Turkey, Anzac Day, and Disappearing Religious Freedom

While Australia prepares to once again remember the Gallipoli landings, the very same day, April 25th 1915, brought Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to national prominence in Turkey. As the Australians troops waded ashore and clambered up the bluffs overlooking what would become Anzac Cove, the few Turkish defenders were gradually pushed inland, until reinforcements arrived led by Mustafa Kemal.

“I am not ordering you to attack. I am ordering you to die.”

With this extraordinary command, Kemal prevented the Australians from advancing further, and the two sides began digging into the ancient soil for what would become 9 months of death and horror.

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Mustafa Kemal survived the war, entered politics, and in 1923 he closed the final chapter on the 600 year old Ottoman Empire, giving birth to a new and secular democracy.  It would be a misjudgment of history to ignore the social and religious tensions that Turkey has balanced over that century, especially when it comes to minority ethnic groups in the Eastern regions of the country, and yet Turkey has avoided much of the turmoil and bloodshed that almost every other Middle Eastern nation has experienced over the same period.

As Australia commemorates Anzac Day, Turkey is on the edge of democratic suicide, as her people vote on a referendum that will introduce sweeping changes to their constitution.

Since the failed coup d’état in July last year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has tightened his control over the country. Many thousands of people have been imprisoned, journalists arrested, and Christian missionaries deported. Five months following the attempted coup, President Erdogan announced a referendum, proposing 18 changes to the nation’s constitution. In short, a yes vote (which appears to have won the day) will give the President new powers over judicial appointments, cabinet appointments, calling and dissolving Parliament, setting the nation’s budget, and all without need of Parliamentary approval. Opponents are concerned that genuine democratic freedoms are already slipping from the populace and should these constitutional amendments become law, Turkey will in effect become an autocratic state. Many people also fear that Turkey is transitioning from being a secular state with a Muslim majority, to an Islamic State with a non Muslim minority.

Prior to 1915, most Australians thought of Turkey as a far away land, filled with ancient history and splendour. From April 25th our history became enmeshed with theirs, and our blood mingled with their blood. Today, Turkey doesn’t feel so remote, and yet we may not automatically see the relevance of this week’s decision.

We would do well to remember that the tide of history has often set its course from this land where East and West intertwine. For six centuries prior to the Dardenelles campaign of 1915, the Ottoman Empire ruled over much of the Middle East and North Africa, serving as both a thorn and flower to Europe. For nearly a thousand years before the Ottomans, the grand Byzantine Empire flourished, a child of the Christianised Roman Empire. This clash between East and West is an ancient one, with Alexander the Great defeating Darius across Turkey, first at Grancius and then at Issus. A thousand years earlier, the shores of Turkey were the setting of Homeric poems and the tales of Troy.

As the sun sets over the Bospherus, we would be mistaken to think that Turkey’s situation is an isolated one, for all over the world we are seeing the expulsion of pluralist societies in favour of authoritarian secularism and religious monocronism. Both are absolutist and exclusivist, with the latter however showing transparency about their religious commitments and the former hiding them behind thin sheets of quasi intellectual and moral neutrality.

Jonathan Leeman is right when he asserts, “secular liberalism isn’t neutral, it steps into the public space with a ‘covert religion’, perhaps even as liberal authoritarianism. it depends on beliefs without conclusive evidence.”

At the beginning of the year I began using the phrase authoritarian secularism, as a way of making distinction between true secularism and what we now see being practiced in Australia.  When our nation adopted the language of secular, as in Section 116 of the Constitution, the intent was that the State would not create or be controlled by any given religious persuasion. Today, the language has been hijacked by popularists who allege religion has no place in the public square, whether in politics or education and even in the workplace. Such a position is not derivative of constitutional law or of reason, but the sheer and persistent belief in unbelief.

My own state of Victoria is the sharp edge of progressive politics in Australia, and it is so because authoritarian secularism has substantial sway culturally.

What is happening is this: society has begun limiting free speech in order to push out beliefs that don’t fit the current cultural milieu, and the intent is to fill that space with the agenda of the sexual revolution. What is true of Victoria is true for most other parts of Australia, and is happening across much of the Western world. The tensions are not ours alone, but with no greater zeal in Australia than what we are witnessing in Victoria.

Christians are among those feeling these cultural shifts acutely because the movement is away from cultural Christian. This is not to be confused with Gospel Christianity for the two are not synonymous. Neither, however are they impervious of the other.

It is not as though the current Victorian Government is entirely anti-religion; rather, it wants a sanitised religion and for it remain outside public discourse. In other words, progressive politics wants religion controlled. There is clear evidence of this intent, as demonstrated, for example, by the proposed amendment to the Equal Opportunity Act last year. The ‘inherent requirement test’ would have required all religious organisations, including churches, to justify before a Government organised tribunal, reasons why it is necessary for employees to subscribe to the particular religious beliefs of the organisation. In other words, a Church could be held to account for refusing employment to a Hindu, and a Mosque find itself on the wrong side should they refuse employment to a Christian. Thankfully, the Bill was unsuccessful in the Legislative Council, being defeated by a single vote!

A pluralist society, which Australia is, only continues so long as those in authority allow alternative views to be expressed publicly. The fact is that a State Government, and a number of mainstream political parties across the nation, are not only questioning freedom of religious practice, but have begun issuing policies to quell views and practices that don’t conform to the new morality.

To the surprise of many, the global movement in the early 21st Century is not away from religion to irreligion or from faith to reason, but away from philosophical pluralism to both religious and secular authoritarianism.  We are a long way from where things could lead, but we are no longer standing from the sideline and pontificating the possibilities. As Sherlock Holmes would say, ‘the game is afoot’. This should be of concern to global communities, not because pluralism is god, and not because we are moral and spiritual relativists, but because we believe that the State should not dictate religious belief.

As a Christian, I believe in persuasion not coercion. I believe in religious freedom for all, for if not for all it is not freedom at all. It is true though, Christianity can function and flourish in the midst of even ignominious regimes, because the Christian hope does not ultimately depend upon particular political structures, constitutions, and dictates. Our hope rests in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This victory-over-death hope gives us freedom to submit to a harsh Government, and freedom to dissent when they do wrong to a neighbour.

The people of Turkey are in my prayers this week. As we take note of this history turning land, we should not be ignorant of our own proclivities. Religious freedom is being contained and controlled from Canada to Cairo, and from Russia to Riyadh, and similar intent is now being verbalised politically and socially on our own shores.  I am not arguing for freedom of religion as some ultimate axiom, but as scaffolding on which a healthy society may grow, by enabling debate and disagreement, and the contest of ideas.

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