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ANALYSIS: Entrenched fear makes Turkish left shoot itself in foot over marriage law

After a string of successes, the CHP party has apparently failed to gauge public response to new law
A bride and groom walk as they get ready for wedding pictures on October 17, 2017 at the Ortakoy district in Istanbul (AFP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey – A few steps forward followed quickly by some steps backward. This appears to be the default mode for the mainstream left in Turkey when it comes to attempts at broadening its appeal.

And it was no different when it came to a bill last month allowing state-sanctioned muftis to register marriages.

The centre-left Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) furious reaction to the bill was the latest example of the entrenched fear that governs its decisions.

The Turkish left’s definition of secularism is stringent, and one that excludes all religion from public life rather than espousing that the state be equidistant from all religions. 

The usual protestations abounded in left-leaning circles when the bill was proposed.

'I cannot comprehend how they can object to this in the name of secularism. It has nothing to do with it'

- Nuray Mert, liberal political scientist

“The republic’s founding principle of secularism is under threat”, “this is the start of the Sharia process permitting men to have four wives”, “this is yet another step in the creeping Islamisation of the country” and “women’s rights are threatened”.

The CHP has said it will appeal to the constitutional court to repeal the law after it was passed in parliament on 19 October.

The other major left-leaning party, the pro-Kurdish HDP, has also protested the law on similar grounds. 

The law permits provincial and district muftis from Turkey’s state-run religious authority, the Diyanet, to register marriages.

Previously only municipal officials were permitted to register marriages. No existing regulations regarding the legal marriage age or other codes were touched.

However, there are many cases of informal religious marriages carried out in Turkey where multiple laws are broken; and this bill was presented as a way of partially addressing the issue.

Blot on successful year

This move by the CHP comes after a largely successful year in political terms. The No campaign it spearheaded during the April referendum was deemed a success despite the No vote narrowly losing out.

It brought together leftists, rightists, secularists and conservatives dismayed by the growing authoritarian tendencies exhibited by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who was seeking a mandate to enjoy vast powers with few checks and balances.

That was followed by a 430km Justice March from Ankara to Istanbul which culminated in a rally on 9 July. An estimated crowd of at least one million people attended the rally. It proved so successful that Erdogan and his AKP government tried to downplay the attendance numbers. 

'What will the state do when in the future minorities ask for the right to register their own marriages by their own religious officials?'

- Kemal Kilicdaroglu, CHP leader

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who has led the CHP since 2010 and embarked on a process of reforming the party to appeal to a wider public, said his party’s stance on the new marriage law was based on longer-term national concerns.

“What will the state do when in the future minorities ask for the right to register their own marriages by their own religious officials? What will happen to Lausanne then? Will we violate it?” he said in an interview with a Turkish broadcaster.

The Lausanne Treaty of 1923 is the founding document on which the modern Turkish republic is based. One of its articles protects the rights of Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities.

Alienating everyone?

The CHP has managed to alienate even the defenders of secularism and the harshest critics of the AKP with this decision.

Nuray Mert, a political scientist from the liberal camp, was fired from the centre-left Cumhuriyet newspaper in August for mentioning in her column that this bill might actually prove beneficial in combatting the exploitation of rights that can occur in illegal religious marriages. 

“Republican party lawmakers have shown their complete ignorance. I cannot comprehend how they can object to this in the name of secularism. It has nothing to do with it,” Mert told Middle East Eye.

“The CHP’s decision is not justifiable in any way. The opposition needs to be more sensible rather than emotional,” she said.

“I can understand their anxiety because of the ruling government’s constant exploitation of religion for political manipulation and propaganda but the better way to counter it would have been to back it since it does not impede any political and democratic rights,” she said.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's daughter Sumeyye Erdogan and Selcuk Bayraktar pose with wedding guests in Istanbul on 14 May 2016 (AFP)

In Mert’s view, the only people who should be displeased by this amended law are radical Islamists because now in their eyes “religious women will be subject to Turkey’s secular civic code, which guarantees their rights in terms of marriage, divorce and inheritance”.

“If an attempt is made to change the civic code, then it would be a real problem and could even be called a revolution. But not this amendment.”

Hilal Kaplan, a columnist with the pro-government newspaper Sabah, told MEE that not only did the CHP’s objection make no sense but that Kilicdaroglu’s remarks were incorrect.

“Minorities are allowed to have their marriages performed by their own religious leaders like rabbis or priests,” said Kaplan.

“This is only a compensation mechanism and in fact is a very secular move because only Muslims were barred from doing this based on the 1928 civic code in force. I can’t understand what the CHP is objecting to.”

'In fact [this] is a very secular move because only Muslims were barred from doing this based on the 1928 civic code in force'

- Hilal Kaplan, columnist at pro-government newspaper Sabah

Kaplan also said this law should have actually pleased the secularists as it actually limits the influence of imams and religious leaders.

“Basically if I want to be offended as a Muslim, I can be offended at this. It uses a religious symbol like an imam and employs it for a secular task,” she said.

“The imam can perform the marriage but not in any way that is relevant to Islamic law. The imam as the civil servant of the secular state is given the task of doing whatever the secular civil servant does to register a marriage,” said Kaplan.

Kaplan believes that the marriage law will improve women’s rights, saying that “men would no longer be able to use an unsanctioned religious ceremony to wed women and then abandon them after they gave birth, with no legal rights”.   

Intentions fine but process flawed

It is political manipulation of people’s beliefs that has Yildiz Ramazanoglu, a conservative author, more concerned than the CHP’s response.

“There is nothing wrong with the development. It is a good thing. The CHP’s reaction was also very predictable. But this becoming an issue on the political agenda at this time is sad. There are so many more important issues to deal with,” Ramazanoglu told MEE.

“And this issue coming up now will only create another divide in society. This was not something that Turkey needed urgently at this point in time,” she said.

'Why was there no consultation? Women from all sections of society should have been consulted'

- Yildiz Ramazanoglu, conservative author

Ramazanoglu said that the amendment allowing muftis to register marriages would have no impact on women’s rights either but the government’s lack of consultation was not acceptable.

“Even if it is a good thing, why was there no consultation? Women from all sections of society should have been consulted but they didn’t even bother to consult with just AK Party voting conservatives either,” she said.

“This is an age of participatory democracy. We as AK Party voters are no longer satisfied to cast a vote once every five years and then let them do whatever they want. We need consensus-based democracy and it was missing here as well.”

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