Atheists ‘terrorists’ face death threats
Pictured above are a happy group of Turkish atheists enjoying a fraternal day out in the sun. It was taken before the authorities decided to equate non-believers with terrorism – and the Facebook page on which the photo first appeared has disappeared.
Furthermore, the Turkish Atheism Association’s webpage can no longer be accessed in Turkey. It was blocked in March. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan warned people to beware of “atheist terrorists”, accusing them of conspiring to overthrow his government.
The Atheism Association, the first of its kind in any Muslim-majority country, was officially founded in Istanbul in April 2014. It was upbeat when it launched, saying:
Now, there are finally civil rights organisations in Turkey for atheists and non-theists. It was to everybody’s surprise that these organisations were founded with virtually no legal or bureaucratic problems.
People speculate that Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s current government may have seen this as an opportunity to demonstrate that they are actually not a totalitarian and anti-democratic government as they are often accused of being, and they even allow official atheist organizations. This may have been an easy way for them to try to polish their image.
Then it turned sour. And dangerous.
In this report, Onur Romano, a founding member of the Atheism Association, tells of harrassment and death threats.
Sometimes they send photos of some al-Qaida members chopping people off heads and putting all the heads in a bucket. They tell us your head is going to be in one of the buckets, that’s how you are going to leave your office, stuff like that.
Through Facebook, Twitter, emails, and to our call center, we have received a couple of hundred death threats already. We have a total of three security cameras, and we have two panic buttons hooked up to the nearest police precinct. But we are determined.
On Turkish TV channels where growing numbers of Islamic clerics espouse their beliefs, atheists are a popular target. Romano says much of his group’s work involves countering such views.
We don’t insult religion, we don’t insult people’s values. All we are trying to [do] is to tell people what atheism is, because our people think that atheists are people who have orgies every night, rape animals [and] have no ethical values. For them, ethics is equal to religion.
Over the past year, Turkey has people jailed for questioning God’s existence on Twitter. They were prosecuted under a law against inciting religious hatred. Last month, that same law was used to ban 48 websites, including one belonging to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, as well as the Atheist Association’s webpage.
Last month, the head of a fringe Sharia society directed a death threat at the Atheism Association’s president, Tolga Incir, vowing to cut off his hands and head.
Stepping outside the atheist group’s office, Incir says the threat is more serious than usual, but that there’s little he can do.
This threat is very open. When we founded this association, we were aware that we were risking things, especially in a country like this. I will not be surprised if thousands of people are thinking the same – that atheists should be killed. I carry on with my life and if it happens, it happens.
Incir says his group’s biggest concern is not Turks but jihadists, many of whom he says spend time in Istanbul en route to Syria. But he says his society refuses to be intimidated and is planning to celebrate its first anniversary with a march through the center of Istanbul.