Calm believers

‘That protest? That was just to save face.’ I hadn’t yet seen it from that angle, and the friend who said it made me laugh. Turkish Muslims who feel they have to somehow show they are against ‘insulting Muhammed’ to confirm their identity to the outside world. They think of some slogans, carry a banner, walk along a route and then go home again, back to the routine of the day. I don’t know if that’s true, but the fact is: Muslims in Turkey are not consumed by anger and aggression because of the video that has pushed many Arabs to violence and even murder. Why is that?

Did I see the video? No, I didn’t. I hear it’s dramatic quality-wise. It made me think of videos on YouTube that are supposedly ‘insulting to Atatürk’. I saw a few of those and really, too stupid to watch longer than ten seconds. But also, I didn’t watch it because, in a way, how the video really looks is irrelevant. Insults are in the eye of the beholder. So called ‘insulting videos’ usually say more about the people that make them than about the people they are aimed at. I mean, how pathetic and sick are you if you spend money on shooting a video purely made to stir up emotions?

Then again, the reactions to it say something about those being ‘insulted’ too. If you feel secure about yourself, about your faith, about who you are, you don’t care about how others see you and you sure don’t get insulted easily. And definitely you don’t get aggressive. I can’t compare Turks with people in countries where violent protests do occur because I don’t know too much about those countries, but I do know Turks are just not fanatical about their faith. They are calm believers.

Personal lifestyle

It’s always said 99% of Turks are Muslim, but that’s just because ‘Muslim’ is written on 99% of the identity cards given out. Many of them don’t practice their faith, or just apply the Islamic rules that fit their way of thinking about Islam or that fit their personal lifestyle. If you make religion that personal, how could you be insulted about a video that targets ‘Islam in general’, made by some American and which gives a very narrow picture of your religion? Religious feelings that are so personal don’t easily get damaged by general attacks.

The way Turks react to this video, or actually don’t react, also has to do with the lack of freedom of religion in Turkey. The country is usually referred to as being secular, but Turkey is all but secular. The state controls religious life. All the mosques are state-owned, all the imams are paid by the state, and Diyanet, the directorate of religious affairs, is a state institution controlled by the government. It preaches that religion is a strictly, repeat strictly personal thing, and that it can’t be used for political reasons.

Atatürk arranged it that way because he was afraid that Islam would get too much influence on political life and that it would hinder progress and westernization. It’s the typical Turkish form of ‘secularism’, which aims to protect the state against the influence of religion rather than, as in western secularism, protect religion against the influence of the state. So in Turkey, it’s forbidden to form your own religious group, to build your own mosque, or any other prayer house. It is, in other words, a tool to limit freedom of religion, and many groups that are not Sunni Muslims following the state version of Islam have trouble with it, as you can read here and here.

Nationalism, not religious fanaticism

Which automatically raises the question: would Turks behave differently if there was freedom of religion in their country? Would they instantly become intolerant, easily inflamed and insecure religious fanatics? I don’t think so. Turkey doesn’t have a history of fundamentalism, of practicing a form of Islam that prescribes strict rules about every step you take in life.

In Ottoman times, religions other than Islam were relatively free, which explains the number of churches and synagogues in Anatolia. The violence against religious and ethnic minorities in the history of Anatolia and of Turkey had more to do with nationalism that with religious fanaticism.

From what I hear, this has its roots in the way Islam came to Turkey, or rather to Anatolia. Not directly from the Arab world, but via Persia. Persia at the time already had an advanced society and had integrated Islam into the already existing lifestyle. Islam didn’t define the societies of for example Persia and Anatolia, the religion was just fitted in. With roots like that, religious fanaticism is just not in your veins.

But hey, I’m not an expert on Islam. I welcome any other view on why Turkey’s Muslims stay calm, the reaction field below is open!

11 replies
  1. Boran
    Boran says:

    a nice piece (as always) but I need to add something to it. first, I would like to introduce myself a little. I’m a Turk but not a nationalist or a religious person. okay. you emphasized that turks are not fanatical about their faith. but I strongly disagree with it. you probably know, what religious monsters did in Madimak Hotel in 1993. they set the building on fire to kill innocent people who have different faith… I think this event is enough to explain fundamentalism in turkey. however, you called turks “calm believers” for all that. I dont believe in those religious people in turkey deserve that adjective “calm believers”

    well why they didn’t react to the film that you mentioned? it’s simple. the goverment does not want to spoil relations between usa & turkey. if the government wanted to these protests, millions of people would kick up a row now.

    thank you

  2. Fréderike Geerdink
    Fréderike Geerdink says:

    Hi Boran, thanks for comment! The Madimak massacre was not a spontaneous act by religious fanatics, it was organized and incited by the deep state, and the deep state was all about nationalism. It’s the same with other atrocities, like for example also the Istanbul pogrom in September 1955: not spontaneous religious fanaticism, but the state bringing people in to be violent against ‘others’. I thought about these events of course, maybe I should have mentioned them in my post and explain why they don’t change my perspective.

