The recent flood of news about instances of child abuse around Turkey has caused a backlash of anger among the public and politicians from different parties. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan instructed six ministers to work on more effective administrative and legal measures to address child abuse, including harsher penalties, such as the highly debated chemical castration for offenders. The commission held its first meeting Feb. 22.
Two days earlier, on Feb. 20, Erdogan affirmed the government’s determination to create harsher penalties for child abuse at a meeting of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Then he unexpectedly mentioned adultery, announcing, “By enacting legislation on adultery, all of those abuses would be treated within the same scope.” He also referred to his own government’s decriminalization of adultery back in 2004, when Turkey was actively and enthusiastically working on the accession process to the European Union.
“This is self-criticism,” Erdogan noted. “I must say that in the EU process, we made a mistake. … We should now evaluate preparing legislation about adultery and perhaps consider it together with the issue of harassment and others.”
At the time, the EU had required Turkey to make some reforms to its penal code. Turkey shelved proposals to outlaw adultery, helping align the Turkish legal code with European human rights legislation.
Today, 14 years later, Erdogan stated that it was a mistake, noting, “This society holds a different status in terms of its moral values.”
On Feb. 21, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin confirmed at a press conference that a new adultery law is on the Justice Ministry agenda. Some reactions were as expected. Conservative columnist Rahim Er wrote in support of the inclusion of adultery and the death penalty in criminal legislation, claiming, “Divorce, drugs, irresponsible pleasure and immoral print and digital publications are as dangerous as terrorism.” This perspective mirrors traditional Islamic views on the matter. Making a case against adopting EU norms, Er added, “Laws and legislation should be native and national.”
On the other hand, deputy from the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party Altan Tan, a prominent Kurdish politician who himself is also a religious conservative, 4said the state should not get involved in the lives of people who might have different religious or moral views. “In my opinion, the appropriateness of the relations that two people will engage in with their own will should not be dwelt upon too much.”
Meanwhile, those who had maybe expected or anticipated a more heated immediate debate on the issue were surprised by the meek reaction of the main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Party spokesman Bulent Tezcan explained the reasons to the media: Introducing adultery when speaking about child abuse is “diluting” the problem. The CHP sees the discussion of adultery as Erdogan’s “new instrument to polarize society.” Rather than falling into this “trap,” the CHP would keep child abuse the main agenda rather than incorporating it with adultery.
Professor of law Osman Can, a member of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and former AKP member of parliament for Istanbul, spoke to Al-Monitor about the timing and context of bringing adultery back to the Justice Ministry’s agenda. He first explained the recent history of adultery legislation in Turkey, while mentioning that it was once a criminal offense in European countries (for example, in Germany in the 1950s), as it was also a crime in the old Turkish Penal Code. Until 1996, a man was deemed an adulterer only if he was proven to be in a prolonged affair similar to a “husband-wife” situation. On the other hand, a woman could be found guilty of adultery if she was unfaithful or engaged in sexual activity with another man only once. Then, through decision E 1996/15, the Constitutional Court canceled articles regulating adultery, although only for husbands at first. To enact such regulation, the parliament was given a one-year period. But as that was not done in time, the criminal status of adultery continued to be valid for women. It took almost two years for the Constitutional Court to also cancel the articles applicable to women and adultery through decision E 1998/3, saying it was unequally applied.
Could the government indeed move forward with some legal formulation of criminalizing adultery anew? Can spoke of possible regulations. To not frustrate the secular segments of the population, he speculated, the government could criminalize adultery for both males and females equally. In that case, the government could propound to comply with the earlier decisions by the Constitutional Court.
But, in that case, it is uncertain how all Islamists could support the criminalization of adultery. Some conservative men in Turkey have multiple wives, although only one of these wives is legally a spouse. So banning adultery without legally allowing polygamy would put these men in trouble. Canan Gullu, the head of the Federation of Women Associations of Turkey, stressed this fact to oppose the proposed law, asking, “Will we be able to say that someone who is married to four women is committing adultery?”
Can believes Erdogan brought adultery back to the agenda today because of the strong influence religious beliefs have on the public. “As the presidential elections approach in 2019, there is also the aim of rallying his base while creating a new agenda, but I think this is secondary,” added Can.
As far as Turkey’s relationship with the European Union, Can believes that the EU’s negative reaction to the adultery law could propel both Kemalist-nationalists and ultranationalists to support Erdogan. Similarly, Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe think tank in Brussels and an expert on Turkish foreign policy, told Al-Monitor, “The government is unlikely to back down for fear of a backlash by the EU. For the EU as well, it will be categorized as yet another political irritant.” Ulgen interprets the revitalization of the adultery law as “the total erosion of EU influence in Turkey.”
It’s unclear whether this matter is something that would be discussed between the Turkish delegation led by Erdogan and the leaders of the EU, who are to meet March 26 in Varna, Bulgaria. But on Feb. 23, European Council President Donald Tusk said that the council will decide on March 22 and 23 whether the “conditions are there” for the EU-Turkey summit to take place.
At the end of the day, it seems that today’s Turkey is a far cry from the country that enthusiastically wanted to join the EU at the beginning of the century. The consideration of recriminalizing adultery, which was decriminalized to comply with the EU, is a highly symbolic testimony to that change.