Onur Romano is the Branch Manager of Centre for Inquiry Canada – Virtual Branch & Co-Branch Manager of Centre for Inquiry Canada – Victoria BC, former president of the Atheist Alliance International, and a whole lot more.
Here, we talk about his life, work, and views.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let us start from the top. Basically, you are 36. You are half Greek, half Turkish, ex-Muslim. How did you become half-Greek, half-Turkish, and ex-Muslim. What is the family story?
Onur Romano: I am a Greek descendant, but I was born and raised in Turkey in Turkish customs. So, I consider myself more Turkish than Greek. I have only been to Greece twice in my life.
I was a good Muslim boy until I was 15. Religious studies classes was one of my most favourite courses. It was 1998 and I was at my grandmother’s summer house. My cousin who was 10 years older was also there. He was reading a book of an Islamic critic of the time, Turan Dursun.
The book was criticizing Quran verses. He asked me if I would like to take a glance at it. I said, “Yes” and then I finished the book over the next day. It planted seeds in my brain. I was questioning everything. I was skeptic over one night.
The more I read, the further away I got from the Islam. Yet, I wanted to play it safe just in case if there is a God. So, I was like, “Yes, I do not believe in prophets. I do not believe in religions, but I chose to believe in a supreme being.” I was a Deist. That was my stand from 16 to 20 years old.
Over time, I first became an agnostic and then I evolved into an atheist in the following years. The more you read and research, the closer you get to being a strong atheist. After a few more years, and personal experiences, I was like, “Maybe I should take this a notch more and see where I can take it” that is how I became a militant atheist.
I thought that would be selfish if I was to keep all these ideas to myself. So, I started to cheer the good people and that is how my disbelief developed.
Jacobsen: What was the reaction of those around you over the longer term into the present? How do you lose some people? How do you gain some people in general?
Romano: I am not coming from a religious – strictly religious – family. My family was a secular almost non-religious family. So, I was lucky in that regard. I did not have pressure from my family as a kid. But of course, once you are an open and loud atheist in the Middle East your childhood friends, and even your relatives keep their distance from you.
Especially, if you are living in Turkey which is a Muslim majority country, it is not the most favourite thing to discuss atheism openly, leave alone promoting it. However, it was not very hard for me because my family sent me away to study overseas when I was 15 years old.
For middle school, they sent me to a boarding school in the United Kingdom, Richmond and then for high school, they sent me to Austria, Salzburg, and then after that, I moved to Miami, Florida for university.
Starting in middle school until the end of the university, I was always in boarding schools overseas. Since I was in Western countries, I did not face that type of alienation from society in Turkey due to my atheism because I was not living there.
Jacobsen: If you are looking at some of the advanced education you got with Bachelor’s degrees, Master’s degree, and also aiming to pursue a Ph.D., how have your used advanced over time and become more rich, as education is want to do, for an individual?
Romano: This question takes me back to my Political Science 101 class at Saint Thomas University, Miami, Florida. My professor’s name was Thomas F. Brezenski. I still remember what he said. It made a big impact on me because he was explaining politics in a Catholic university at a time when I was shifting from deism toward agnosticism. It was our first class.
“Can you name the oldest politician that you can remember?” He asked all the classmates. Everybody made guesses, and then he said, “No, you guys are all wrong. The oldest politicians are the prophets because that is what they did.”
After that day, this is pretty much how I started to look at religions. The education I got in schools did not have much effect on my beliefs. It was mostly personal research conducted through years due to my area of interest. I agree with Mark Twain when he says we should never let our schooling affect our education.
Romano: That is something, you pursue yourself by doing your research and debates and exploring new ideas. This is not something you pick up in schools. You have to dedicate yourself to it. You have to have the hunger to go after things and do the research, and the debates.
So yes, part of studying in overseas definitely helped me because that is the classmates and faculty that you connect with and you communicate with. I am lucky that I was not studying in a religious country. Even though, I went to a Catholic school it was never in the practices of the university.
One’s education certainly has effects to a certain degree in this process awakening, but this is a journey one needs to take as an individual. I do not think that education and religious values always go hand in hand. In most cases, they do, but not in all cases. I have met many religious academics too.
Jacobsen: If we look at the context of refugees, asylum seekers, based on sincere belief or more properly the lack thereof, i.e. atheists and others, what would be your recommendations to them from personal experience? How can they seek some form of refuge, without too many difficulties or making some of the mistakes or failures that others may have made – in terms of navigating the systems that are in place?
