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Role of Sharia: A Fault Line in Turkish Society

by Magali Rheault and Dalia Mogahed

Turks who want no legal role for Sharia are not openly hostile to it

The first article analyzed public attitudes about the role of Sharia as a source of legislation, concluding that although perceptions vary greatly across the three countries, most Iranians and Egyptians (and even many Turks), say Sharia should be a source of legislation. The second article analyzed the attributes that Iranians, Egyptians, and Turks who have an opinion about the role of Sharia associate with religious law.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) barely averted being outlawed last week. Members of the secular establishment had accused the AKP of compromising the country's secular principles after the government lifted the ban on headscarves in public universities earlier this year. The government has repeatedly asserted its commitment to uphold the principles of the Turkish republic and that it has no plans to apply Sharia. In a close verdict, Turkey's constitutional court did not ban the party and its members, including the president of the country, but it did issue a "serious warning" to the ruling party about policies that could be perceived as bringing religion into the public realm and cut the party's financing for one year.

Gallup Poll findings underscore the broad secular-religious divide that has come to define Turkey. But they also reveal that Turks who see no role for Sharia in legislation are often just as likely as those who see a role for it to make direct negative associations with Islamic law.

Between May 1 and May 30, 2007, Gallup asked Turks whether they think Sharia should influence legislation. Just 7% of Turks say Sharia must be the only source, 26% say it must be a source, and 41% say it should not be a source. Gallup only asked Turks who expressed an opinion on this topic if they associate certain attributes, positive and negative, with Sharia compliance. This analysis seeks to compare perceptions of Turks who say Sharia should influence legislation and those who don't.

Not surprisingly, Turks who say Sharia should be a source of legislation are far more likely to make positive associations with Islamic law than those who say it should not be a source. However, between one-fifth and one-quarter of those in the latter group and 10% to 19% of respondents in the former group say they don't know or refused to answer the Sharia attribute questions.

The greatest differences of opinions between the two groups are about associating Sharia compliance with the reduction of corruption (70% for those who say Sharia should be a source of legislation, compared with 22% for those who say it should not), justice for women (69% versus 21%, respectively), fairness of the judicial system (63% versus 17%, respectively), and protection of human rights (62% versus 17%, respectively).

Other significant differences of opinion focus on associating Sharia compliance with reducing crime (68% for those who say Sharia should be a source of legislation, compared with 27% for those who say it should not), promoting scientific progress (52% versus 12%, respectively), allowing people to have a say in their government (53% versus 14%, respectively), promoting economic justice (55% versus 19%, respectively), and protecting minorities (51% versus 16%, respectively).

Both groups, however, are almost equally as likely to associate Sharia compliance with limiting the power of rulers.

One might expect that large percentages of Turks who say Sharia should not be a source of legislation would associate negative attributes with it. With a few exceptions, however, only minorities of Turks in this group do so. Just like for the positive attributes tested in the poll, large percentages of respondents in both groups say they don't know or refused to answer the Sharia attribute questions.

The most significant differences of opinions between the two groups are about associating Sharia compliance with oppressing women (22% among those who say Sharia must be a source of legislation, compared with 39% among those who say it should not be a source) and promoting cruel criminal punishments (33% versus 47%, respectively).

The other four negative attributes elicit similar levels of associations from both groups. About one-third of Turks (32%) who say Sharia should be a source of legislation versus 37% of those who say it should not be a source associate Sharia compliance with limiting personal freedom. Twenty-one percent of the former and 24% of the latter associate Sharia with oppressing minorities.

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Survey Methods

Results are based on face-to-face interviews with 737 adults (who either say Sharia must be the only source of legislation, it must be one of the sources or it should not be a source), aged 15 and older, in Turkey in May 2007. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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