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Turkey: a democratic future or Sharia?

June 27, 2024

A debate on Sharia law has gone viral in Turkey and now one participant is being investigated for insulting religious sensibilities. Diamond Tema has received millions of death threats since the video was uplaoded.

A YouTube screenshot reading 'Seriat? (Sharia?) Diamond Tema vs Asrin Tok' and featuring head shots of two young men
A debate between a young secularist and a nationalist influencer on the issue of Sharia has gone viral in Turkey Image: Underground/YouTube

Is Sharia a good legal system? Recently, two young Turks debated the issue on YouTube and now the nation cannot stop talking about it.

Above all, people are talking about whether Diamond Tema, a 30-year-old YouTuber, insulted the feelings of the nation's Muslims with his comments about the Prophet Muhammad.

Turkey's Presidential Office and Ministry of Justice think he did. And now they have announced that an arrest warrant has been issued for Tema and an investigation into "incitement" and "degradation of religious feelings" has been initiated.

Freedom of expression, or a crime?

A Turk with Albanian roots, Tema has since published numerous follow-up videos in which he seeks to explain that he committed no crime during the debate and that he had simply quoted generally accepted written accounts of the prophet. "There are neither legal nor moral problems with that," he repeated. "To spin the situation and present it as if a godless person just beat up on a Sharia proponent is manipulation." 

The case is another example of just how divided Turkish society is today — with some of the opinion that Diamond Tema's comments were simply free speech, and others claiming he blasphemed the Prophet Muhammad and violated religious sensibilities.

Turkish pop singer Gülsen, with long bleach-blond hair and wearing a bustier, holds out her hands during a concert
In 2022, Turkish pop singer Gülsen served time in jail for a joke that authorities said insulted religious sensibilitiesImage: Anka

So what did Diamond Tema say?

In the now controversial YouTube video, Diamond Tema, an agnostic as well as a committed secularist, discussed the merits of Sharia law with Asrin Tok, a conservative-nationalist influencer. Over the course of two hours, Tema and Tok — who is in favor of Sharia — discussed a number of issues ranging from basic and minority rights, to democracy and gender equality.

They eventually came to discuss the marriage between Muhammad and his last wife, Aisha. According to many Muslim sources, Aisha was just six years old when she was engaged to the prophet and nine when the marriage was consummated.

Tema confronted Tok on the issue, asking: "Do you believe that your prophet married a six-year-old girl? Sharia allows a Muslim to marry a six-year-old girl. Do you think that's ok?"

The exchange touched a nerve, with Tema — and his family — receiving millions of death threats since its publication. Tema says he is disappointed, especially regarding Turkey's justice minister, whose involvement is akin to prejudgement in the case. "He's my justice minister, too, he has to protect my rights," adds Tema.

In light of the current situation, Tema has decided to remain in Albania. He says he will not travel to Turkey until things cool down.

President Erdogan (without taqiyah) meets with three members of the Ismailaga Jamia community in Istanbul
Since coming to power, President Erdogan has maintained close ties to religious groups Image: ANKA

Turkey — divided over the rise of religious conservatism

Since taking power in 2001, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his conservative-Islamist AKP party have driven division in the country. After over 20 years in power he continues to trumpet the narrative that conservatives and Muslims — that is, his voters — have been repressed and discriminated against since Turkey's modern republic was founded more than a century ago.

Still, in his two decades in power, the 70-year-old has created his own elite, making extremist organizations and religious fraternities some of his most ardent supporters and closely involving them in his regime. Today, it is those who advocate a strict separation of church and state who feel repressed.

Polling shows Sharia law has little support

According to studies conducted by the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), a non-profit Turkish think tank, 75% of those polled said they wanted to live in a secular country when they were interviewed in 2016. Four years later, the number of those calling for a clear separation of church and state had risen to 81%.

Roughly 22% of those polled wanted Sharia law in 2016, four years later only 17% said they did.

Overall, about 85% of Turks say religion plays an important role in their lives, however, religion has very little relevance to those aged 18-24.

Are Sharia and Islam one and the same?

On Sunday, a group of 15 government-critical theologists voiced concern over the current Sharia debate. In a statement, the scholars explained that Sharia was neither a religion nor was it the same as Islam. One of those scholars, Cemil Kilic, told DW that Islamist fraternities and communities, as well as the media outlets they partially control, have for years aggressively propagated the fallacy that Sharia and Islam are the same. 

A traditionally dressed Muslim man stands before an enormous Turkish flag
Conservative groups with ties to the ruling AKP have been showered with money and privileges over the yearsImage: Aris Messins/AFP/Getty Images

So what is Sharia law?

Serdar Kurnaz, a professor from the Institute for Islamic Theology at Berlin's Humboldt University, says it's not that simple. Sharia, he explains, has been variously interpreted throughout history. "Sharia is a divine system of norms, it is neither a fixed system nor is there any textual basis from which one can simply reference and implement," continued Kurnaz.

And that is exactly what sparks conflict again and again — not just in Turkey and not just between religious adherents and non-believers, but rather among practising Muslims — because there are numerous understandings of what Sharia is.

Kurnaz explains Sharia thus: relying on revealed Islamic texts on a number of topics related to the everyday lives of Muslims and their religious practices, an attempt was made to derive societal norms in accordance with divine norms. "But one does not know what the divine norms actually are. Therefore, with the help of those revealed texts, we attempt to interpret God's will."

That means there is a lot of human interpretation involved in Sharia, says Kurnaz. In his opinion, Sharia is not a fixed, monolithic construct, but rather dynamic and flexible. That, he says, allows it to be constantly renegotiated and reshaped, especially when it comes to interpersonal relationships.

This text was translated from German by Jon Shelton

Elmas Topcu, sitting next to a bookcase full of books
Elmas Topcu Stories on Turkey, German-Turkish relations and political and religious groups linked to Turkey.@topcuelmas