“I have no religion, and at times I wish all religions at the bottom of the sea. He is a weak ruler who needs religion to uphold his government; it is as if he would catch his people in a trap. My people are going to learn the principles of democracy, the dictates of truth and the teachings of science. Superstition must go. Let them worship as they will; every man can follow his own conscience, provided it does not interfere with sane reason or bid him against the liberty of his fellow-men.” —Kemal Atatürk
I’ve been to Turkey several times, and absolutely love the place (I’m going back, I hope, next year). The last time I was there, I lectured on evolution in Ankara, talked to the knowledge-hungry biology students at Middle East Technical University, and was taken to Anıtkabir, the mausoleum and memorial to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938). Atatürk is one of my heroes. For it was he who, almost singlehandedly, brought Turkey into the modern world—largely through secularizing his nation. He is a living refutation of Tolstoy’s idea that history is not created by “great men” but by sweeping social movements. Without Ataürk, it’s entirely possible that Turkey would be like Syria—or Egypt.
Atatürek’s massive reforms included abolishing the Caliphate and instituting democracy, massively expanding public eduction, reforming the alphabet from Arabic to Roman text, instituting education that was not only compulsory, but free, banning religious garb (including the headscarf—but only in universities), enforcing an absolute separation of church (mosque) and state, mandating legal equality and universal suffrage for women (in 1934: 37 years before Switzerland!), reforming industry and agriculture, and so on.
It was because of this that Turkey is the only Middle Eastern country that’s even been considered for membership in the EU. Yes, it’s religious, but until recently religion didn’t dominate the country, and certainly not the government, which is run not by imams, but civil bureaucrats. It was a wonderful place to visit. When I lectured on evolution to the largest crowd I’d ever addressed—about 1200—I finished up with a slide showing Atatürk and some positive things he said about evolution. I also added how much I admired him. Well, the audience went wild with applause (for him, not me)—it was clear how much they admired the man and appreciated what he had done for Turkey.
Sadly, that’s all being undone by Recep Erdogan, who is becoming not only a dictator, making it illegal to criticize him, but a theocrat, supported widely by imams and devoted to the Islamification of his country. I weep to see a great country undone by a petty tyrant.
The Turkish military, always a bastion of secularism, finally had enough. They started a coup, failed, and the instigators are now either dead or in custody. Erdogan has consolidated his power, and he’ll get even more heavy-handed. The sad thing is that he was supported by many of the people of Turkey, who came out in the streets to oppose the coup. It’s not as if Erdogan, by opposing the coup, was standing up for democracy, for he’s fundamentally antidemocratic. Were Atatürk still alive, he’d be bitterly opposed to everything Erdogan has done.
But the coup wasn’t a good idea anyway. Besides driving out a supposedly democratic regime, it would have led, I suspect, to increased terrorism. Muslims, enraged that an elected, pro-Muslim government was overthrown by a bunch of secularists, would do all they could to topple any new government created by the military.
Turkey is a mess. I’m immensely saddened that Erdogan is rolling back all the progress of the last century, and especially that he’s widely supported by Turkish people. Supposedly our ally, Turkey has finally scotched for good its chances to join the EU. And I feel bad for my Turkish friends, who must be chafing under the Erdogan regime but are forbidden to criticize it.
Sometimes, it seems, at least parts of our world are going backwards in time, guided by the Worse Angels of Our Nature. We hope that Islamic countries like Turkey, where terrorism is on the rise, will become more moderate, embrace Enlightenment values, and thereby reduce religious violence. But that’s precisely the opposite of what’s happening in Turkey—a great country brought low by a two-bit tyrant. The solution isn’t a military coup, but an electorate that isn’t bamboozled by someone like Erdogan.