Translations of this item:

  • 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."

The problem with this institution is that "modern" Turkey claims to be a "secular" republic; a secular republic is supposed to treat all people -- Muslims and non–Muslims -- equally. A "secular" government also has the duty of embracing the principles of pluralism and objectivity in regulating matters of religion.

The objective of the Diyanet, on the contrary, is to keep religion (Islam) under the control of the state, and to keep the public under the control of the state by means of religion.

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.

The Diyanet -- with a huge budget, enormous staff, broad activities and sphere of influence -- is a bigger institution than many ministries. And under the current Islamist government, its power keeps snowballing. Today, Turkish government authorities can determine where new mosques will be built, what their architecture will be like and what size they will be.[1]

In 2012, when then-Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (now President) attended the opening of a "selâtin mosque" in a town in Istanbul, he said: There was not a selâtin mosque in this area. This is the first one but there needs to be a few more. We have made this decision."

A selâtin mosque is the name of the mosque built by the Sultans during the Ottoman era after winning a military victory and gaining important spoils of war.

Discrimination against Alevis

If a secular democracy is supposed to be pluralistic and tolerant, if it defends equality of all people and has respect for the rights of individuals, Turkey has been everything but "secular" or "democratic".

In particular, the state-funded and state-run Diyanet has symbolized the supremacy of Sunni Islam and repression of other faiths in Turkey, especially the Alevi faith.

From the establishment of the Turkish republic in 1923 to today, "cem houses" (the prayer places of Alevis) as well as Dedes (religious leaders of Alevis) have had no legal status. Until 2002, it was forbidden even to establish associations under the title "Alevi."

The persecution of the Alevis has not only been about the denial of their faith. They have been exposed to unending violence and massacres at the hands of the Turkish regime.[2]

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." [3]

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'."[4]

The historian Ayse Hur relates that "In October 1930, the newspapers Cumhuriyet (The Republic) and Anadolu (Anatolia) reported that six Greeks, four Armenians and three Jews would run for the parliament from the newly-founded Liberal Republican Party (SCP). The newspapers said that the list of the Republican People's Party (CHP) included Turks only, and that these non-Muslim candidates joined the SCP on the basis of "anti-Turkishness."

Ihsan Pasha, an MP of the Kemalist CHP Party, which founded the Turkish republic, scolded the voters: 'How will you shamelessly vote for a party for which Hamparsuns, Mishons and Yorgos also vote for?'" He was asking, revealing the racist leanings of the founders of Turkey: "How could you vote for a party which Armenians, Jews, and Greeks also vote for?"[5]

No matter what Turkish state authorities said, or keep saying, Asia Minor is one of the places where Christians once thrived. Constantinople (Istanbul), named after Emperor Constantine the Great, was the capital city of the Roman and Byzantine empires. It was the bastion of Christianity in the East; and monumental in advancing the religion. In the 12th century, Constantinople was largest and wealthiest city in Europe.[6]

Turkey's state authorities have nonetheless refused to give up on their project of turning Asia Minor into a "Christian-free Zone" until they will complete their mission. The Minority Report published in 1946 by the 9th Office of the Republican People' Party (CHP) stated: "We have to take serious precautions in Istanbul, especially against Greeks. There is only one statement to make on this topic: Not a single Greek should remain in Istanbul by the 500th anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul."

Just nine years after this report was published, Turkish authorities actualized their plans of leaving not a single Greek in Istanbul -- under the rule of a new government led by the Democrat Party.

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."

In this photo from September 1955, a government-instigated mob of Muslim Turks in Istanbul is destroying stores owned by Greek Christians.

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."

As this statement makes it clear, the Jews in Turkey have been exposed to various types of persecution and human rights abuses – including the 1934 pogrom; the unending hateful propaganda of the Turkish media; forced conversions, forced displacements and forced assimilation.

Today, therefore, Turkey has only a tiny Jewish minority.

