− Islamic-Secular Divides continue to be pervasive in Turkey
− The headscarf ban is likely to be repealed
− There is a growing Islamic vanguard in Turkey
After twenty years, it now appears that the ban on women wearing headscarves in Turkish universities is about to be lifted thanks to a measure in the Turkish Parliament. The ruling Islamic Justice and Development party (AKP) believes it now has enough votes in the Turkish Parliament, thanks to the support of the National Action Party (MHP), to pass a constitutional amendment repealing the headscarf ban in universities. Currently, women are not allowed to attend universities or government institutions while covered with a headscarf. The current amendment is meant to be a compromise. The rescinding of the ban only applies to universities and only to headscarves tied loosely under the chin. It does not apply to any garment that covers the neck or a burka. Those would still be unacceptable under the ban.
The government claims that women are being denied their rights to an education for refusing to relinquish the headscarf, and therefore the practice is discriminatory and infringes on their freedom of expression. The government believes they are correcting a wrong and restoring rights to women. Overall, this issue has been highly controversial in Turkey, and will likely cause further division if the measure is passed.
Secular Foundations of Modern Turkey
To understand the importance and significance of this ban to the Turkish people is to understand the philosophical foundations of modern Turkey. Modern Turkey came into existence from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, considered the founder and father of modern Turkey. Ataturk strongly believed that for Turkey to succeed as a modern nation, it had to separate religion from the state. Of all of Ataturk’s political and philosophical tenets popularly known as Kemalism (republicanism, populism, secularism, reformism, nationalism, and statism), secularism is the tenet that has most reverberated through the Turkish political establishment for the last eight decades.
The political elite in Turkey has also been the secular elite and they have fiercely guarded this vision for Turkey. When governments have strayed to far from this position, the military known as the guardian of the state and its interests, has stepped in to preserve this most sacrosanct principle, and those governments have been removed.
Interestingly enough, from the early days of the republic, dress became a political issue. The fez was outlawed in favor of traditional hats, and Western clothing was encouraged. Ataturk believed that “traditional” or religious clothing made Turkey look backwards and had no place in official institutions. From this philosophy came the ban on headscarves in public institutions.
Opposition to repealing the headscarf ban
The impending repeal of the headscarf ban is causing a great deal of controversy in Turkey and thousands of protestors recently marched in Ankara against lifting the ban. Turkish secularists, the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the courts, university rectors, and the military all opposed rescinding the ban. Those in opposition strongly believe the removal of the headscarf ban is the first step in politicizing Islam and bringing Islamic symbols into public life. They also believe that once the headscarf ban is removed, a slippery slope will ensue, allowing Islam to infiltrate more aspects of Turkish public life.
Many secularists were uneasy when the AKP came to power in 2002, and were upset with the prospect of the AKP controlling all key posts in the government, including the Prime Minister’s Office, the Presidency, and the Speaker of the Parliament (Previous Report). As a result of the controversy over an AKP presidential candidate, massive protests broke out supporting secularism.
The Erdogan government had no choice but to call for early general elections but once again the AKP came out triumphant. The election solidified the legitimacy of the AKP in Turkey and has also emboldened its actions. Previous attempts to rescind the headscarf ban issue failed both within and outside of Turkey. The European Court of Human Rights upheld the headscarf ban in 2004.
In previous years, there simply was not enough support in Turkey to rescind the headscarf ban. Now the atmosphere is different. A stable economic and political climate under the AKP and the rise of an Islamic vanguard that is more urbanized, wealthier and more interested in its Islamic roots is leading to more acceptance of AKP initiatives in Turkey. Although the AKP claim it is still committed to secularism in the country, the secular elite will remain suspicious of any such claims.