Turkey has a government agency that regulates "religious affairs" [read: Sunni Muslim Affairs]. It is run by the country's top Muslim cleric and reports to the prime minister. The Directorate for Religious Affairs, or Diyanet in Turkish, enjoys an annual budget bigger than those of more than 10 other ministries combined – and its president, a government-appointed cleric, enjoys a $400,000 chauffeur-driven car.
Among its duties is to issue "fatwas," or to tell Muslim Turks what is religiously permissible and what is not. Its current president, the top cleric, also enjoys making long, doctrinaire speeches. Sometimes they sound reasonable, sometimes not.
When, a year ago, Islamist extremists in Paris were putting the final touches on their gruesome plan to kill a dozen cartoonists and attack the Charlie Hebdo magazine, Diyanet was busy issuing fatwas and publishing a religious calendar for three million or so desks and walls in offices and homes. Diyanet, at that time, also issued a fatwa that urged Muslims who have tattoos to repent if unable to erase them. Another fatwa in Diyanet's 2015 calendar said: "Do not keep pet dogs at home ... Prophet Mohammed once said: 'Angels do not visit homes where there are dogs and paintings.'"
In those days of Parisian chaos -- even before the jihadists killed over 130 people in November -- Diyanet's president and Turkey's top cleric, Professor Mehmet Gormez "did not believe" jihadists could kill innocent people. Speaking to a press conference in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, Gormez said that the use of Islamic symbols by the perpetrators of the attack was a sign of "manipulation." In other words, Professor Gormez was telling the world that someone else was carrying out the attacks and putting the blame on Muslims.
Mehmet Gormez, President of Turkey's Directorate of Religious Affairs. (Image source: İlke Haber video screenshot)
Diyanet, generously funded by the Turkish taxpayer -- Sunni, non-Sunni and non-Muslim -- hit the headlines recently with two fatwas that both irked and amused secular people around the world, not just in Turkey.
In the first fatwa, Diyanet said that engaged couples should not hold hands or spend time alone together during their engagement. The fatwa read: "In this period, it is not inconvenient for couples to meet and talk to get to know each other, if their privacy is considered. However, there could be undesired incidents with or without their families' knowledge ... such as flirting, cohabitating or being alone. This encourages gossip and holding hands, not allowed in Islam."
Now think about that. The top clergyman in a NATO member and EU candidate, Turkey, rules that: Flirting, cohabitating or being alone for engaged couples are 'undesired incidents;' and Islam does not allow gossiping and 'holding hands.'
That's fine. Every monotheistic clergy could be equally conservative – one could presume. But the second fatwa of the week -- which Diyanet, under fire now, denies -- caused a stir.
Diyanet's second fatwa, appeared briefly on the fatwa section of its website (until it was deleted), in answer to readers' questions. An anonymous user asked whether, from a religious perspective, a father having sexual desire for his daughter should result in the cancellation of his marriage.
The ulama [scholars] answered that, "There is a difference of opinion on the matter among Islam's different schools of thought." The fatwa read: "For some, a father kissing his daughter with lust or caressing her with desire has no effect on the man's marriage."
The response continued by saying that in one Islamic school of thought, Hanafi, the mother would be "forbidden" to such a man. "Moreover," the fatwa went on, "The girl would be over nine years of age."
Possibly too embarrassed by its own fatwa, Diyanet first deleted its ulama's answer to the query and claimed that its answer was deliberately "distorted" through "tricks, wiliness and wordplay" aiming to discredit the institution. It then closed its "queries" section and posted a warning saying the page in question was "under repair."
As thousands of Turks decried Diyanet's scandalous fatwa and accused the ulama of encouraging child abuse, a helping hand to Diyanet came from Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag. In his twitter account, he called the accusations a "character assassination" against the religious body. The "assassins," according to Bozdag, "were those miserably types who are annoyed by religion and the pious."
Turkey, once a secular Muslim country and the world's only hope for interfaith dialogue, has reached a point where the justice minister defends a fatwa that says some Islamic schools of thought would NOT command divorce if a father had lust for his own daughter [but if she is over nine?]. Turkey also accuses those who protest such a thing as lusting for one's daughter of hating religiosity. One can only wonder what will be the next insanity.
Burak Bekdil, based in Ankara, is a Turkish columnist for the Hürriyet Daily and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.