemalist government as a successor to Sheikh ul-Islam (the authority that governed religious affairs of the Muslims in the Ottoman Empire).
Although the Diyanet has many branches, the first duty of the High Board of Religious Affairs, according to its official website, is “To make decisions, share views and answer questions on religious matters by taking into consideration the fundamental source texts and methodology, and historical experience of the Islamic religion as well as current demands and needs.”
Since the founding of the Diyanet, mosques have been built by the state; muftis, muezzins and imams have been employed by the state, and their salaries have been paid from the taxes of all citizens, regardless of their religion. Also, the Friday sermons delivered by imams in all mosques across Turkey are written by the Diyanet.
But what happens when Muslims willingly convert, say, to Christianity? As the historian, Ayse Hur, tells it,
“In January 1928, it was reported that 3 Muslim Turkish girls who studied at the American College in the province of Bursa converted to Christianity upon the motivation of some teachers. This led to a fervent anti-Christian campaign. First the school was closed down, and then the principal and some teachers of the school were brought to court. Afterwards, non-Muslim schools were exposed to a very heavy inspection. And journalists established the ‘Association for Driving Out Missionaries’.”
In Turkey, freedom of conscience and religion is respected — but only if you are a practicing Sunni Muslim.
Discrimination against Christians
After the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, non-Muslims — Greeks, Armenians, and Jews — were legally excluded from certain professions, including employment as civil servants, bank employees, lawyers and pharmacists, among other professions.
In the eyes of the state, Christians and Jews were not equal citizens, and even the top state authorities openly proclaimed this view. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, said on March 16, 1923, in a speech to the Adana Turkish Merchant Society:
“The Armenians have no right whatsoever in this beautiful country. Your country is yours, it belongs to Turks. This country was Turkish in history; therefore it is Turkish and it shall live on as Turkish to eternity… Armenians and so forth have no rights whatsoever here. These bountiful lands are deeply and genuinely the homeland of the Turk.” 
Turkey’s first Prime Minister, Ismet Inonu, said on May 4, 1925: “Nationalism is our only factor of cohesion. Before the Turkish majority, other elements have no kind of influence. At any price, we must turkify the inhabitants of our land, and we will annihilate those who oppose Turks or ‘le Turquisme’.”
The last stage of the destruction of the Christian culture in Istanbul took place on September 1955 through a “pogrom” — a government-instigated series of riots against the Greek, Armenian and Jewish minorities of Istanbul.
“It can be characterized as a ‘crime against humanity,’ comparable in scope to the November 1938 Kristallnacht in Germany, perpetrated by the Nazi authorities against Jewish civilians,” wrote Prof. Alfred de Zayas.
“Turkish mobs devastated the Greek, Armenian, and Jewish districts of Istanbul, killing an estimated thirty-seven Greeks and destroying and looting their places of worship, homes, and businesses.
“Besides the deaths, thousands were injured; some 200 Greek women were raped, and there are reports that Greek boys were raped as well. Many Greek men, including at least one priest, were subjected to forced circumcision.
“The riots were accompanied by enormous material damage, estimated by Greek authorities at US$500 million, including the burning of churches and the devastation of shops and private homes. As a result of the pogrom, the Greek minority eventually emigrated from Turkey.”
Hatred of Christians in Turkey lives on. On April 18, 2007, three employees of the Zirve Bible publishing house — two Turkish converts from Islam, Necati Aydin, 36, and Ugur Yuksel, 32, and a German citizen, Tilmann Geske, 45 — were attacked, tortured and had their throats slit in the province of Malatya by five Muslim assailants.
On March 7, 2014, the suspects in the murders, who were still detained, were released from prison and put under house arrest after a Turkish court ruled that their detention exceeded newly adopted legal limits.
Discrimination against Jews
One of the first Turkish state authorities who openly expressed his anti-Semitism was Dr. Riza Nur, the Turkish envoy at the Conference of Lausanne, and Turkey’s first Minister of Education.
On March 2, 1923, in a secret session at the Turkish parliament, he spoke about the policies defended by the Turkish side during the Lausanne talks:
“You know the Hebrews. They go to wherever they are pulled. Of course, I say it would be better if they did not exist.”
Years have passed, but anti-Semitism has remained rampant. On September 6, 1986, Palestinian terrorists, affiliated with the Abu Nidal organization, bombed and opened fire at the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul during a Sabbath service, killing 22 people and wounding hundreds more.
The incident did not get a strong reaction from the public in Turkey — just like all the other deadly attacks against minorities that did not get strong reactions.
In 2003, near-simultaneous car bombs exploded outside two Istanbul synagogues — Neve Shalom and Beth Israel — both filled with worshippers. At least 23 people were killed and more than 300 wounded. A Turkish Islamic group, the Great Eastern Islamic Raiders’ Front, also known as IBDA-C, claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Discrimination against Yezidis
Attacks against the Yezidis continued during the Turkish republic. Of the 80,000 Yezidis who lived in Turkey four decades ago, there remain fewer than 400 today, according to the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and based on letters from the Yezidi community in Turkey and abroad.
“Most fled to Europe, particularly Germany.
“The Yezidis…are registered either as Muslims or non-believers in official documents and identity papers.
“The Yezidis have been deprived of their housing-rights in Turkey. Their lands have been forcibly taken away from them and their main source of income, which is agriculture and husbandry, has been eradicated this way.”
Final Blow to Pursuits of Democracy in Turkey
On September 12, 1980, the Turkish armed forces staged a bloody coup d’état, while claiming to restore order. Their main strategy, however, was detention and torture; and their main targets were progressive political movements — particularly the Kurdish movement.
For the next three years, the Turkish armed forces ruled the country through the National Security Council. During this period, there were extrajudicial killings, rapes and brutal torture in prisons and detention centers — especially in the Kurdish province of Diyarbakir.
According to a report by the Parliamentary Investigation Commission for the Coups and the Memorandums published in 2012, the results of the coup included:
“650,000 people were arrested; 1,683,000 people were blacklisted; 230,000 people were tried in 210,000 lawsuits; 7,000 people were asked for the death penalty; 517 persons were sentenced to death; 50 of those given the death penalty were executed; 71,000 people were tried on account of the articles 141, 142 and 163 of the Turkish Penal Code; 98,404 people were tried on charges of being members of an organization; 388,000 people were not given a passport; 30,000 people were dismissed from their jobs because they were suspects; 14,000 people were removed from citizenship; 30,000 people went abroad as political refugees; 300 people died in a suspicious manner; It was documented that 171 people died due to torture; 937 films were banned because these were considered objectionable; 23,677 associations had their activities stopped; 3,854 teachers, 120 academics and 47 judges were dismissed from their jobs; 400 journalists were asked a total of 4000 years’ imprisonment; Journalists were sentenced to 3315 years and 6 months in prison; newspapers could not be published for 300 days; 39 tons of newspapers and magazines were destroyed; 299 people lost their lives in prison.”
This coup d’état therefore had nothing to do with wanting to stop armed conflicts and restoring order, or bringing democracy.
But it did have everything to do with attempting to create a nation of “sheep” through fear and intimidation, especially through repressing the Kurds’ demands for freedom.
The AKP is the natural outcome of decades of either the repression or the forced assimilation of non-Muslims and non-Turks, as well as the institutionalization and the indoctrination of Sunni Muslims throughout public institutions and education.
All this is what has led to the government now ruling Turkey.
Full article: “Secular” Turkey (The Gatestone Institute)