Soft Sharia in Turkey

by Burak Bekdil
June 18, 2017

The good news about Turkish justice is that despite 15 years of not-so-creeping Islamization, court verdicts do not yet sentence wrongdoers to public lashing, stoning, amputations or public hangings in main city squares. The bad news about the Turkish justice system is that it is increasingly religiously ideological, reminiscent of the Ottoman justice system where non-Muslims were legally inferior to the Muslims and were, in principle, expected to be constantly reminded of their inferiority to the dominant community through restrictions and markers.

In 21st century Turkey, fortunately, there are not [yet] markers revealing non-Muslim citizens or laws discriminating against non-Muslims. Nevertheless, with or without markers, there is positive discrimination in favor of pious Muslims and against the others. Turkish law enforcement is embarrassingly pro-pious Sunni Muslim.

Turkey, nominally, is not a Sharia state. But it is becoming one on a de facto basis. In January, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government issued a decree stipulating that law enforcement officials, including security officials, police and coast guard officers, could lose their jobs if they marry a “known adulterer.” The legislation reads that law enforcement officials cannot “intentionally marry a person who is known to be impure, or to stay in a marriage, or continue to live with such a person.” The offense is punishable by up to 24 months’ suspension from work. In addition, the decree covers stricter rules against drinking, gambling, the vague and emphatic “going to places that would ruin your reputation,” as well as “excessive spending,” all while off duty.

In January, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government issued a decree stipulating that law enforcement officials could lose their jobs if they marry “a person who is known to be impure.” (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Pool/Getty Images)

What do those new offenses have in common? Adultery, impurity, drinking, gambling and excessive spending? They are all sins mentioned in the holy book of Islam. This is not only problematic from the viewpoint of modern state and public administration, but also from a technical point of view. When the offense is defined in such vague and holy scriptural language, judgment will inevitably become arbitrary. Who is a “known adulterer,” for instance? Who is a person “known to be impure?” How will the Turkish state define “purity” or “a pure person?” How would an officer know beforehand that a place he goes for the first time will “ruin his reputation?” And what percentage of one’s salary will mean “excessive spending?”

Last year a Turkish man stood trial for seriously injuring [with the intention to kill, according to the indictment] his ex-wife by stabbing her with a screwdriver. The court sentenced the man to an aggravated life sentence. The judges then gave the defendant a shocking reduction: Just 11 years in jail instead of life. Why the generosity? Because the court found out that the victim had the habit of going out with her “divorced lady friends and drank alcohol”. In other words, the Turkish court ruled that the woman had half-deserved to be murdered because of that.

In April, an apparently conservative Turk addressed Selina Dogan, a Turkish-Armenian opposition MP, with the words: “You are all whores … You are the servants of Byzantium.” Dogan sued the man for hate-speech and insult. A Turkish court admitted that the content shared in social media indeed was insulting but acquitted the defendant. Dogan said: “This [ruling] is a free pass for hate speech.”

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