Long-Secular Turkey, Sharia is Gradually Taking Over
By Soner Cagaptay
February 16, 2018
Over the past few weeks, Turkish officials have broken with
decades of precedent in what is still, at least nominally, a secular republic:
begun describing the country’s military deployment in Syria as
“jihad.” During the first two days of the operation, which began on Jan. 20,
the government’s Directorate of Religious Affairs ordered all of
90,000 mosques to broadcast the “Al-Fath” verse from the Koran —
“the prayer of conquest” — through the loudspeakers on their
minarets. Mainstreaming jihad, which sanctions violence against those who
“offend Islam,” is a crucial step in draping the sheath of sharia over a
society. Sadly, Turkey seems to be slowly moving along that path.
In the West, sharia law is often associated with corporal
punishment, such as beheadings carried out by Islamist extremists and
the likes of the Islamic State. But in fact, only a few countries, such as Iran
and Saudi Arabia, enact sharia in this form.
Most Muslim countries have a mix of religious and secular
laws, which invite other, and less draconian, forms of sharia. In these
instances, sharia law feeds into a complex web of legal, political, and
administrative measures. Blending with state power, it imposes Islamic practices
on the public, such as fasting during Ramadan. It also demonizes those who do
not practice and punishes speech or acts deemed offensive to Islam.
In its widely seen practice, sharia, therefore, is not a
black cloak or the ax of the executioner, but rather an impermeable veil that
envelops the entire society. Many pious Muslims individually choose to abide by
some or all tenets of sharia law, which guides their religiosity. But, as a
political force, sharia draws its power from governmental and societal pressure
mechanisms. Together, they coerce citizens to adhere to the conservative
spectrum of Islam.
Turkey, established as a secular republic by Mustafa
Kemal Ataturk at the end of World War I, long managed to hold sharia out of the
official sphere, making it an outlier among Muslim-majority countries. While the
secular constitutional system remains, my own research, polls and recent
developments in Turkey together demonstrate a dangerous shift.
In recent years, the government led by Recep Tayyip
Erdogan has been limiting individual freedoms, as well as sanctioning
individuals who “insult Islam” or neglect Islamic practices. Since November
2017, the national police — controlled by the central government — has been monitoring online
commentary on religion and suppressing freedom of expression when they find such
commentary “offensive to Islam.”
Off-screen, it has become commonplace for the police to
arrest those who speak critically of Islam in public. For example,
world-renowned Turkish pianist Fazil Say has been prosecuted
twice because of “provocative commentary” on Islam. His crime: making
gentle fun of the Muslim call for prayer on Twitter.
Turkey’s state-controlled TV network, TRT, vilifies those
who do not take part in Islamic practices. In June 2016, it hosted
theologian Mustafa Askar, who said during
a live broadcast that “those who don’t pray in the Islamic fashion are
Education is a prime pillar in Erdogan’s efforts to
throw a membrane of sharia over the country. Turkey’s education
system, like the police, falls under control of the central government, and the
Ministry of Education has been pressuring citizens to conform to conservative
Islamic practices in public schools.
The government is
formally inserting religious practices into the public education system
by requiring all
newly-built schools in Turkey to house Islamic prayer rooms.
Recently, for instance, a local education official in Istanbul demanded that
teachers bring pupils to attend morning
prayers at local mosques.
Nothing is more telling of Erdogan’s efforts to blend
Islamic practices with his political power than the newly-elevated status of the
Directorate of Religious Affairs — known in Turkish as the “Diyanet.”
Ataturk established this bureaucratic bureau in 1924 to regulate religious
services in his secularist fashion.
The head of Diyanet had previously reported to a minister,
but Erdogan has raised the status of the directorate’s new leader, Ali Erbas,
to that of a de facto vice president. Erbas now regularly attends major public
events at Erdogan’s side, blessing everything from Istanbul’s third
bridgeacross the Bosporus to Turkey’s campaign against
Kurdish militia in Syria.
Taking stock with its newfound political power, the Diyanet
has begun issuing orders to introduce elements of sharia law to the Turkish
society. Recently, the directorate released
a fatwa on its website suggesting that girls as young as 9 and boys as young
as 12 could marry — since, according to sharia law, adulthood begins at
puberty. Only when the Diyanet faced a huge popular outcry did they revoke this
fatwa — for now. And more recently, on Feb. 9 the religious body announced
a new plan to appoint “Diyanet representatives” among pupils in
every class of Turkey’s nearly 60,000 public schools, bringing public
education under closer scrutiny of Erdogan-guided religion.
But those who expect Erdogan to declare Islamic law in Turkey will have to wait for quite some time. The change will not happen overnight. It is taking place gradually as the diaphanous veil of sharia descends.