Is Turkey a Muslim country? I would describe it as a country in which the majority religion is Islam, just as England is a country in which the majority religion is Christianity. Of both, we could describe them as countries in which people of a particular religious denomination exist in significant numbers. Like England, Turkey is a country in which the dominant religion informs much of its cultural landscape and customs. The notion that these are religious countries, though, is questionable.
I should preface these remarks by noting that my perceptions are coloured by my experience. I reside on the edge of a town widely known to be virulently opposed to religion. Practising or believing Muslims are a clear minority here, with the majority favouring a strict secularism. There may be historical reasons for this.
For example, this piece of land has frequently exchanged hands through the centuries, toing and froing between Turkish, Russian and Armenian rule, with each new ruler intent on stamping their religious and cultural identity on the people. Most people in this region belong to either Laz, Hemshin or Georgian ethnicities. In my limited interactions with others, Laz people tend to be more serious about the Muslim faith, while Hemshin people seem to be largely left-leaning secularists, usually atheist.
But again, these perceptions are based upon my personal experiences. The majority of my extended family in Turkey would not describe themselves as Muslims. While Sunni Muslim is what is stated on their identity documents, their lived reality is as critics and opponents of the faith. Some — predominantly the women of the family — have embraced Islam in adult life, but the menfolk and their wives are firmly in the secularist camp, never missing an opportunity to deride believers.
Given all of the above, perhaps I am not well-placed to judge whether Turkey could be described as a Muslim country, for my experience is limited to a specific demographic. But going on the output of the nation’s television stations, I’m not sure I’m far off the mark. I have been surprised by how secular the broadcasts of even the nation’s state broadcaster are. If you imagined that state media broadcasts wall-to-wall religious propaganda, you’d be severely mistaken. As for the commercial channels: their output couldn’t be any more inimical to the Muslim cultural ethos.
Reflecting on this last night, both my wife and I came to the same conclusion: the irony that it is easier for us to live as practising Muslims in the UK, than it would be here in Turkey. That was based on observations of changes in our children’s behaviour after just three days in the company of their cousins. Of course, all children love to boast and show off in the presence of other children, but there are limits. These fierce secularists actively encourage the young to rebel, breaking every cultural boundary and norm.
Perhaps that’s why our planned migration here five years ago failed, coming to a premature end: because we found it is not an environment in which it is possible to set a positive example for our children, because the counter point of view is founded on such extremes. But no doubt these are global concerns, everywhere the reality, for a country cannot be Muslim or Christian. Only individuals can choose to believe and practice their faith. If there are enough of such individuals, then we might consider communities religious too.
Faith has to be practiced and made real. It can’t just be a marker of identity. If it is not practised, it will just whither away, replaced by whatever cultural force is dominant.