In a rare acknowledgement of the rights of non-believers, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan unexpectedly included atheists in the list of groups his AKP government claims to represent and protect. Speaking at an inauguration ceremony in eastern Van province, the Prime Minister stressed “[the AKP] are the government of everyone in this country. We are the government of Muslims, Christians, Jews. We have protected everyone’s rights. We will even protect the rights of atheists.” As much criticism as the AKP — and Erdogan specifically — have received for their Islamist agenda within Turkey, it is still worth noting that he is almost certainly the only Islamist leader to ever publicly back the rights of atheists.
Which is not to suggest that the Turkish Prime Minister is suddenly an advocate for atheists in the Islamic world. The statement was, in all likelihood, more of a hyperbolic rhetorical flourish than a genuine message of solidarity. (The statement came in the same set of remarks as his controversial assertion that he’d knock down a mosque to build a road; Erdogan’s not known for choosing his words cautiously). It makes sense that, with elections coming up, the leader would be making an effort to broaden the appeal of the AKP beyond its rural, religious support base given the divisive atmosphere of Turkish politics following the Gezi Park protests.
While controversial, acknowledging atheists is actually a less politically loaded prospect than addressing other minority groups in Turkey, particularly Alevis, who are estimated to make up around 20% of the population. But considering the rising tensions between Erdogan’s government and the significant minority group, a shout out from the leader here would have been meaningful, especially given how his recent democratization package was heavily criticized for shafting Alevi concerns.
As unique as Erdogan may be as an Islamist politician in even acknowledging non-believers, this sort of noncommittal commitment to the rights of Turkish citizens should serve as a reminder of the AKP’s issues with the subject. Like his vocal support of democracy during the coup in Egypt in the midst of his government’s own crackdown on domestic dissenters, Erdogan does not seem to see or care about the contradiction between ideal and practice. So Turkish atheists shouldn’t celebrate just yet.