By Ben Holland
* Â “According to our beliefs…”
Nov. 27 (Bloomberg) — Huseyin Uzmez denies having sex with a 14-year-old girl. He just defends a man’s right to marry one.
Uzmez, 76, a columnist at Turkey’s IslamistÂ VakitÂ newspaper, is pleading not guilty to charges of sexually abusing a minor in a case that has gripped the country of 70 million. Since his release on bail on Oct. 28, Uzmez has publicly defended Islamic rules that permit girls to wed below the legal age of 16.
“A girl who’s reached puberty, who’s having periods, is of age, according to our beliefs,” Uzmez toldÂ national televisionÂ the day he got out. “And if she’s of age, she can marry.”
Uzmez returns to court on Dec. 16. Whatever the eventual outcome, the case has widened the gulf between Turks promoting Islamic law and those who support the secular system put in place by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s. TheÂ state religious authority, which employs imams at Turkey’s 80,000 mosques, opposes child marriage, though the practice remains rife.
Thirty-nine percent of married women in the southern province of Sanliurfa were 16 or younger on their wedding day, according to the Istanbul-based Social Democracy Foundation, which isÂ campaigningÂ against the practice.
They typically marry in religious ceremonies and delay civil marriage until they’re of age, according to the foundation.
“As long as you have people in Turkey who say this is okay and who use Islam to justify it, it remains a big problem,” saysÂ Amanda Akcakoca, an analyst at the European Policy Center in Brussels. “When people think Turkey, they think human-rights violations and problems with women’s rights.”
Out on Bail
Uzmez is accused of the abuse of the girl, called B.C. in the indictment, on several occasions in Istanbul and Bursa provinces. His first hearing was in September in Bursa, northwest Turkey. He was released after a second hearing, when the court ruled he no longer needed to be kept in jail.
His lawyer, Bulent Demir, says Uzmez will be found not guilty next month because there is no forensic evidence. He also argues that Uzmez is the victim of a witch hunt that was intensified because of his religious background.
“Without waiting for the result of the court case, everyone’s behaving as if he did it,” Demir said in an interview. “His Islamic identity has been used as a weapon against him.”
TheÂ MilliyetÂ newspaper’s cover story on Nov. 21, illustrated with a photo of Uzmez, cited forensic data showing that as many as 120 child-abuse cases are being reported each week. “Turkey, What Happened to You?” was the front-page headline.
After Uzmez’s release, female lawmakers from Prime MinisterÂ Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party responded by proposing laws doubling prison sentences for child abuse.
Fatma Sahin, a sponsor of the child crime bill, said the Uzmez case is “upsetting” and highlights the need for penalties that are “tough enough to deter.” It has nothing to do with religion, she said.
Erdogan, 54, has passed human-rights laws, many aimed at protecting women, as part of his bid to edge Turkey closer to the European Union. It started membership talks in 2005.
A 2004 overhaul of the penal code stiffened penalties for so-called “honor killings,” the murder of women seen as staining a family’s reputation, and classified rape within marriage as a crime for the first time.
Sahin said Turkey, which ranked 123rd of 130 countries in a World Economic ForumÂ studyÂ of gender equality, is “weaker on the implementation” of such measures.
The EU’s Nov. 5Â reportÂ on Turkey’s progress to membership said “domestic violence, honor killings and early and forced marriages are still a serious problem.”
At the same time, Erdogan also has promoted measures that opposition parties say were inspired by Islam.
This year, he attempted to end the ban on Islamic-style headscarves at universities. That law, later overturned by the Constitutional Court, prompted prosecutors to demand Erdogan be removed from politics for undermining the secular constitution. In 2004, he tried to make adultery a crime, dropping his proposal only after EU pressure.
Uzmez’s comments showed how religious culture in Turkey can be oppressive, according toÂ Canan Aritman, a lawmaker from the opposition Republican People’s Party.
Aritman said she has needed 24-hour armed protection since March, after she called on families not to make their young daughters wear Islamic-style headscarves. Such practices deny girls the right to remain children, she said. Aritman said she frequently meets women who are aware of sexual abuse within their own families, though they feel powerless to stop it.
Left on the Street?
“I’ve told a lot of women that they have to go to the courts, but they refuse,” Aritman said. “They say they’ll be left on the street.”
Levels of abuse in Turkey are probably no different than in Western Europe, though are half as likely to be reported, said Fatih Yavuz, a specialist in forensic medicine at Istanbul University who is regularly consulted in child abuse cases.
Gulsun Kanat, whoseÂ Purple Roof FoundationÂ helps women who suffer from domestic violence, said she’s concerned about the Uzmez case because his prestige as a writer on religion backs up his comments on sexual maturity and marriage.
“It gives other people the green light,” she said.