Ali Yurttagül
Mar 03 2018

A test of democracy for Muslims

The issue of adultery is once again on the agenda and will probably continue to keep the public occupied for sometime. May be President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s aim is to change the focus of the discussions, to distract the public’s attention from the Turkish operation in Afrin, Syria, which seems to get even more complex every day, or from the deepening economic crisis. Yet, the situation may be significantly different, if Erdoğan sticks by what he said to the media: “I think it is timely to revisit the issue of adultery. This is an old, far-reaching issue. It should be discussed. It was already present in our legal proposals. We took a step at the time in accordance with the demands of the EU and others, but we made a mistake.”

Yes, this is really a long-standing issue and at the time, Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) pulled back so as not to risk relations with the EU, and I was in Brussels witnessing how they did it. It seems like risking Turkey-EU relations is not a problem for Erdoğan anymore. Turkey’s EU accession has long lost its importance as a policy target, no one takes it seriously anymore. Though one must admit Turkey is not alone in this; the European public has also given up on the issue of Turkey’s EU membership. Yet, states generally set long-term targets for their policies and interests. Let’s first understand why the issue of adultery is a test of democracy for the Muslims in Turkey, before discussing why and how they first backed up on this ‘old’ issue.  

The term adultery has been used as a basis for divorce in Turkey’s civil code for a long time, however, contrary to what has been proscribed by Islam, it does not constitutes a crime according to the penal code. It is obvious that making adultery illegal by changing the penal code will imply a huge step towards establishing a non-secular state. Today, adultery is outlawed in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Iran on the basis of religious rules. 

In Islam, the term adultery is used to describe extra-marital sex (excluding sexual relations with the slaves). At least four witnesses as well as the testimony of the husband (under oath) is required to prove adultery. In case adultery is proven, the woman is stoned or whipped in the middle of a public square. The Iranian penal code includes several sentences for adultery, including death penalty.

We still do not know how AKP will define adultery, but it would be naive to think that the courts in practice would disregard centuries-old religious understandings of the issue, once the term adultery is introduced to the penal code. Besides, it would only be consistent for the judges to take into account religious rules regarding adultery under such circumstances, as they would already know that changes in the legal code originated from religious beliefs. 

This is not a discussion similar to the one going on in the public around the question of whether elevators provide a secluded space suitable for provoking sexual acts between men and women. In fact, it is obviously natural for people wearing headscarves according to their religious beliefs, organising their daily lives according to religion and religious concepts of lawful (halal) and unlawful acts to be interested in such subjects. The issue of adultery is not a light subject like a self-proclaimed religious expert who stated that “men and women may be provoked to a sex act if they stay in a broken elevator for a long time, though it is difficult to say using elevators are absolutely unlawful in absolute terms”.

Moreover, that is also not the problem. The problem is related to the fact that the state is preparing to take a stance on the issue and to regulate the act of adultery under the criminal law. In other words, the problem is the state’s aim of preventing religiously unlawful acts between men and women, by making them illegal under the penal code, or using punishments like whipping in order to guide men and women towards becoming individuals that deserve to go to heaven. The issue of adultery is not the first step taken towards that direction and it obviously will not be the last. It is beyond doubt that Erdoğan has decided to move gradually towards a religious state.

Naturally, in practice, as a result not only the courts, but the whole of society will perceive adultery in religious terms and thus report incidents in such a manner. This practice will eventually spread moral policing and impose moral codes within society, while limiting its more profound effects on institutions will prove to be impossible. We will find ourselves occupied with finding the answers to technical questions like whether an unmarried couple sharing a hotel room or whether a man and woman staying in a tent constitutes reasonable doubt and require reporting to the police, and this issue will inevitably hinder our daily lives.

I guess this policy, which clearly is not a problem for the AKP, but has the potential to divide society once again over relations between men and women, will introduce into our lives a new fear between those two sexes not limited to the example of the elevator. I believe that is the real purpose, but there is also something else. Revisiting the issue of adultery is a conscious political manoeuvre. 

After the Gezi protests, we witnessed Erdoğan’s efforts to reorganise political life around the polarisation between the Muslims and secularists and to ensure the presence of a stable Muslim majority. The AKP no longer claims ownership of Ataturk and the early years of the republic; it is moving towards a religious state. It once again tries to strengthen the polarisation between the Muslims and secularists. Will it be successful this time? I am not sure.

This polarisation imposed once again by Erdoğan is an historical test for Muslims. The pressure on the freedom of belief in Turkey once paved the way for AKP’s rise to power, while it was a failure of the test of democracy for the secular Turkey. Democratic, liberal Turkey as well as the democratic and secular Europe embraced and supported Erdoğan and the AKP with the hope of establishing democracy and preventing such types of unfair treatment. 

However, today it is not the secularists, but the Muslims who are being tested. If they give a green light to transformation of Turkey into a religious state by supporting the Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies, they will also fail.

They will also manage to do something else. They will provide justification for the European right-wing that argues that democracy is unique to Christian culture and opposes Turkey’s accession to the EU.

We have observed that Erdoğan has departed from democracy a long time ago. Yet, even his close circle doubts that Islam and democracy are compatible.

Today, the fate of democracy in Turkey is in the hands of the Muslim majority, rather than the secular minority. If the majority regard democracy as a utilisable tool for power, if they encourage Erdoğan’s plan of establishing a religious state, they will also fail in this test. There is no trace left of the Turkey that was once introduced as a model during the Arab spring. However, there are also masses that long for the days of the EU negotiations, peace, dialogue, and democracy. The Muslim population has to make a choice between escalating this tendency, or blocking it. The future and the fate of democracy are in their hands. They are being tested.

Fourteen years ago, during a meeting with the heads of the European Parliament’s political groups, Erdoğan buried the issue of adultery, being discussed at the time along with other changes in the penal code, in order to clear the shadow it cast on Turkey’s EU accession. Erdoğan responded surprisingly, when Daniel Cohn-Bendit jokingly asked him, “they say you have a project to enter people’s bedrooms by regulating extra-marital affairs under the penal code?”. 

Erdoğan smiled and said “we don’t have and cannot have such a project. It is only the media that created and discusses the issue of adultery”, before changing the subject to economic and political relations. Today he says “it was already present in our legal proposals. We took a step at the time in accordance with the demands of the EU and others, but we made a mistake.” Today, it turns out that at that moment the he was only engaging in deception.