Romano: I have served as Asylum Director at Atheist Alliance International in 2015-2016 before I was honoured to serve as president. I have also been serving as the Director of International Relations at the Association of Atheism, Turkey (Ateizm Dernegi) for a few years which basically handles atheist asylum cases. Recently, I have started volunteering for the Secular Rescue Project of the Centre for Inquiry as well as some other smaller atheist asylum programs and groups. I have also initiated an Atheist Refugee Assistance Program in Turkey which is planned to start in January 2020.
Plus, I myself happen to be an atheist refugee in Canada since 2017. So I have some experience and advice. Atheists usually do not have churches, or local communities in developing countries. In some parts of the world disbelief is basically risking your life. In such societies, atheists are mostly underground, or they are ‘closet atheists’ at best. So, you don’t have proof of your disbelief in most cases.
However, it is very important for a nonbeliever refugee to have all necessary documents, evidences, and letters ready before you leave your country. It is best to get all your documents certified translated to the language of the country of your final destination before you leave. It is very hard, complex, and costly to inquire and get all those materials once you are in another part of the world. Another advice is that, try to research and contact the local refugee organizations in advance if you will apply for pro-bono legal help, so that you avoid the long waiting lists and delays after you arrive. Supporting documents and letters are also very important. If you are an activist, make sure you document your volunteer activities if you have taken part in any. Join international secular/humanist/atheist NGOs to show your commitment. Do not wait until you apply for asylum for signing up as it may be considered late, and bring suspicion to your narrative and asylum case. Economic migrants who try to present themselves as atheist refugees are making the process very hard for the real nonbelievers running from persecution. Immigration Divisions of governments demand more proof every time they discover such fake atheist cases.
My own experience is a little bit more complex due to my politically motivated convictions in Turkey. But mostly, what I witness is that, atheist asylum seekers when they run away and seek refuge in a different country; most of the time they are not being accepted by the society, because, even though they are atheists, they are still regarded as Muslims or Hindus due to their race or ethnicities.
Jacobsen: Let us jump into another subject matter more local. Looking at Canada, how has Canada been as a free thinker, as an atheist in particular?
Romano: Canada is a great country. It is a modern and free country with a liberal way of thinking which is becoming more popular in Canada within the past few decades, as far as I read. Canada is a great place. Having said that, Canada used to have some blasphemy laws too, which was repealed last year. It is good progress, to say the least.
Right now, Canada is one of the safest heavens for non-believers in the world because of its diverse society; because in Canada, no matter what the people believe in, there is always a certain level of mutual respect and understanding.
It is not like that in all countries and cultures, but in Canada, it is like, probably, because of the cosmopolitan past of Canada and because it is a country, which has been progressing with help of immigrants.
That is why, Canada is not having any major problems, in terms of accepting refugees and integrating them into daily life here, because this is what this country is accustomed to. Yes. People here know how to approach different views, different religious backgrounds and how to have a certain level of mutual respect.
Jacobsen: What is the general population’s view of Erdogan in Turkey at present? How does the secular and free thought community view him?
Romano: The general population in Turkey likes Erdogan, and unfortunately, supports Erdogan too. Because in Turkey, the majority of society loves strong figures with power. Plus, when you have a semi-educated society it is really easy to manipulate people by using their religious values. Islam is their soft spot, that’s why Turkey is stuck with Erdogan. When it comes to the free-thinking, non-believer people of Turkey I can say that for almost all non-believers in Turkey, nobody likes Erdogan.
We see him as a bigot. Somebody who is trying to manipulate society by using religion. Oldest trick in the book. It is being repeated throughout history. It is that nobody is able to see what is his endgame is, what is his big plan is; Turkey is going towards an Islamic revolution. Now Erdogan has around 5 million pro-Islamic refugees in Turkey.
These are refugees from Afghanistan and Syria. Fundamentally Muslim refugees. He made most of those refugees Turkish citizens extremely fast without any integration just so, they can vote for keeping him in power. The secular people of Turkey, especially the atheists, think that if Erdogan feels unsafe about his future in Turkey, in terms of holding the office, then he can try to use those Islamic, Sharia-Law cheering people in Turkey to probably cause some sort of harm, maybe, a civil war. An Islamic revolution of a sort. I do not know; something along that line.
