Freedom and Islam in Turkey

These are tumultuous times for Turkey. Even in a land accustomed to turmoil, the head-spinning developments of the past few weeks are phenomenal — and, for some, unsettling. On the line are Turkey’s credentials as a secular, liberal-democratic country with a majority Muslim population.

Foremost among these developments was the move to allow women to cover their heads in universities. The change engendered fierce opposition, including from hard-core secularists whose commitment to liberal democracy is at best suspect. The judiciary, most university rectors and many academics predicted catastrophe and a return to dark ages for women, as uncovered students may feel pressure to toe the line. Some opponents argued that the freedom to wear the headscarf would be extended to secondary education, de facto if not de jure, in due time.

More interesting was the impact of the move on secular circles, including academics who have a deep commitment to liberal values and democracy and who supported the lifting of the headscarf ban in principle. Over the last five years, these groups have supported every major effort by the ruling party to expand the space of individual freedoms and deepen Turkish democracy.

Yet some of these secular democrats expressed concern at the way the ruling party, the religiously conservative AKP, pushed the matter through the parliament as a constitutional amendment. They argued that the draft of a new more liberal constitution that would end all infringements on fundamental rights was already at hand. And there were other long-pending laws to change — notably the notorious Article 301 of the penal code against “insulting Turkishness” — that were also directly related to fundamental rights and liberties.

As if to underline these secular democrats’ point, the AKP is acting as if it has run out of breath for further reform, even EU-related changes, despite its overwhelming electoral victory in last July’s elections. Instead, AKP leaders seem more interested in promoting their own idea of piety. Together, these impressions have bolstered secularists’ assessment that the AKP cares only about religious freedoms.

The unconditional supporters of the headscarf move in the secular-democrat camp accused their former comrades-in arms, who opposed the singling-out of the turban issue, of not being true liberals. For them, a true democrat would rejoice whenever and wherever liberties flourished. To suggest otherwise would mean that there is a hierarchy among different causes. In their minds, this attitude would betray a residual Kemalism among the protagonists, with all the authoritarian-secularist and modernist implications of the term in today’s Turkey.

The story is more complicated still. “Lifting the ban” is actually a misnomer: The “ban” stemmed from constitutional court decisions in 1989 and 1991 that struck down a law permitting the headscarf in universities. However, there is no statute that specifically outlaws the wearing of the headscarf at universities.

In fact, Atatürk’s much-celebrated efforts to modernize Turks by governing their attire were limited to men. Out went the fez and in came the top hat — but the father of the Republic imposed nothing on women. That said, women were expected to go along with the Westernization. In time, “looking Western” became as much a sign of the elite as it was a symbol of modernity. And here lies the crux of the headscarf controversy.

As Turkey modernized, traditional segments of the population began to partake of urban life and created their own forms of integration. The modern headscarf, or turban, which exposes no hair and unlike other scarves covers part of the face, facilitated the appearance of women in public spaces. They attended universities and became professionals, public intellectuals, journalists. In time, a wide variety of dressing styles and colorful outfits, including tight blue jeans, flourished among them. Modernity for them no longer meant looking like a Westerner. Equally, to be pious did not negate modernity.

This fundamental shift in Turkey’s social composition and understanding of modernity must be understood in order to make sense of what is happening now in the country. Ultimately, such a confrontation is necessary if there is to be a liberal-secular-democratic synthesis in a Muslim society.

Obviously, lifting the ban is a case of fundamental freedoms: The state should have no right to prohibit students from wearing a particular outfit. Many observers also saw the matter as a clear case of religious freedom against coercive secularism. This part of the argument is incontrovertible.

Yet there is also no doubt that the ruling party mishandled the issue, generating much unnecessary tension. This is why it is highly likely that the political storm will continue. President Abdullah Gül has yet to sign the changes into law, and the courts are eagerly waiting to rule on the new statute’s compatibility with the principle of secularism. Because of the government’s carelessness, students who don headscarves may remain in a limbo for a while longer.

Turkey is trying hard to deepen its democracy and liberalize its secularism. The political class must rise to the occasion — particularly the AKP, whose fate is much more tightly linked to political liberalization and the EU membership process than its leadership realizes. Keep watching.

Soli Ozel teaches international relations at Bilgi University. This piece first appeared in the "Wall Street Journal Europe" on February, 15, 2008.

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