Turkish Marriages between Religion and the State
Chiara Maritato 6 November 2017

On October 18, Turkish Parliament passed a law allowing muftis to perform civil marriages. “Want it or not, this will be passed by the Parliament!” announced Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in response to the opposition parties, women’s rights organisations, feminist associations and women’s right activists who have protested the bill since its draft version.

Those opposing the bill are mainly perplexed and concerned for the institution of civil marriage, sanctioned in the Constitution (art. 174) and throughout the principal reforms enacted following the proclamation of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

The dispositions concerning marriage are indeed regulated by the 1926 Civil Code, modelled upon the Swiss Code, which abolished polygamy (art. 130), introduced civil marriage (art. 143) and stated that any religious marriage must follow the civil registration. Marriage in Turkey is an official act to be registered through municipal officials, village chiefs and foreign missions. The authority to conduct civil marriage was not given to any religious leaders; muftis, imams, priests, rabbis are not entitled to perform official marriages since the duty to verify the fulfilment of the requirements (i.e. the ages of the husband and the wife or the absence of previously registered marriages) are exclusively assigned to the state. Therefore, once having booked an appointment, couples register their act of marriage in municipal offices (nikah dairesi). Islam considers marriage as a legal contract between two persons, not as a sacrament; even during the Ottoman Empire, a disposition dating back to 1881 required religious marriages to be officially registered no later than fifteen days following the celebration.

In recent times, the institution of civil marriage has gradually begun to be undermined: in 2014, whilst debating over the proposal to allow the registration of marriages in mosques, Mehmet Görmez, then President of the Diyanet, defined the issue as being a persistent dilemma in need of consideration. However, it is the Constitutional Court’s 2015/51 sentence that marked an important change in this direction. The Court officially declared that the civil registration of the marriage is no more a conditio sine qua non for citizens wanting to get married through religious ceremony. What is more, the court has abolished jail sentences (from two to six months) for both the couple and the ministrant performing the religious ceremony without having seen the marriage certificate. To fully assess the recently passed law, it is necessary to consider this significant past event.

Although Turkish official statistics for 2016 show that 97% of the marriages performed in Turkey have been first registered in the municipality offices and then celebrated with a religious ceremony, in the last decade, religious marriages performed by imams (imam-nikah) have become the symbol of a pious lifestyle to be publicly manifested in the everyday. According to the data, 1.8% of newly married couples exclusively opted for civil marriage and even less, 1.1%, performed solely the religious marriage. However, since the latter are not officially registered, determining their exact number is anything but a simple task. In this respect, Fatma Betül Sahin Kaya, the Ministry of Family and Social Policies, affirms that this law is aimed at both reducing the number of these marriages being performed in secret and providing all women with the same civil rights in case of divorce.

According to the government, allowing muftis to register marriages will also largely diffuse the practice of official matrimony among those religious families reluctant to officialise their unions in the municipality offices. In this respect, the government promoted the law as a simplification of bureaucratic procedures, stating that it will distinguish between civil marriages officially registered by municipalities’ civil servants and those done by highly qualified religious officers, the muftis, and not by local imams. The opposition firmly condemns this aspect which they perceive as a double standard undermining the equality of the citizens before the law. In particular, they claim that the law represents a threat to the constitutional principle of secularism and an attempt to turn secular dispositions and institutions into Islamic law. A few days after the law was approved by the parliament, the women of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) launched a campaign to collect signatures to be sent to the President of the Constitutional Court.

However, those who contest this law go beyond the constitutionality of the reform and call into question the legitimacy of the mufti’s’ role and ability in verifying both the absence of previously registered marriages and the age of brides. The concern is related to the whether muftis, as Islamic scholars, would effectively be committed in fighting against polygamy and child brides, ensuring that civil rights and dispositions take precedence over religious rules and practices.

The decision to allow muftis to register official marriages is complex and controversial as it shines light on the concept  of Turkish secularism itself or, better, that of laicism (laiklik). To be able to wholly assess the issues at stake, we should begin with considering the status of the muftis in contemporary Turkey. Muftis are not only religious experts, graduated from religious vocational schools (Imam-Hatip) and faculties of theology, they are also bureaucrats, civil servants, employed by a state agency, the religious scholars employed by a state agency, the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). A muftis’ double status, being both religious scholar and state employee, has evolved in harmony with role and influence of the Diyanet within society. Established in 1924, the Diyanet is considered one of the emblems of  early Republican assertive Turkish laicism and epitomises the Kemalist élite’s will to bureaucratise and domesticate religion, relegating it to the private sphere. Within this framework, muftis, imams, preachers and Qur’an teachers are civil servants whose activities are subjected to the hierarchical control of the Diyanet. Since the early years of the Republic, the Diyanet has been a decisive instrument of the government. Committed to the diffusion of an official, true (doğru) Islam, opposing superstition and false beliefs, it functioned to enlighten society on morality in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1980s, the Diyanet’s mission also involved the protection of national solidarity and integrity, emerging as a megaphone for the propagation of the Turkish-Islamic synthesis, the state ideology combining nationalism and Islam.

While it is true that the Diyanet has served as an instrument of government far before the AKP came to power in 2002, not only have the number and competences of religious officers largely increased but the institution’s budget has been profoundly revisited, now having reached over $2 billion, in the last fifteen years of religious conservative government. With almost 120,000 people employed, it is one of Turkey’s largest state agencies whose structure and activity have become increasingly synchronised with the policies of the AKP. This went hand in hand with a reformulation of the discourse and policies regarding the family. The protection and safeguarding of the integrity of the family from ‘external’ menaces has resulted in a sanctified social institution rooted in tradition and supposedly immune from any changes. Strengthening the family unit has been at the core of AKP manifestos since the early 2000s however, since 2010, this has resulted in a number of policies being implemented by the Diyanet in cooperation with other Ministries: today’s male and female religious officers regularly organise religious seminars and preaching sessions in prisons, hospitals, reformatories, women’s shelters and orphanages all over Turkey.

The law reforming the institution of marriage is evocative of a climate and a time where the family was a focal point for values and policies. The issue of marriage has arisen alongside a 2016 parliamentary committee inquiry into the recent increase in divorces, perceived as a social problem to be tackled.

The commission published a report in May 2017 which was strongly opposed by women’s rights activists and feminist associations. The latter sparked concern affirming that a commission should instead have been put in place to investigate problems like the high rate of violence and sexual abuse perpetrated against women.

It is no longer deniable that religious hierarchies have got a foothold in Turkish public sphere.

As they actively contribute to the public discussion in all manner of political and social affairs, the decision to additionally invest them with the task of officially registering marriages represents the latest of many cases in which the renewed presence of Islam in the public realm and civil institutions in evidenced. What is more, the issue of officially registered marriages is extremely important in its direct concern for women’s rights. It is thus important to recall that, in the 1990s, even employees of the Diyanet were actively encouraging families and young couples to officially register their marriage in the municipality before performing the religious celebration. Had the legislator’s primary intention been to reinforce the state’s control over the totality of marriages performed in Turkey, it could have taken measures to raise awareness of the importance of municipally registering marriages.

Contrarily, the decision to define marriage performed by a mufti as an officially and legally binding act raises two crucial remarks: first, both secular and religious officials are protectors of civil rights; second, intrinsically linked to the first, is that religious civil servants are formally invested with an intermediary role between citizens and the state on matters utterly unrelated to religion.

Translated by Francesca Simmons

Credit: Ozan Kose / AFP