In my eyes, Erdogan already staged a fake coupe attempt in 2016 in order to declare martial law and become a legal dictator without having to wait to amend the constitution. Non-believers in Turkey are almost certain that he will not leave in peace with a simple election. Yes, elections sometimes are how dictators come into power, but they do not always go away with elections. We have seen a fine example of this in 2019 in Istanbul local elections for the major. Once pro-Islamists lost the city of Istanbul, Erdogan (through his party AKP) demanded the elections be repeated for a second time. This was a distraction so that his party could cook the books and cover-up for the corruption they have done for the past 22 years they have been ‘milking’ the city of Istanbul. Repeating the election was just to make some extra time and stall, so that Erdogan’s team can cover their tracks and the new major cannot trace back their frauds and corruption.
Sounds like a conspiracy, eh? I’d like to remind you that a $100 billion USD corruption scandal in 2013 led to the arrests of Erdogan’s close allies, and incriminated Erdogan. Following a souring in relations with his mentor Fetullah Gulen, Erdogan proceeded to purge Gulen’s supporters from judicial, bureaucratic and military positions. Since Erdogan controls 95% of the Turkish media and 100% of the justice system, the biggest corruption case in the world’s history was covered up in a year in this despicable manner. This was before the so-called coup attempt in 2016, which I strongly believe, Erdogan co-staged it with the supervision of Uncle Sam.
The majority of the opposition in Turkey agrees that Erdogan and his party has been rigging the elections all along. There were hundreds of such instances, may be thousands over the past 17 years. I am talking about the documented ones. However pro-Islamists practically ”own” today’s Turkish justice system, so it is a dead-end even to consider giving that fight.
So, the atheist community is a little bit afraid of what Erdogan is willing to do because, as far as we are concerned, he can do anything so the pro-Islamists stay in power. And I mean anything!
Jacobsen: Does Erdogan plan to reinstate something like an Ottoman Empire? Something like the Ottoman Empire, akin to the way Vladimir Putin appears to want to reinstate soviet borders for neo-Soviet Union?
Romano: Yes, Erdogan’s followers have been campaigning for it for over a decade now, so it is no secret that they are trying to recreate the Ottoman times. That is what they are trying to build right now. If you look at the Turkish TV shows of the past ten years you will see that it is the new trend. You can see a big rise, a big jump on the Ottoman Empire based TV shows. That is what they are trying to accomplish. They influence and shape society with TV shows. Quite a big part of the society in Turkey today are Moderate-Islamists and some parts of society are Pro-Islamist. They have their differences. But at the end of the day, almost all Turkish conservatives admire the mighty Ottoman times. Erdogan’s dream is to become the New Imperial Turkey where attacks are frequent and we should have say over our Eastern neighbours since Erdogan desires to recreate the Islamic caliphate which Turkey used to hold for centuries.
The Iraq situation is that it is now a country divided into three parts. The same is going to come down to Syria as well, probably within the next few years. Erdogan wants to play a role and take part in that too.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s “Peace at home, peace abroad” was the motto of the young modern secular Turkish Republic for a long while, however, the Ottoman philosophy is more of a ‘command and control’ thing. So, yes, I am sure there are lots of people who miss those old days. To be honest, I do not see much difference between Ottomans and Turkey anymore. Turkey does not have the same level of democracy it once had. It is going backwards in time and getting closer to the Ottomans’ understanding of democracy. Yes, we may have some crumbs of democracy left on paper, but not in reality, not in the parliament, not in the municipalities, not in terms of division of power or checks and balances, nowhere. That is part of what the Ottoman Empire was all about. It is like a one-man rule. Erdogan is the God-Emperor of Turkey now. It is ironic though. Believe it or not, the Ottoman Empire was less religious than Erdogan and his party.
Romano: Ottomans were less religious than Erdogan’s Republic of Turkey of the past 10 years.
Jacobsen: [Laughing] it is so funny.
Romano: It was. The way how people dress, the way how people live their life. The Ottoman Empire was not as religious as today’s Turkey, and Erdogan is trying to build a more religious society because that’s what he feeds on. Islam.
Jacobsen: What is the status of women’s rights there? What is the status of gender equality there? How does this compare to Canada?
Romano: Turkey is one of the first countries in Europe that gave women the right to vote. Even before the United States, that was because of the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, because, I believe, he was perhaps an atheist, or at least an agnostic, or may be a deist at the very least. But certainly not a believer, not a Muslim. That’s my personal opinion of him after studying his life. He ended the Sharia law. He ended the rule of Islam. He ended the caliphates. He orchestrated a secularist revolution, there were new sets of rules in modern Turkey, and equality of women was one of the most important pillars. Up until some probably 20 years ago, Turkey was doing important progress about women’s rights compared to its Eastern neighbours.