  3. JGibbs
    JGibbs says:

    You guys seem to be saying similar things-Boran says that if the government wanted, it could stir people up. I imagine that the Madimak massacre and pogroms were also cases of ‘being stirred up’–for whatever tribe, nation or religion. In many Arab countries at the moment religious leaders have a strong interest and desire to stir people up. How in the world could some third-rate film get the press in the first place? Without instigation, would these other Muslims bother protesting at all?

  4. elceto
    elceto says:

    I think you are right. The main issue to provoke Turks is nationalism and not religion. if the movie had been about insulting Turks you could see the violence and the response without deep state involvement.

  5. Candide
    Candide says:

    Then I would ask a very fundamental simple question :
    Just considering most of these arabic countries were under the rule of Ottoman Empire for a very long time, what made the difference between Turkey and Arabic countries when it comes to this kind of protests. I guess you can not explain this only by focusing to Turkey and think about Atatürk. However for sure something is developed in Turkey in a different way.

    @boran : yes “calm believers” might be a bit to sympathetic however you should also look at the majority of the population rather than some bad incidents with some external factors like Frekerike described a bit…

    @JGibbs : it is best to question the potential of current government to stir-up people. Things are not that simple in Turkey anymore. If people could be stirred up easily they would be already on the streets protesting the current government because they messed up in every single subject they touched. There is a very big fragmentation in the society… You only choose the simple way here by labeling it as nationalist or religious whatsoever…

    @elceto : can you give an example ? like a mass protest for a video where Turks are insulted ? Turkish people is being insulted every single day especially when it comes to EU relations… I don’t see a mass reaction ?!

  6. elceto
    elceto says:

    @candide Could you please read my comment more carefully!!you always want to argue with someone instead of writing your opinion. i said “The main issue to provoke Turks is nationalism” and again i said “IF” the movie had been about insulting Turks”. if you want an example just google it. Hrant Dink was assassinated while the case (article 301) was going on. Orhan Pamuk was protested for only his words about kurds and armenians. You can find several examples if you search. This is my last answer, i dont want to discuss anything with a nationalist.

  7. AJK
    AJK says:

    I remember in classes at Bogazici, our professor would talk about how incredible it was that the Caliphate was abolished in parliament and there were no riots on the streets. That, to me, is incredible. The Caliphate existed for 1200 years and then it was just destroyed because they didn’t want it in Ataturk’s Turkey and…that was pretty much okay with everybody.

  8. Murat
    Murat says:

    Do you know what I thought while I was reading this article? You shouldn’t have written it! Really! First of all I do not see any research on what you are talking about (like nationalism and effects of religion in Anatolia and Persia) Second point is assessing “hearing” as investigating. As I can understand, you made a really good talk over a dinner with beautiful “balık-rakı”.
    I also have a few questions for you to think about and may be inform the readers about: Do you know what happened in 1992 July in Sivas and don’t you call it as “fundemantalism”? and how can you explain the what is going on in İran since 1980?

    The answer for the question you tried to answer should include 1)Tradition of obeying the authority in Anatolia?, 2) Who have the authority now? and what the fundemantalists think about the consequences of disobeying the authority in this matter?


  9. Rooster Cogburn
    Rooster Cogburn says:

    You encourage people to “discuss” but you block comments from people whose arguments bother you.

  10. aslı
    aslı says:

    I agree with Fréderike. Yes we are calm believers. But I don’t think its because we are confident about our faith, it’s because we don’t care enough. I know it is a third-rate film,or worse, it is made by a ”shady” person for provacation. Even so, we should’ve responded to it with a louder and effective voice. Thanks.

  11. Candide
    Candide says:

    @elceto : thanks for your answer that supports what I say. it is ok for me that you do not want to discuss anything since I prefer to have someone with better insight in any discussion… By the way both of your examples are not a reaction of masses. Rather a reaction of very small tiny part of the society 😉


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