Here in Britain, we are told there is a war on Christianity. Quite why people think that is a little beyond me, since we’re still technically a Christian country, we have 26 bishops automatically appointed to the House of Lords, and whenever a former Archbishop says “Christian voices are being silenced” it silently gets plastered all over the front pages of every newspaper. But it’s worth remembering that in some parts of the world people actually do have to worry about what they say about their religion, or lack thereof. What’s surprising, though, is how close to home some of those places are.
Fazil Say, a Turkish composer and pianist, has said that he is going to leave his native country and move to Japan after he was placed under investigation by the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office for “insulting religious values” and offending Islamic belief. His (alleged) crime? Tweeting that he is an atheist: “I am an atheist and proud to have said it loud and clear.” He also gently mocked the call to prayer (“The muezzin has recited the evenin azan in 22 seconds. What’s the rush? Lover? Raki binge?”) and reportedly said that since you get promised drinks and beautiful women for doing good deeds, Heaven sounds a bit like a pub or a brothel.
It’s hardly savage stuff, but under Turkish law anyone convicted of insulting “religious values” can be sentenced to up to a year in prison. (One wonders whether this applies to all religions. Scientologists and Mormons must love the idea of a country where laughing at particularly silly religious stories is illegal. “So the angel who gave you these golden plates which said that we should give you all our money was called Moroni, eh?” “All right, chum, you’re nicked.”) So Say might be in actual trouble. “If I am sentenced to prison, my career will be finished,” he says.
Two things are worth noting about this. One is that Turkey could soon be a member of the European Union (if it’s foolish enough to still want to join) – and I hope it should go without saying that if you’re in the business of jailing people for not believing in God, then you should not get anywhere near even consideration.
The other is that it is a reminder of how rare it is for people brought up Muslim to admit to atheism. In a moving piece in this month’s New Humanist, the science teacher and programme-maker Alom Shaha writes about how he was called “brave” after deciding to write The Young Atheist’s Handbook, a book about how he grew up atheist in an Islamic family in south-east London. “[B]ecause I come from a Bangladeshi background, because I was born into and grew up in a Muslim community, people who don’t know me, who haven’t read the book, have leapt to the conclusion that I must somehow be ‘brave’, and this worries me,” he says. “I’m worried because there’s something insidious about the idea that I am brave, because at the heart of that suggestion is a very negative view of Islam and Muslims.”
He’s referring, of course, to the fear that there will be violent reprisals, and I think he’s right to discount them. People seem to think that there is a law of omerta about Islam in the British newspaper industry, but actually the religion is criticised often in print and online – including once or twice by me, and I’ve never had so much as a rude email. But Alom, whom I know slightly (I’ve lost at poker to him), is, I think, being brave in another way, which he reveals here:
I know a number of “ex-Muslim atheists”. We gather in pubs, raise glasses of alcohol in celebration of our godlessness and order the sausages and mash to demonstrate we don’t believe there’s any good reason (apart from vegetarianism) not to eat pork. But I am one of a small minority of “ex-Muslims” who is openly atheist in my day-to-day life.
It’s still harder for someone of Islamic extraction to “come out” as an atheist than it is for most people of Christian background. And this is in Britain, where (thankfully) we have no ludicrous blasphemy laws any more. Turkey is officially be a secular country – set up as such by Kemal Ataturk, who was so powerfully set against the nation’s traditions that he banned the wearing of fezzes and turned the Ayia Sofia from a mosque into a museum. But nowadays the ruling party, which has been in power since 2002, is strongly connected to Islamic conservatism, and is drawing Turkey towards the sort of radical Islam to which the country has never previously been inclined. As the Fazil Say case shows, the state is quick to take action against perceived attacks on Islam, which it apparently believes includes statements of disbelief. (Regular readers might remember that the Turkish government recently tried to censor online mentions of Darwin, as well. Clearly there is a frightened-of-reality streak in the country’s ruling classes.)
Now. People in this country might get all hot and bothered about the March of Intolerant Secularism (which, to a secular atheist’s ears, normally sounds like “How dare they make me obey the same rules and laws as everybody else”). But in fact secularism – the utterly reasonable state of affairs in which governments do not get involved in religious belief – has not marched far enough. The Islamic world, even the so-called moderate bits like Turkey, would benefit enormously from a stronger secular movement, and more people, like Alom and like Fazil Say, who are brave enough to admit that they do not believe.