Within the past 17 years, since the pro-Islamists are in power, Turkey is going backwards. There is over a 1000% jump in terms of violence against women. Women’s rights are declined drastically in Turkey. I am afraid that this pattern will continue if he stays in power. It is a cold fact, there is a direct correlation between Islam and violence against women. I am talking about true Islam.
The role of women in Islam is, as we all know, that women are second class beings in Islam. I cannot even say ‘second class citizens’. No, women are second class species in Islam. If you look at it from an Islamic perspective, if this is your holy book, you cannot go much further in terms of making women equal to men.
So, yes, that is a pragmatic problem. Comparing gender equality in Turkey and in Canada, I do not think that we can do a healthy comparison.
Romano: But I can say that Canada is perhaps a few hundred years ahead.
Jacobsen: What organization stands out based on its exceptional activism in Turkey to you?
Romano: I have established 3 atheist organizations in the Republic of Turkey since 2011. Congress of Atheists (Ateistler Meclisi) was the first one, Atheist Magazine (Ateist Dergi) was the second, and Association of Atheism, Turkey(Ateizm Dernegi) was the third. I cannot tell you that we have accomplished extraordinary things and repealed many laws, changed policies and so on. But I believe we still managed to do some progress in terms of informing the society about atheism. It’s mostly because our hands are tied since we need to operate under strict blasphemy laws. If we are too loud, if we are too successful in what we do, then the police raids start at our headquarters. This happened in 2015. Our members, board members, presidents, directors get sued for various cases of insulting the president, prime minister, religion or religious values of the people. Or worse, you have to flee the country like me or go to jail because of various phoney charges.
In terms of activism in women’s rights, such NGOs are also not able to do much in Turkey. Their hands are tied as well. Yet, FEMEN Turkey is the one to look for mainstream feminist activism. I respect them greatly. They are my heroines.
I am thinking about if there are any other organizations that I can give you as examples. Oh yes, there was also another extraordinary movement called BizKacKisiyiz (HowManyAreWe) it took place some in 2007, an activist, -back then journalist- Tuncay Ozkan (now a CHP opposition party congressman) started it as a platform to see if he can unite 1 million people to form a new secular political movement, soon after he was joined by ADD (Ataturk Society of Turkey) biggest and the oldest secularist NGO in Turkey. And another one CYDD which stands for the association for the Support of Contemporary Living. It’s an educational charity. Secular organizations and other opposition NGOs joined forces with this movement and they organized the biggest rallies in Turkey in three major cities. If I remember correctly, around 4 to 5 million people in total attended to those rallies in three major cities and some smaller cities in Turkey. Rallies were called the Cumhuriyet Mitingleri (Rallies for the Republic).
Soon after those protests, the leader of that movement, now congressman Tuncay Ozkan was imprisoned for over 4 years as well as the founder of CYDD Turkan Saylan, leaders of ADD and hundreds of activists from all directions who supported the rallies. In the following years those arrests were followed by more imprisonment of thousands of high ranking military officers who were arrested in Ergenekon, Balyoz, Ay-isigi, and similar staged/fake courtroom-drama cases which were all orchestrated by Erdogan to pursue his pro-Islamic agenda and to suppress and scare the secularists after they made a show of power with the ‘Rallies for the Republic’.
In 2013, the famous Gezi Park protests in Turkey took place. That was the peak of secular activism in Turkey. It started out as defending the trees, as an environmental protest to stop the demolishment of the Taksim Gezi Park and soon after it turned into a totally different protest. The biggest secular resistance movement, the biggest protests in Turkish history. 1.5 million secular protestors were in Taksim square. The Istanbul city center fell, and the control was seized by the protestors for almost a month.
There were no government forces or police allowed in the city center. It was a commune of people running the show. Erdogan lost control of the Taksim city center. He went mad. He started going after all secularist organizations which supported the protest which later on turned into a resistance movement. It was the biggest resistance in Turkish history. 8 protestors died during the fights with the police. Erdogan arrested the heads of those NGOs who took part in supporting the resistance. Imprisoned them, among hundreds of others. Punished the media outlets which aired the resistance movement and the businesses which helped the protesters by providing shelter or food. He made an example out of those people who supported the movement. So that such a thing never happens again. Turkey is now a state of horror, state of devastation. Most people are now scared of doing activism if it means opposing Erdogan in any way, shape or form. This includes journalists too.
Jacobsen: Are there any figures in Canada who stand out to you – in terms of their work for general equality over secularism?
Romano: BC Humanists is one of them. CFI Canada is also progressive and is trying to get back on its feet. Both NGOs play a big role in repealing the blasphemy law of Canada.
