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Turkey: Criticism of Islamic theology leads to professor having to testify before prosecutors

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A university professor in Turkey has been summoned to testify at a prosecutor’s office for his remarks on a Turkish TV channel. These consisted of his rejection of the validity of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. 

According to a news report in Turkish media, professor Celal Şengör was ordered to testify in ten days as a suspect on the charge of “openly insulting the religious values adhered to by a section of the public.”

The investigation in question was initiated because of the following words Şengör spoke during a television program on May 23:

They are all fairy tales. It is not certain that a man named Abraham lived… All these people do not exist in history. All of them – those that are called the three holy books – are actually… No, but this is important… The Syrian religious tradition is a sub-branch derived from the Mesopotamian religious tradition.

What we call the Abrahamic religions today, Judaism, Christianity, and then Islam. I mean, look at Judaism. They say Moses is a prophet. History does not know that man. There is no such name [in history]. There is a famous exodus from Egypt in the book of the Jews [the Hebrew Bible]. [There is actually] no such event either. [These things] have been investigated and published.”

According to Islam, all history is in fact Islamic history, and all major figures of Jewish and Christian salvation history are Muslim – including Adam, Abraham, Moses, Solomon, Jesus, and others. Islam asserts that some people later distorted the original Muslim teachings of these religious figures, creating the false religions called Judaism and Christianity. Hence, according to Islam, when Şengör rejects the existence of Moses, Abraham, and others, it means he is also rejecting the teachings of Islam, as Islam sees these figures as Muslim. 

Şengör did not incite or call for violence against any religious group in his remarks. In fact, a call for violence does not frequently lead to prosecution or a legal sentence in Turkey. Certainly, if a group or an individual that the government deems is its “enemy” or “opponent” is threatened with violence, pro-government prosecutors often ignore this or wait for their president’s approval to decide whatever action is thought necessary. For instance, the same prosecutor who summoned Şengör to testify had decided that there was no need to prosecute the members of a pro-government association who threatened the well-known singer Sezen Aksu over the lyrics of one of her songs. Referring to Aksu and “those who spoke ill of our martyrs,” the Islamist group publicly proclaimed: “We will cut off their tongues, shoot at their brains. We will crush them all in their lairs.” Apparently, such words calling for indiscriminate slaughter of dissidents are not acknowledged as crimes in Turkey. 

Professor Şengör, however, only expresses his own opinion regarding the historical validity of the existence of the prophets referred to in the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Such opinions regarding such subjects should simply qualify as free speech. But they do not. The dominant mindset in Turkey is Islamic, although Turkey’s constitution refers to the country as secular.

To understand this phenomenon, one has to understand Islam’s stance on freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. According to Islamic scriptures, it is a criminal offense to criticize Islam, its prophet, and its scriptures.

The website “The Religion of Peace” (TROP) notes that “Sharia is explicitly opposed to religious freedom, freedom of conscience and the free exchange of ideas.” Quoting the Islamic scriptures directly, the website lists Islam’s views on religious liberty and freedom of expression:

(o8.1) – When a person who has reached puberty and is sane voluntarily apostatizes from Islam, he deserves to be killed.

(o8.4) – There is no indemnity for killing an apostate (since it is killing someone who deserves to die).

Acts that define “leaving Islam” and being subject to execution are listed in o8.7.  They include:

-2- to intend to commit unbelief, even if in the future

-3- to deny the existence of Allah… or any of his attributes

-6- to be sarcastic about Allah’s name, his command, his interdiction… or his threat

-7- to deny any verse of the Quran

-8- to mockingly say, “I don’t know what faith is”

-17- to believe that things in themselves or by their own nature have any causal influence independent of the will of Allah.

 So when Professor Şengör says that he does not believe in Islam’s scriptures, he is committing a “crime,” according to Islamic sharia law.

The TROP website concludes:

In 1400 years, there has never been a system of Islamic law that did not prescribe the death penalty for Muslims choosing to leave Islam. Even in modern, ostensibly secular Islamic countries with constitutions “guaranteeing” freedom of religion, there is de facto enforcement of this law with intimidation and the vigilante murder of apostates.

A sound philosophy never requires violence or threats to retain believers.”

The penal code of Turkey criminalizes “publicly degrading the religious values of a section of the public”. Ironically, the only religion that is protected from criticism or “degradation” in Turkey is Islam.

How is a religious culture that systematically suppresses the freedom of thought and expression to such an extent supposed to help create a modern, viable democracy? 

There are also laws in Turkey’s penal code that criminalize genocide and other offenses against humanity. But it seems that logical, fact-based reasoning and impartiality in Turkey’s judiciary system to implement these laws effectively do not exist. It appears that Islam is much stronger than the country’s secular constitution in influencing and shaping the way most people think and act in Turkey.   

The totalitarian rules in Islamic scriptures that crush the free exchange of ideas are now targeting the West, as well. On October 16, 2020, for instance, the French teacher, Samuel Paty, 47, was decapitated after leaving the middle school where he taught history and geography in Paris. His killer, 18-year-old Chechen refugee Abdullakh Anzorov, who had been living in France for years, claimed the attack as being revenge for Paty showing his class the Mohammed cartoons in a lesson on free speech.

In 1993, Turkish author, Aziz Nesin, was almost burnt to death by Islamists for his criticism of Islam. In an interview prior to the attack, he addressed his opponents:

You should respond [to the criticisms]. Civilized persons offer an answer if they are exposed to an injustice. But not by attacking, killing or snarling. If they are civilized, they will do what civilization requires.

A human does not attack when provoked… Civilized people, enlightened people show their reaction through writing, speaking and expressing themselves. They just don’t attack. They don’t attempt to kill, hit or beat people.

In a civilized, democratic society, those who publicly reject, question, or criticize the theology of any religion are not summoned to testify, tried at a court, dismissed from their jobs, threatened with violence, abused, attacked, or murdered. But such are the fates that await those who dare publicly challenge any aspect of Islam in Muslim societies. 

Instead of looking for “external enemies” such as “Western imperialism” or “Zionism,” perhaps it would be wiser for Muslims to look inward and ask themselves: What if it is our own religion that is holding us back, enslaving and oppressing us by maintaining us as being regressive, bellicose, undemocratic, unstable, and enchained? 

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