The word ulama in its Arabic context denotes scholars of almost all disciplines. In the context of Sunni Islam, however, ulama are regarded as "the guardians, transmitters and interpreters of religious knowledge." With the rise of Islamism as the dominant, state-sponsored ideology, the Turkish ulama have gained prominence: talk shows, books, newspaper columns, sermons and fatwas come in abundance. Devout Turks take them seriously. Secular Turks often mock them. Yet the Turkish ulama provide a rich context for those who want to understand Islamic piety as interpreted by religious scholars.
Now, according to the Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum, Turkey ranks 130th among 144 countries measured. This embarrassing score does not go without good reason. Ironically, women's rights marchers in Ankara were met with tear gas and arrests on March 5 as they gathered for a protest ahead of International Women's Day (March 8). After the marchers ignored calls to disperse, Turkish riot police fired tear gas and detained about 15 women. That was how Turkish women "celebrated" Women's Day.
Child abuse is also increasingly visible in Muslim Turkey. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, the number of child sexual abuse cases–- just those actually reported to law enforcement -- rose from over 11,000 in 2014 to nearly 17,000 in 2016. Experts say of course that many more cases are not reported.
Against that backdrop, Turkish Islamic scholars remain largely mute but preach on matters that do not quite look sane to secular observers. One such celebrity scholar is Nureddin Yıldız, author of 35 books on Islamic practices. Yıldız is the darling of Islamist media and has literally millions of followers. In his student years, he was a member of the National Turkish Students' Union, the hardline Islamist student group which also had among its members Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
In a 2012 sermon on television Yıldız said:
"Jews are the greatest enemies of Muslims. Some say some of the Jews can be innocent. I cannot believe that. I believe in the Quran. It is not possible to know the devil without knowing the Jew. Jews are traitors. They kill children."
Racism aside, the fatwas [opinions] of Turkey's ulama are often jaw-dropping. In a 2016 fatwa, the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), Turkey's highest religious authority, ruled that it was not forbidden (haram) in Islam if a father felt lust for his own daughter "on condition that the daughter is older than nine".
Enter Yıldız, again: In 2016 the prominent theologian ruled that girls who are older than five should not be present in front of male visitors at their homes.
In 2017 Yıldız said that it was permissible in Islam to marry a six-year-old girl, sparking a public controversy. Journalist Mustafa Hoş called Yıldız "pedophilic," and Yıldız sued Hoş for insulting him. At the second hearing of the case at an Istanbul court, Yıldız's lawyer called journalists "enemies of Islam." In this pervert's thinking, one has to be an enemy of Islam if he thinks that marrying a six-year-old girl would be pedophilic.
More recently Yıldız advised fellow Muslims that a man and a woman should not share the same elevator alone; otherwise, "they might sin." "If a man takes the elevator alone the woman should wait," he ruled.
Yıldız's sermon on "what would the ummah [community] lose if women work" is a must-read piece to understand the typical Islamist thinking on gender equality, family and tribal ambitions to grow still more numerous:
"Each working woman means a [sexually] unsatisfied man. Her husband will then [sexually] abuse other women, paving the way to prostitution. If women work, they will give no or fewer births. It will be murderous if the population of ummah declines. If women work, chastity and moral values will fade away."
A few years ago Yıldız made headlines when he described how good Muslim men should beat their wives. The Islamic jurisprudence, he said, allows men to beat their wives. But, he cautioned, women should not be punched on the face, on the chest or on the belly. When beating their wives men should not use sticks longer than a ruler. Allah, Yıldız said, allows men to beat their wives not to torture them or hurt them but only to relax.
These days Yıldız is on the headlines again, with his "elevator" and other fatwas. Some Turks shrug him off, saying he is just another devout clown. Perhaps he is. But his teachings, embraced by millions, show exactly why Turkey, not yet a shariah state, is at the bottom of international rankings on gender equality.
Burak Bekdil, one of Turkey's leading journalists, was recently fired from Turkey's leading newspaper after 29 years, for writing what was taking place in Turkey for Gatestone. He is a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.