The word ulama in its Arabic context denotes scholars of almost all disciplines. In the context of Sunni Islam, however, ulama are regarded as “the guardians, transmitters and interpreters of religious knowledge.” With the rise of Islamism as the dominant, state-sponsored ideology, the Turkish ulama have gained prominence: talk shows, books, newspaper columns, sermons and fatwas come in abundance. Devout Turks take them seriously. Secular Turks often mock them. Yet the Turkish ulama provide a rich context for those who want to understand Islamic piety as interpreted by religious scholars.
Now, according to the Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum, Turkey ranks 130th among 144 countries measured. This embarrassing score does not go without good reason. Ironically, women’s rights marchers in Ankara were met with tear gas and arrests on March 5 as they gathered for a protest ahead of International Women’s Day (March 8). After the marchers ignored calls to disperse, Turkish riot police fired tear gas and detained about 15 women. That was how Turkish women “celebrated” Women’s Day.
Child abuse is also increasingly visible in Muslim Turkey. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, the number of child sexual abuse cases–- just those actually reported to law enforcement — rose from over 11,000 in 2014 to nearly 17,000 in 2016. Experts say of course that many more cases are not reported.
Against that backdrop, Turkish Islamic scholars remain largely mute but preach on matters that do not quite look sane to secular observers. One such celebrity scholar is Nureddin Yıldız, author of 35 books on Islamic practices. Yıldız is the darling of Islamist media and has literally millions of followers. In his student years, he was a member of the National Turkish Students’ Union, the hardline Islamist student group which also had among its members Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.