Soner Cagaptay, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is the author of “The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey”
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 animals.”
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 bridge across 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.