Thursday, December 16, 2010

Civil Disobedience and the challenge to Islamic Nationalism in Turkey

Did you know, Turkey has been a secular republic for almost a century? Governmentally, they are a Republic ruled by the people. Nevertheless, the country is being pulled in opposite directions by powerful forces. On one side are secularizing pressures, which have led many in Turkey to look increasingly westward toward Europe. When I was in Adana the cultural divide was visually represented by Nike hats and blue jean skirts sported by the young and older women still sporting the enveloping outer garment called a ‘burka’. Only, five years ago (2005), Turkey formally applied for full membership in the European Union, a process that has still to run its course. As one would expect the EU is calling for Turkey to liberalize many of its political, social, and economic policies, including full implementation of freedom of religion among Turkish citizens. Strangely religious freedom is a concept enshrined in the Turkish Constitution but has yet to take root in the minds and heart of the public.

On the other hand, the historic orientation towards the Muslim Middle East, facilitated by Turkey’s 99% Islamic population and the influence of Turkey’s Ottoman past, has provided a competing set of pressures, especially over the last two decades. In November 2002 the Islamist-based Justice and Development Party won a landslide election victory, cooling interest among some Turks in the European connection and reinforcing ties with certain Muslim nations of the Middle East.The Turkish government officially recognizes three minority religions: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Judaism. Western Christianity (Protestantism and Catholicism) is not considered a religion but a state recognized sect with even less freedoms and more restrictions. To understand how western Christianity can be considered a sect you have to understand their cultural bias formed by the crusades. This is a powerful cultural image that can turn people against W.C. and form their thought around the idea of a cultural jihad. The rise in Islamic consciousness has led to an increase in discrimination and persecution directed against religious minorities. Here are several manifestations of that problem:

1. Turkish identity cards, a government prescription, stipulate the religious affiliation of each citizen of the state. These expose individual non-Muslims to discrimination and harassment, including lack of access to careers in state institutions.(1)

2. “Religious minorities [report] difficulties opening, maintaining, and operating houses of worship.”(2) Unfortunately, this accords with public sentiment: In a 2009 survey of a sample of Turks, 59% of respondents considered that non-Muslims should not be allowed to hold open meetings where they can discuss their ideas. Furthermore, 54% of respondents believed that non-Muslims should not be allowed to publish literature that describes their faith. (3)

3. Violence against Western Christians is on the rise. In 2006, a Catholic priest was shot and killed in Trabzon, Turkey. That same year, five assailants knocked unconscious and severely beat Protestant church leader Kamil Kiroglu (my old roommate when I lived in Adana). One attacker with a knife threatened to kill Kiroglu unless he renounced Christianity. Kamil was hospitalized as a result of his injuries. In April 2007, three Christians were bound, tortured, and killed by young Muslim radicals at a Christian publishing house at Malatya in southeastern Turkey. (4)

4. In August 2009, a Muslim held a knife to the throat of a convert to Christianity, denouncing him as a “missionary dog,” who had betrayed Turkey by leaving Islam and evangelizing others.(5)

This 2009 incident perfectly represents the mindset described by Ziya Meral, a London-based Turkish scholar and activist: “To be a Turk is to be a Muslim, thus to leave Islam is to betray the Turkish nation.”(6) This same mindset prompted retired Turkish general Veli Kucuk to observe, in testimony at the Malatya trial, that the state lumped Christian missionary activity in with Muslim extremism, both seen as a threat to the nation.(7)

How sad and strange that Christians are abused today in Turkey. It is the homeland of the gospel. Most of the New Testament was written within the borders of this great country. It is the land of Paul’s first missionary journey, of his epistles to Galatians and Ephesians, of Peter’s letter to the saints in “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia”(1 Peter 1:1), of Revelation’s letters to the seven churches, and of early Church councils in Nicaea, Ephesus, and Chalcedon. The rolling hills of Turkey have seen much light and yet now it is dark. The darkness of the western American Pop-culture is crashing into the deeply entrenched Muslim ideology.

In Greek there is a word for a moment in time that is fated, a moment of opportunity, a time the Greeks called “Kairos”. Turkey is clearly at a hinge point in its history, with the next decade likely to reveal whether the country moves closer to Western Europe or the Muslim world to the east. Turkey is in a Kairos moment. The culture will go the way of the west or fall back into the ways of its Islamic past. That decision will significantly impact Turkey’s fledgling and beleaguered Christian community.

Out of such tension life can spring forth. One career missionary told me that the only action necessary to shift the balance is for Turkish believers to challenge the cultural taboos infecting turkey. They must stand on the Turkish Constitution calling the government to make real concessions and bringing awareness to the real laws of Turkey. I agree with his wisdom. Turkey needs it’s on “Martin Luther King”, it needs people who will take off their shoes and make a street corner into a pulpit; Bold ones invoking a holy moment of civil disobedience. Only when an army of saints call the government to obey its fundamental principles will the people take notice of the freedom afforded them under their own constitution. Only then will “Joe Turk” in Istanbul see past Islamic taboos. The culture war between Islam and western culture will make a distinctive shift towards the west. Such action is not just for the sake of political freedom but given the influential nature of Turkey as a flag ship of Islamic democracy such a little shift may hide within it the fate of the future global conflicts. In the clash between the secular western culture and traditional Turkish Islamic culture, the decay of Turkish social morality could be blamed on a Christian influence. If such a distinctive step is not taken by the Turkish church, nationalism will take the unholy aspects of western culture and call those cancerous lesions the fruit of a Christian culture. This is why a clear sound and radical measures must be undertaken in the next five years. We cannot miss the opportunity!

For the Turkish church, this Kairos moment, this specially ordered time means opportunity through suffering. But through it humble greatness is incarnated into the world and radical examples of grace and truth will bring forth light. The cost will be high but the gain will be a nation set free – to live by the freedoms it already possesses.– Pray for Turkey – Pray for the believers within its borders. Pray God would rise up preachers willing to invoke moments of holy “civil disobedience” for the sake of the religious freedom and the glory of God’s gospel.



1.)“Turkey: International Religious Freedom Report 2009,” United States Department of State Website, October 26, 2009, (accessed May 14, 2010).

2.) Ibid.

3.) “More than Half in Turkey Oppose Non-Muslim Religious Meetings,” Compass Direct News Website, December 4, 2009, (accessed May 14, 2010).

4.) Tony Carnes, “Jesus in Turkey: After 550 Years of Decline, a Bloodied Church Is Being Reborn,” Christianity Today Website, January 3, 2008, (accessed May 14, 2010).

5.)“Assailant in Street Attack in Turkey Ordered Released,” Compass Direct, February 12, 2010, (accessed May 14, 2010).

6.) Ziya Meral, “Muslim-Majority States and Human Rights: From the UDHR to Durban Conference”, Religion Compass 3/5 (2009): 879.

7.) “Turkey”, International Religious Freedom Report 2009, US Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, And Labor, (accessed May 14, 2010).

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