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#4 2012
11 min read

How’s Your Slavery Goin’?

Secularism and the role of religion have always been charged subjects in Turkey—perhaps more today than ever before. Tarik Günersel, playwright and President of Turkish PEN gives us his views on religious freedom and its role for democracy.

Credits Text: Tarik Günersel April 17 2012

If God exists, can He be a democrat? I doubt it. I think that to become an adult two assumptions are necessary—if not sufficient: to accept that Nature was not planned and created by another force; to accept that death is the end. Both assumptions may be discomforting for people who are accustomed to the idea of an omnipotent God who may forgive us and send us to Heaven forever if we have behaved well enough.

People who believe in God refrain from questions such as: what will happen to those people who believed in the Greek gods? Will they go to Hell just because they were polytheists? Why didn’t God give all the rules and regulations to everybody to begin with instead of waiting for thousands (in fact, millions) of years? Will the newly discovered tribe in the Amazon go to Hell just because they do not have a concept of a single God?

Slavery is a kind of relationship, which need not be the worst of all possible choices; starvation may seem to be worse. One problem in the preceding sentence is that the great majority of slaves in history—including the present—have not had the luxury of making a choice.

Slavery need not exclude love. There may even be a loving and caring relationship between the master and the slave. The assumption of God, with all its variants, also implies a sort of slavery. Obey and save your soul. It is an insurance contract. You may not be lucky in this world since you may be raped, tortured, and killed, and God may not do anything about it for reasons only He can know and understand. Don’t worry, be happy. Your soul will live eternally. Justice will eventually prevail. Good guys will win and bad guys will lose. If not in this life then in the next one.

What happens if you do not believe in God and/or do the things your social environment expects in harmony with its related traditions? You not only face Hell, as they see it, but you may also be ostracised and even executed. Thinking and saying that God is simply an assumption is a crime in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and in several other countries, which is punished by beheading or hanging.

That is why secularism is vital for the freedom of expression. And there is growing religious oppression in Turkey. That is why the USA has been playing with fire in Turkey since the 1950s; the US strategy of the ‘Green Belt’ imposed the condition that “more religious schools” must be opened “or we will not give you financial aid.” The so-called ‘Mild Islam’ has been hazardous already. After 9/11 I wrote: “Non-Muslim American islamologists have misled the White House.” Some Western capitalists may wish and hope that Islam can be fruitful if they flirt with it. However, only if you support secularism, only then may humanist versions of any religion prevail. It is true that secularism also paves the way to trying to find an alternative to capitalism, which may scare the dominant classes and groups. But it is safer.

I protest against the book The Clash of Civilizations—especially against the author’s arrogant attitude in the two pages related to Turkey. He says that secularism in Turkey is like apartheid in South Africa. This is misinformation based on miscomprehension—if not a lie. In 1996, he claims that Turkey should be cleansed thoroughly to be rid of Atatürk’s legacy, which is basically comprised of secularism and a Western style of life. The aim is to convince Turkey to adopt the leadership of the Middle East in the hope that this will serve the US strategic interests.

If you look at John L. Esposito’s The Future of Islam, you will notice that, in the pages related to Turkey, an important personality is missing: Atatürk is not mentioned at all. The so-called five pillars of Islam in fact imply just one version of Islam. A high IQ on paper does not guarantee a high intellectual level in the analysis—especially if you were born in the USA as a WASP and try to comprehend Islam and the Middle East. Turkey is an especially complex case. And whoever wishes to use Islam as a tool eventually loses. That is why keeping a Turkish religious leader in Pennsylvania as a plan B may seem to be a brilliant idea but only in the eyes of ignorant and arrogant strategists in the USA.

Turkey is learning (or re-remembering) its ethnic diversity. Only a secular democratization can bring peace. It is true that no leader of the past should be left un-scrutinized, which is a valid statement for Moses, and Jesus, as well as Mohammed and all the other major figures in history. And last but not least: who springs to mind when you see the symbol of the cross? Is it Jesus Christ? Why not Spartacus?

Jesus Christ has never been a real threat to hegemonic exploiters. But Spartacus was and his memory has been a source of inspiration (Rosa Luxembourg)—and a threat for exploiters. The symbol of the cross should also help us think about Spartacus, who deserves it equally—if not more. One of my proposals in my little manifesto How’s Your Slavery Goin’? is precisely that: even if you still wish to keep your respect for the wisdom of Jesus—who I think was a good human being by any standards—when you see a cross from now on please try to remember Spartacus as well.

