We have to answer this question differently for an atheist, versus an atheist activist.
Compared to many other countries with majority muslim population, being an atheist in Turkey is not as bad or as difficult as one might think. There are no laws that require the prosecution and punishment of atheists solely because of being atheist, and someone’s life is not in danger simply because of being an atheist, usually. Danger of physical harm (getting beaten by a mob, etc) is also not an issue usually, for most people, in most settings (although there may be exceptions).
This would be the situation most atheists would find themselves in, but only when this is only known by a limited number of people, such as their social circles, or their community. They may feel discrimination, bias and other difficulties in the workplace and within their extended community, but usually not to a degree that would endanger their lives or put them in risk of physical harm.
Some may be lucky enough to not even experience any of that, if their social circle is more accepting to their identity. Those people may be able to live openly atheist lives in Turkey without any significant negative consequences or difficulties.
But those would be in minority. Most atheists would face more issues, if they are openly atheist. A lot of atheists in Turkey would be forced to live their lives as closet atheists, or suffer difficulties and discrimination from the others around them.
For public figures, the situation would be a little more different. If someone is a public figure, and openly atheist, they may still be okay, as long as they don’t make their atheism a central aspect of their image and their outlook, and as long as they are not atheist activists.
But if someone is an atheist activist, their lives would be a lot more difficult, especially if they are well known, or if they are public figures.
Atheist activism is discouraged, and one would face a lot of hostility, not only from the islamist groups, but also from the conservative public and the conservative media in general, and also from the current conservative government.
They would face attacks from the conservative media, they would face public shaming, legal attacks from conservative groups who have ties to government organizations and courts (by being made targets of civil and criminal lawsuits typically), website and online platform closures and censorship, and digital attacks from islamist hackers (if they have an online presence, which they typically do nowadays).
If they are online activists, but they are not well known, a lot of the difficulties they face may not even become public information, and they would only suffer the circumstances, without even being able to share this and ask for help.
There are two main ways to get sued as an atheist in Turkey. One is in the form of libel lawsuits, if the atheist happened to criticize some conservative public figures or powerful politicians, especially in the matters that involve views on islam or religion. This could happen due to some tweets, facebook posts, youtube videos or blog posts. But the more common way to get into legal trouble for atheists in Turkey is by being sued based on the Article 216 of the criminal code in Turkey, which states:
“A person who publicly provokes hatred or hostility in one section of the public against another section which has a different characteristic based on social class, race, religion, sect or regional difference, which creates an explicit and imminent danger to public security shall be sentenced to a penalty of imprisonment for a term of one to three years”.
This article is used the most to sue atheists in Turkey, and causes the most headache and trouble. In most cases, there is either no conviction, or the conviction doesn’t result in an actual prison sentence, since it is typically suspended. And I am personally not aware of a case that resulted in a prison sentence that is actually served, but I may be mistaken, since there were so many of these lawsuits, and not all of them received enough media attention, so it is quite possible that there are some unknown cases out there that resulted in a prison sentence that is actually served. If anyone is aware of such a case, please let me know, and I would like to make corrections to my content on this blog on this matter.
Even when there is no prison sentence served, this is still a huge problem, due to lengthy court battles, and their emotional and financial toll. And with the cases when there is conviction, there may be some fines too, so there would be financial consequences other than legal costs too, especially with libel suits that are lost.
Some examples of people getting into legal trouble due to atheist activism in Turkey:
- In 2020, journalist Enver Aysever was arrested on charges of violating Article 216/3 of the Penal Code after he shared on his personal twitter page a caricature mocking the Muslim clergy for its behavior during the Covid-19 pandemic1. He was later released, but he will still have to face trial for insulting religious feelings2.
- On May 23rd, 2020, Turkish version of an Italian protest song “Bella Ciao” was heard from the loudspeakers of some mosques in the city of Izmir in Turkey. This was a provocative campaign that was shared on social media. Izmir Chief Public Prosecutor announced an investigation not only on act of sabotage, but also on those who shared the video, for the crime of “publicly denigrating religious values” under Article 216/33 . As a result, Banu Özdemir – former “Izmir provincial vice president of the main opposition party in Turkey, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) – was taken into custody for sharing the story on social media4.
- In May 2014, Sedat Kapanoğlu, founder of the popular online forum Ekşi Sözlük (Sour Dictionary) was given a 10 month suspended sentence for insulting religion. 40 of the forum members were detained by the police and charged with insulting religion. This was also based on Article 216/3, and also on Article 218/1 (which is regarding the same crime, but committed via publishing and media)5. The court also gave suspect Özgür Kuru 7 months and 15 days on the same charges, but suspended the sentence. The court acquitted a third suspect Altuğ Şahin on the grounds that it could not be determined whether he actually committed the crime of “insulting religions beliefs”6.
- In October 2014, a woman was arrested for tweeting a picture of her stilettoed feet standing on a Quran. The woman was arrested after a compaint by the Mayor of Ankara, who sued as many as 3000 people for insulting him7.
- In 2012, an atheist and world renowned classical and jazz pianist Fazıl Say was charged with insulting islamic values in twitter messages when he shared the words of a famous 11th century Persian poet, and then he was convicted and received a 10 month prison sentence on April 15, 2013, which is suspended8. Later, on October 2015, Turkish Supreme Court of Appeals overturned this conviction on the basis of freedom of thought an expression9.
- After the foundation of Turkey’s first Atheist Association in 2014, its personnel started to receive death threats10, and in 2015, Association’s website was blocked by court decision for a few months for disrupting public order and insulting religious values per Article 216 of the penal code11.
