Losing their religion: How some young Turks are turning their backs on Islam
“This is the only thing left that connects me to Islam,” says Merve, showing me her bright red headscarf.
Merve teaches religion to elementary school children in Turkey. She says she used to be a radical believer of Islam.
“Until recently, I would not even shake hands with men,” she tells me in an Istanbul cafe. “But now I do not know whether there is a God or not, and I really do not care.”
In the 16 years that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party has been in power, the number of religious high schools across Turkey has increased more than tenfold.
He has repeatedly talked of bringing up a pious generation.
But over the past few weeks, politicians and religious clerics here have been discussing whether pious young people have started to move away from religion.
One day, Merve’s life changed when, after waking up very depressed, she cried for hours and decided to pray.
As she prayed, she realised to her shock that she doubted God’s existence. “I thought I would either go crazy or kill myself,” she says. “The next day I realised I had lost my faith.”
She is not alone. One professor has been quoted as saying that more than a dozen female students wearing headscarves have come up to him to declare they are atheists in the past year or so.
Bekir, theology student
Until recently I was a sympathiser of radical groups such as the Islamic State or Al Qaeda. Today, I am an atheist. I initially wanted to find some logic in Islam, but I could not. Then I started questioning God too. I used to support the Islamist government here. But oppression breeds revolution. They wanted to oppress us and we started to react.
But it is not just atheism that students are embracing.
At a workshop in Konya, one of Turkey’s most conservative cities, there have been claims that students at religious high schools are moving towards deism because of what they referred to as “the inconsistencies within Islam”, according to reports in opposition newspapers.
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Deism has its roots back in Greek culture. Its followers believe that God exists, but they reject all religions.
Education Minister Ismet Yilmaz says this workshop had no scientific basis and he has denied all reports that Turkey’s so-called pious generation is changing course.
While there are no statistics or polls to indicate how widespread this is, anecdotal evidence is enough to worry Turkey’s leaders.
Leyla, college student
One day, as I was going down the road to the market, I took my headscarf off and never put it back again. My father does not know I am a deist. If he knew, I fear he might prevent my little sister from having a graduate degree. ‘Your sister went to university, and this is what happened to her,’ he might say. I didn’t ask God to create me, so God cannot ask anything from me in return. I have a right to live as free as a bird.
Turkey’s top religious cleric, the head of Religious Affairs Directorate Ali Erbas, has also denied the spread of deism and atheism among the country’s conservative youth. “No member of our nation would ever adhere to a such a deviant and void concept,” he said.
Theology professor Hidayet Aybar is also adamant that there is no such shift towards deism.
“Deism rejects Islamic values. It rejects Koran and it rejects the prophet. It rejects heaven and hell, the angels, and reincarnation. These are all pillars of Islam. Deism only accepts the existence of God,” he says.
According to deist philosophy, God created the universe and all its creatures but does not intervene in what has been created, and does not lay out rules or principles.
“I can assure you that there is no such tendency towards deism amongst our conservative youth,” he argues.
Omer, sacked public worker, unemployed
I used to be a public worker. After the attempted coup in 2016, I was sacked. I used to be a religious, conservative young man who strongly supported the governing party and its policies. When I got sacked, I started questioning God. I became estranged. I do not categorise myself as a deist yet. I hope to rebuild my relationship with Islam, but I do not know whether that is possible any more.
Turkey’s only atheism association believes Prof Aybar is wrong about the current trend and claims that even atheist imams exist.
“Here, there are television shows that debate what to do to atheists,” says its spokesman Saner Atik. “Some say they should be killed, that they should be sliced to pieces.”
“It takes a lot of courage to say you are an atheist under these circumstances. There are women in niqabs who secretly confess they are atheists, but they cannot take them off because they are scared of their family or their environment.”
I meet Merve for a second time at home. She greets me without her headscarf. She has decided to let her hair down when she is at home. Even if there are men around.
“The first time I met a man without my headscarf, I felt really awkward,” she tells me. “But now it comes all very naturally. This is who I am now.”
All the names of the atheists and deists interviewed for this piece have been changed.