During the first years of the republic, Jews were banned from speaking Ladino, the language they had brought with them from their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Today, according to the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, Ladino is one of the 18 endangered or extinct languages in Turkey.[7]

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

The Yezidis, a persecuted religious minority and one of the most peaceful peoples on earth, are ethnically Kurdish, but unlike the majority of Kurds, they are not Sunni Muslims. Their ancient religion, Yezidism, integrates elements of Zoroastrianism and other ancient Mesopotamian religions.

The Yezidis say that, since the seventh century, they have been exposed to 72 genocides or attempts at annihilation.

"Most of these attacks took place in the last 1000 years, particularly in the time of the Ottoman Empire. During these attacks, millions of Yezidis were killed, kidnapped or Islamized," reported the Yezidi Community in Europe Organization.

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.

One of the decisions of the military dictatorship was to require schools to hold "religion and ethics classes." The 24th article of the 1982 Constitution states that, "the religion and ethics classes are among the compulsory classes studied at primary and middle schools."

Turkey is still ruled by this constitution, which was prepared by the 1980 military dictatorship and took effect in 1982.

The "religion and ethics classes" indoctrinate schoolchildren with Sunni Islam. Alevi schoolchildren also must attend these classes. It would be hard to get farther from the principles of a secular state.

Only Sunni Turks -- particularly the "good" and "loyal" ones who do not oppose or speak out against unjust state policies -- have been allowed to live freely and safely in Turkey.

"The master in this country is the Turk," said Mahmut Esat Bozkurt, the first Turkish Minister of Justice, in 1930. "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." [8]

According to both the state ideology and public, a real Turk is the one who is a Muslim.

This is the ideology on which Turkey was built and nurtured; because of this ideology, Turkey has never been a secular democracy.

The current AKP government did not come out of thin air. Exterminating Christians, Jews, Alevis and Yezidis -- all representing great civilizations of Asia Minor -- also meant exterminating tolerance, diversity, and culture.

After all these un-secular, un-democratic and tyrannical policies of Turkey, how could one even expect Turkey to have a tolerant, secular and pro-Western government that respects the freedom of speech?

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.


[1] The 2013 budget of the Diyanet (4.6 billion Turkish liras; nearly $1.8 billion USD), for instance, surpassed the budgets of 11 ministries, including the Ministry of Health. With a budget of 5.44 billion liras (over $2.1 billion USD) in 2014, the Diyanet also surpassed the budget of 13 ministries.

[2] These include the 1937-1938 Dersim massacres; the April 18, 1978 Malatya massacre; the September 4, 1978 Sivas massacre; the December 19-24, 1978 Maras massacre; the July 3-4, 1980 Corum massacre; the July 2, 1993 Madimak/Sivas massacre; the March 12, 1995 Gazi/Istanbul massacre, and the March 14-15, 1995 Umraniye/Istanbul massacre. There were also deadly attacks against Alevis on June 2, 1966 in Ortaca/Mugla, in 1968 in Hekimhan/Malatya, on June 11, 1967 in Elbistan/Maras and on March 1, 1971 in Kirikhan/Hatay.

[3] Corporatist Ideology in Kemalist Turkey: Progress or Order?, by Taha Parla and Andrew Davison, Syracuse University Press, 2004.

[4] Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, by Susan Meiselas (with chapter commentaries by Martin van Bruinesen) New York: Random House, 1997.

[5] The Liberal Republican Party (SCP) was short lived. Founded on August 12, 1930, the SCP was dissolved just a few months later, on November 17, 1930. With its closure, Turkey remained a one-party state until the establishment of the National Development Party in 1945.

[6] An Historical Geography of Europe, 1500–1840, by Norman John Greville Pounds, p. 124. CUP Archive, 1979.

[7] There are 11 endangered, 4 vulnerable and 3 extinct languages in Turkey, according to UNESCO. Ladino, otherwise known as Judezmo, is a severely endangered language.

[8] Corporatist Ideology in Kemalist Turkey: Progress or Order?, by Taha Parla and Andrew Davison, Syracuse University Press, 2004.

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