Was Jesus against slavery? Slavery to God is also a kind of slavery. And the classical King James Bible uses the word “servant” instead of “slave,” which is a falsification. But one may of course prefer to be a slave.

Praying to God is a kind of relationship with oneself; I know it brings hope, comfort, and joy. I used to do that when I was a child. However, when I read Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian (1927) in 1966, at the age of 13, I was shocked: so one need not believe in God (or rather assume that there is a God) in order to be a good and mature person. I felt pain for a few years. It wasn’t easy to give up the habit. Smokers who want to quit (but can’t) can understand.

However, wishing something good may be good. Believing that something can be done may be fruitful. Statistically, half of the people in the world pray. Praying is like meditation; it may be a good psychological and mental exercise. On the other hand, there is a serious problem with praying: it does not help others. It is basically a selfish method. If God should intervene and help somebody, S/He ought to do so whether one prays to Her/Him or not. The harsh fact is that usually no such assistance comes when innocent people are about to be murdered.

Considering the problems involved, praying is probably a loss of time. Why not try to contribute to the solution of a concrete problem instead of wasting your time praying? But I am aware that for a theist it may be especially functional just before death.

Sustainable (and from the view of the exploited: bearable) exploitation and religion are part of this big picture. I think the idea of God is unfair to Nature. It is also unfair to human creativity and labour, and to human goodness. It is unfair to thank God for the good things people do and blame humans for the bad things. Some claim that both the good and the evil come from God. I think that is an illusion. Both the good and the evil come from us. That is why some sort of morality is important. That is why conscience is vital. That is why we should feel uncomfortable when we realize that we have done harm to someone; especially if that person is someone we love the most, such as our own child.

If God exists and gets angry at me simply because I refuse to accept his insufficiently documented and proven authority, and instead try to be a good person without being afraid of Hell and calculating my profit in Heaven, then so be it. I will then have a few things to say to Him, as well. It will be the most interesting dialogue of my life—oops, of my after-life.

All of us will simply have to wait and see. No need for any angry discussions. And I am not trying to convince anyone about anything. Who am I to try to convince anyone else? I can simply share my present opinions, hoping that they will be helpful—for a … ok, using a common adjective: better world.

We are born into ideas and values as well as into a specific group of people. We get used to it. Religious faith does not deserve respect, because it is something injected into your mentality during your childhood. You feel that you can’t do without it and that it is like your heart, your brain, and your whole personality.

But everything, including religion and religious faith, needs and deserves understanding. The alternative to respect is not disrespect but understanding.

As a naturalist I have no hope for “divine” justice. So I think human justice is the best we can get and try to improve. I do have hope though—hope for humanity, for the world. This hope is significant enough.

Whether there is a God or not, certain things are good: to help the poor, to protect the innocent, to seek peace and justice. And certain things are bad: stealing, harming people and the environment. An ABC of some sort of universal ethics is necessary, including too the probably common wisdom in all religions and non-religious mental fruits. This is the case whether its source is thought to have originated from God or not. My short book To Become (In Turkish: Oluşmak) is a small step in that direction. And The Declaration of Human Rights is a secular and collective product more important in a sense than any previous text or book.


Tarik Günersel is a poet, playwright and translator, President of PEN Turkey and a member of PEN International Board. He was born in Istanbul in 1953. He finished high school in the USA as an AFS student and studied English Literature at Istanbul University. After the military coup in 1980 he worked as an English teacher in Aramco for four years. Since 1991 he has worked at Istanbul City Theatre as a dramaturge. His plays include Billennium, Nero and Agrippina, Wolf-in-Armour, Half a Glass of Water, Fate Planners, Sociology of Shit and Adventures of Mr Phobia. His stage adaptations include Being Anne Frank, a monodrama based on her diary. His translations into Turkish include works by Perry Anderson, Samuel Beckett, Tim Burton, Vaclav Havel, Savyon Liebrecht and Goran Stefanovski. Visual poetry is an area he likes and his short stories include nano-stories. Since 1974 he has been developing a multi-genre mosaic epic: A Toy Called Time. His proposal for World Poetry Day was accepted by PEN and later by UNESCO. His new book is a “miniature manifesto” called How’s Your Slavery Goin’? (Nasıl gidiyo’ kölelik?) published by Bencekitap in Ankara; here Günersel criticises the idea(s) of God and favours the invention of writing as the turning point in historiography—thus practically adding 4000 years to 2012. Günersel has never been imprisoned—yet.

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