A Phantom Menace: Why Turkish Conservatives Are Worrying About Jedis

Jediism in Turkey
A fan dressed in a Star Wars costume gets ready to take part in a parade in Santiago de Compostela, Spain on May 25, 2013, to mark the 30th anniversary of the premiere of the film 'The Return of the Jedi.' Last month, the official magazine of Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs ran an article about the rise of Jediism, which analysts say is indicative of concerns among conservative Turkish Islamists about "New Age" religions replacing Islam. Miguel Riopa/AFP/Getty

Across the galaxy, Star Wars fans are eagerly awaiting the December release of The Force Awakens, the seventh installment in the sci-fi saga. But in Turkey, the force is having a different sort of effect—at least for some conservative Muslims.

In August, the official magazine of the Diyanet, Turkey's state-run religious authority, published an article about the power of the silver screen, arguing that the Turkish film industry portrays Islam in a negative light. The article caused a stir in the Turkish media because it focused on the rise of Jediism—a "religion" or way of life based on the mystical space knights depicted in Star Wars. "Cinema can even create a fictional religion," says Bilal Yorulmaz, an assistant professor of theology at Marmara University in Istanbul and the article's author.

Since at least 2001, hundreds of thousands of people—mainly in the United Kingdom and Australia—have listed their official religion as "Jedi" on national censuses. In some countries, including the U.K. and United States, there are even "churches" of Jediism, which draws on Taoist, Buddhist and Catholic elements. The phenomenon was initially dismissed as the tongue-in-cheek protests of atheists, but believers insist it is a legitimate philosophy.

Turkey is more than 99 percent Muslim, and Yorulmaz doesn't see Jediism as a threat to Islamic values. But analysts say the article is indicative of broader fears among the religious elite. "Of course Jediism is trivia, but I think it reflects conservative Turkish Islamic concerns about New Age religions replacing Islam among the youth," says Mustafa Akyol, the author of Islam Without Extremes, a book about the roots of liberal Islam.

This isn't the first time Jediism has been controversial in Turkey. In April, a student at Dokuz Eyll University in Izmir started an online petition calling for the construction of Jedi temples. The petition, which has received more than 8,400 signatures, was a satirical response to the government's plan to build 80 mosques at Turkish universities by the end of 2015. "Some people think we are stupid," says Akın Çağatay Çalışkan, the computer science student who created the Jedi petition. "[But] Jediism is a good way for a protest movement [to fight] against the policies of the Turkish government."

The separation of mosque and state is a contentious issue in Turkey. The constitution defines the country as secular, and for years Turkey's military dictatorships clamped down on religion. But since the ruling AK Party was elected in 2002, it has taken a number of steps to give Islam a more prominent role in daily life. Two years ago, the government lifted its ban on state employees wearing headscarves to work. Last year, it did the same for primary school girls. In 2013, Turkey also banned late-night sales of alcohol, saying it would protect young people from the harmful effects of drink.

Akyol, the Turkish author, says Turks have far more religious freedom now than they did under military rule. Yet he believes the way the government talks about "segments of society other than conservative Sunni Muslims can be disrespectful and intimidating."

Whether Jediism is a real religion or not, it seems that Turkey's religious authorities want to make sure that the force is still with Islam.