Other than that, in terms of individuals, there is my dear friend Gail Miller, current president of Atheist Alliance International who has started the critical thinking project with Dr. Cristopher DiCarlo. And there is Christine Shellska, a true activist who has been a great mentor to me during my time serving AAI. In terms of Canadian ex-Muslims, I can say that Ali Rizvi, and Armin Navabi, stand out in my eyes. There is also a local NGO here in my town, called Victoria Humanist and Secular Association, which was established some fifty years ago. They have a great history. I believe the real question here is why, there are not as many secular organizations and figures as there should be in Canada. I believe this is mostly because Canadian society never felt the need to put up a fight for such rights.
For example, in Turkey, if you are an atheist activist, that is a big thing, because that means you risk your life to fight for the rights of nonbelievers on a daily basis. Every public event you host, every speech you deliver, every interview or TV appearance you attend to, you risk your life in such a hostile society where the word ‘atheist’ is mostly used as hate-speech. If your name/face is on newspapers and TVs promoting atheism, then you are at risk every time you step out, to say the least. However, in Canada, as far as I know, there was never such religious pressure, or suppression at any point in history. Therefore, Canadians are somewhat privileged in that sense, because society never had to stand up and fight for freedom from religion or have to resist the religious fundamental leaders for basic human rights.
Jacobsen: Does this leave Canadians vulnerable to a wave of religious revivalism?
Romano: In a way, the secular people of Canada are not very well-organized, however, I do not think that this is a big problem. In Canada, religion is not a threat. In Canada, religion will never be a major problem in daily life because it is already a cosmopolitan and diverse society. That is what is good about cosmopolitan societies. You do not have much risk of religious people running the show and gaining control because there is no one mainstream major religion or sect in Canada which dominates over 90% of the population.
That happens only if the members of a certain sect or a certain religion are in the very high majority. However, in Canada, it is more homogeneous in terms of the spread between the various religions and sects. So, I do not think that will ever become a problem due to Canada’s diverse DNA.
Jacobsen: In spite of that prior response, are there any movements or individuals who remain a concern for you, in Canada?
Romano: The Conservative Movement, because religion poisons everything. I happen to see the Bloc Québécois (BQ) movement as very risky for Canada’s future. I also see that there are this patriotic, anti-immigration movements coming from your southern neighbour. I hope that the Republican patriotic wave coming from the United States will never hit Canada.
Jacobsen: Any recommended books, authors or speakers – Turkey and Canada?
Romano: The latest book I read which was published in Canada was The Atheist Muslim. It was Ali’s book, Ali Rizvi. I have also started a new book recently, a New York Times bestseller, ‘When Will Jesus Bring The Pork Chops?’ by George Carlin. Another one I suggest is ‘Atheism For Dummies’ by Dale McGowan.
As far as a Turkish read, there is a book called ‘Is there a God?’ (Tanri var midir?) by philosopher Prof. Dr. Orsan Oymen of Turkey which came out this year. It is a short book but an extraordinary piece.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Romano.
Romano: Thank you very much. The pleasure is mine. It was an honour. I am looking forward to talking to you again. Hopefully, we can collaborate on many projects in the near future.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du Québec, Atheist Freethinkers, Central Ontario Humanist Association, Comox Valley Humanists, Grey Bruce Humanists, Halton-Peel Humanist Community, Hamilton Humanists, Humanist Association of London, Humanist Association of Ottawa, Humanist Association of Toronto, Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba, Ontario Humanist Society, Secular Connextions Seculaire, Secular Humanists in Calgary, Society of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph), Thunder Bay Humanists, Toronto Oasis, Victoria Secular Humanist Association.
Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an Agnostiker, American Atheists,American Humanist Association, Associação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, Atheist Alliance International, Atheist Alliance of America, Atheist Centre, Atheist Foundation of Australia, The Brights Movement, Center for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist Ireland, Camp Quest, Inc., Council for Secular Humanism, De Vrije Gedachte, European Humanist Federation, Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations, Foundation Beyond Belief, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist International, Humanist Association of Germany, Humanist Association of Ireland, Humanist Society of Scotland, Humanists UK, Humanisterna/Humanists Sweden, Internet Infidels, International League of Non-Religious and Atheists, James Randi Educational Foundation, League of Militant Atheists, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, National Secular Society, Rationalist International, Recovering From Religion, Religion News Service, Secular Coalition for America, Secular Student Alliance, The Clergy Project, The Rational Response Squad, The Satanic Temple, The Sunday Assembly, United Coalition of Reason, Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.