- Youtube activist Efe Aydal was charged, detained, questioned or sued so many times that he created a blog post to help his followers sift through all the times he had legal trouble, so people wouldn’t be confused12. Some were based on Article 216, and some were for insulting the president or other powerful people, and he was also sued for insulting Ataturk, the country’s founder and the first president, even though Efe Aydal is a known supporter and defender of Ataturk. The biggest legal trouble he suffered was when he was sued in 2011 for mocking Fethullah Gulen in one of his videos. Even though Fethullah Gulen is considered to be the head of a terrorist organization that attempted the failed coup of 2016 in today’s Turkey, back in 2011, he was a respected religious leader, and mocking him would give you legal trouble. This trial lasted 6 years, and he was convicted for a jail term, but it was suspended12.
These are just a few examples. There are countless others. For many of them, I cannot even provide a link on the web that talks about them, since there was no report in the media. We know about them from our Ateistforum users, since they explained their legal troubles on their forum posts, or others posted about them. Sometimes they asked for help from us for legal representation, and we provided names of lawyers that we or other activists used.
I should also talk about the legal problems that we had, as the founders and the administrators of Ateistforum and Ateizm.org.
Ateistforum was originally the forum page of ateizm.org, and it was being accessed on the forum.ateizm.org submain. Ateizm.org was a portal with many articles and short videos on atheism, and the forum.ateizm.org was our discussion forums page, which was called Ateistforum. In 2007, the access to our page was banned by court order, based on a complaint filed by the Turkish creationist Adnan Oktar’s group (whose pen name is Harun Yahya). Back in those days, we felt we needed to stay anonymous, so we didn’t hire a lawyer to fight this decision, and instead we purchased another domain name called ateizm1.org, and moved our website to that domain (and the forum to forum.ateizm1.org). Soon after this, the ateizm1.org domain was banned as well. Then we moved to ateizm2.org domain, with the forum page on forum.ateizm2.org. That domain was also banned eventually, and we moved to Ateistforum.org, which we still use to this day.
When all these domain changes were happening, we were also receiving constant digital attacks from islamist cihadists, mostly in the form of DoS (Denial of Service) attacks that targets the web server. The web hosting companies we used were tired of those attacks as well, and many of them rejected us as customers eventually, and forced us to find other web hosts. We had to change web hosts many times. In one of the digital attacks targeting our website in 2008, the islamist hackers were able to gain limited access to our server, and they were able to download our database. Then they posted this database online, made it downloadable, and filed a complaint with the Prosecuter’s office. The Prosecutor’s office found the IP addresses of the users with administrator rights to the website from the database, tracked them, and sued the ones who reside in Turkey. I was an administrator of the website who resided in the US, along with another one of our administrators, so they weren’t able to track down and sue us, but the ones who lived in Turkey faced years long court battles based on Article 216. And some libel suits from Adnan Oktar / Harun Yahya. They were acquitted eventually, after years of financial and emotional cost of court appearances and legal proceedings.
In the years that followed, it became a common practice for islamists to target atheist websites using similar tactics, and a lot of atheist internet activists were sued. A common theme was for an activist to be sued for their youtube videos, facebook posts, blog posts or websites after a complaint was filed by an islamist group, which was usually Adnan Oktar’s group. Adnan Oktar’s group alone was responsible for thousands of lawsuits to be filed against internet activists, many of them based on Article 216. There were also libel lawsuits, lawsuits that cited other clauses of the the Penal code (usually just for the purpose of disturbing the activist, not because there was any merit to the accusations), and many of these attempts did not end with convictions, because they weren’t really being filed with actual concerns for criminal or civil wrongdoings, but the legal procedures were just being used to harass the activists.
Due to these developments, a number of us got together in 2013, and sued Adnan Oktar based on Article 216 as a campaign to promote freedom of speech13, to give the other side a taste of their medicine, and to demonstrate that their actions were only hurting freedom of speech in the country, since Adnan Oktar’s works and writings had a lot more content in them that insults and denigrates people he opposes, such as atheists, evolutionists and jews. We didn’t expect him to get punished for attacking these groups, we just wanted to show the existing double standard to the public. And we were successful in the end, since those court filings from his group stopped soon after he faced a number of separate lawsuits from our group.
But during this process, they also sued us back for creating a blog that contained the content we used to file those lawsuits. (Content that was based on quotes from Adnan Oktar’s websites that would constitute insults and denigration for other groups such as atheists, evolutionists and jews). So, I was personally sued by Adnan Oktar as well, as a result of our freedom of speech campaign. But, since the content of the blog mostly consisted of their own works, and hardly contained any attacks to them other than calling them out on the double standard, their court filings didn’t have any merit, and they were dropped.
Later, we removed the blog we used to sue Adnan Oktar, after we saw that our action worked, and their lawsuits stopped. And in the end, Adnan Oktar was also acquitted from the charges we filed with our lawsuits, which was the expected result.
Years later, Adnan Oktar and his group was targeted by the Turkish authorities for unrelated criminal activity, and Adnan Oktar has been serving prison time currently.
In the end, we were able to help the freedom of speech in the country with our campaign to prevent the largest of the groups that were exploiting the legal system to harass atheist activists, but it didn’t stop this type of lawsuits completely, as it can be seen on the bullet list I shared above in this blog post.
So, the bottom line is, living as an atheist in Turkey may not be as dangerous as one might think, as long as they are not active and outspoken about their views, but as soon as they become activists, they face a ton of problems. But hopefully, with all these developments, and especially after the current conservative government loses their power, the public will start seeing the value of freedom of speech and democracy that already exists in the nations laws, and the legal system will end the use of Article 216 the way it is being used currently.