Is religion the opiate of the masses or the corruption of the masses?

Religion is one of the basic organising forces of society. The enlightenment in Europe was a reaction to corruption that led to its being used as a political tool. Secularism in Turkey came out of a similar context, in which Ottoman officials had used religion to hide corruption. Now, nearly a century later, Turkey has its first openly Islamist leader and once again religion has become a potential vehicle for political corruption.

The Thirty Year’s War, between 1618 and 1648, was a series of political wars over religious views. Conflict between the Hapsburgs and France was behind these sectarian battles. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives in these wars and the entirety of Europe suffered from famine and disease.

Witch-hunts took place between the 15th and 18th centuries and resulted in the killing of around 80,000 people, mostly by burning. Witch-hunts were a way for the church to eliminate those it saw as a threat to its supremacy. Inquisition courts led these witch-hunts against those who had allegedly collaborated with Satan against God’s commands.

Europe in the Middle Ages had a social and political structure dominated by the church. Absolute monarchs claimed their authority as rulers came from God. The king or feudal lord relied on this divine gift, with the support of the church, to deprive the people of justice and rights. This led to argument over the interpretation of Europe’s established religious interpretations and caused new ideas to arise. The enlightenment of the 17th-19th centuries was the product of this conjuncture.

During the enlightenment, philosophies such as deism, pantheism, atheism, and agnosticism were resurrected. Materialism, which later formed the basis of Marxist ideas, was born as a reaction to the church’s illogical practices.

According to Karl Marx religion was a cover for exploitative relationships, an opiate that drugged the people and served as an obstacle to their seeing the truth. For this reason, religion should be rejected, he said. According to Marx, religion alienates a person from his or herself. The way to prevent this alienation is to apply reason to all things. It was normal for Marx to think this way, knowing the devastation that religion had wrought in Europe.

Religion did not only create devastation in Europe, it also wrought devastation in the Islamic world. Ottoman intellectuals during the enlightenment saw and evaluated it. One of those was influential theologian Said Nursi, who critiqued Sultan Abdulhamid II, writing:

“They used to give bribes with regards to (judgments) in shariah. But has abandoning and sacrificing religious matters brought anything but damage?”

It is true that Abdulhamid II bribed religious officials in order to support his regime and it resulted in similar reactions to those that arose against the church in Europe. Despite widespread religious propaganda at the time, arguments against Islam and its incorporated beliefs arose, with many adherents losing their faith. Naturally, people saw that those doing bad deeds were religious men and blamed their religion for their corruption. From Beshir Fuad, who brought materialism to the Ottoman Empire, to Abdullah Cevdet, who believed in biological materialism, many intellectuals bore witness to the abuse of religion and developed their thoughts as a reaction to it.

Despite the fact that those such as Ahmet Rıza, Abdullah Cevdet and Ziya Gökalp, who thought this path made important contributions to the secularisation of Turkey, by European standards there was never truly an enlightenment. This is because many politicians, including the founder of the Republic of Turkey Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, preferred to use religion to their own political ends.

The coming of the republic ushered in a long, deep silence that replaced the rich and vibrant exchanges of ideas that took place in late stages of the Ottoman Empire. Just like other authoritarian leaders, Atatürk was not open to different ideas. He preferred to turn his country into that of Hobbes’ Leviathan. Since there was never an enlightenment, religion still stood vulnerable to being abused. In fact, many scholars, from Filibeli Ahmet Hilmi to Mustafa Sabri Efendi to Cemaleddin Efgani to Muhammed Abduh, expressed the need for an Islamic enlightenment.

After 80 years of laying low since Atatürk’s death, religion is once again used as a tool to spur people to action. Yet this time religion is not merely the opiate of the masses, it is once again beginning to be used as a bribe. In word and in deed, it has been a great source of power for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turks have given up their Anglo-Saxon secularism-based religious freedom to support Erdoğan in exchange for bribes.

The headscarf has become a matter of bribery in religious high schools. In a country growing poorer every day, hundreds of thousands of religious officials take home higher and higher salaries, made even higher by bribes. Cabinet and ministerial positions given to members of certain religious orders and sects and the distribution of bureaucratic positions regardless of merit are a form of corruption.

The contract to publish a government religious pamphlet, or a Quran in Kurdish is another form of bribe. Those hundreds of thousands or millions of people who say, “but I’m a Muslim,” act as though this were halal and take the bribes. What they are really taking is the future of religion, and of the country. The spread of this reckless corruption is one of the most basic and important reasons for the downfall of society, is it not?

Are the consequences of corruption purely economic? No. The biggest consequence is in the realm of belief. Just as in Europe in the Middle Ages or the last century of the Ottoman Empire, thinking people turn toward the source of this injustice, wrongdoing, theft, immorality, and cruelty. All of these were done in the name of religion, and religion becomes suspect. Whether they realise it or not, people are moving away from this belief system and toward others. They are moving toward deism, pantheism, agnosticism, and atheism. For those like myself who are plain believers in monotheism, it is very sad.

It is as clear as day that Islam is in need of an enlightenment. Without an enlightenment and a turn toward reason, it is impossible to speak of a bright future for Islam. Islam’s basic sources, the Quran and tradition’s history, customs, and culture should be cleaned up and repurposed according to modern times, reinterpreted in line with reason and science. If not, people will merely spread their own interpretation in the name of Arab Islam or Turkish Islam or Iranian Islam. The world will continue to drown in vengeance, hate, blood, and tears.