Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 17

Hopes that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would attempt to revive Turkey’s stalled bid for EU membership appear set to be the first victim of the party’s efforts to lift the ban that currently prevents women wearing headscarves from attending university.

In recent weeks, the AKP has shifted its attention from outlawing the ban through promulgating a new constitution to abolishing it by amending the current constitution. Under Turkish law, any amendments to the constitution require the support of at least two-thirds of the members of Turkey’s unicameral parliament. The AKP currently holds 341 of the 550 seats in parliament. Over the last few days it has been engaged in negotiations with the ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which has 70 seats in parliament, in the hope of gaining its support for a constitutional amendment that would outlaw the headscarf ban.

The MHP is an outspoken supporter of the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881–1938), the aggressively secularist founder of the modern Turkish Republic. However, the MHP’s fierce nationalism is based on what is called the “Turkish-Islamic Synthesis,” in which Sunni Islam is portrayed as one of the defining characteristics of the Turkish nation. The MHP draws most of its grassroots support from the pious poor of Anatolia. Although they are under-represented in the higher echelons of the party, most female MHP supporters cover their heads and are thus effectively barred from studying at university. But the MHP has also openly opposed not only Turkey’s accession to the EU but the liberalizing reforms required by the EU before it is prepared to grant Turkey full membership, including the abolition of the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which makes it an criminal offence to denigrate “Turkishness.”

On January 28, the AKP and the MHP reportedly reached an agreement on amendments to Articles 10 and 42 of the current constitution and Article 17 of the Higher Education Law. The changes would make it unconstitutional to prevent anyone receiving a higher education on account of the way that they dress, provided that it did not contravene any of the laws introduced by Ataturk. The amended Higher Education Law would specify that any woman who attempted to enter university with her head covered would have to ensure that her headscarf was fastened under her chin and did not obscure her face (Hurriyet, Milliyet, Radikal, Yeni Safak, Zaman, Sabah, January 29).

However, the price of the agreement has been that proposed amendments to Article 301, which had been expected to come before parliament before the end of January, have been indefinitely postponed (NTV, January 29). Even if they had been brought before parliament, it is doubtful whether the AKP’s proposed amendments, which were essentially cosmetic (see EDM, January 8). would have satisfied the EU. Nevertheless, the fact that even these changes have been indefinitely postponed will be interpreted in Brussels as further evidence that, however frequently it may publicly repeat its commitment to EU membership, the AKP no longer regards accession as a priority.

Since Turkey officially opened accession negotiations with the EU in October 2005, the AKP has made little effort either to introduce the liberalizing reforms necessary for compliance with the political criteria for EU membership or extended its 1996 Customs Union Agreement with the EU to include the Republic of Cyprus. From fall 2006 onward, European Commission officials were reluctant to apply too much pressure to the AKP as they knew Turkey faced presidential and general elections in 2007. In July 2007 the AKP was returned to power in a landslide election victory. In August 2007 it successfully appointed one of its leading members, Abdullah Gul, to the presidency. Privately, European officials now make little secret of their frustration that, six months after the July 2007 elections, the AKP has not used its overwhelming public mandate to introduce any of the required reforms. They complain that whenever they present the AKP with suggestions to move the accession process forward they do not receive a substantive response. Nor are they receiving any initiatives from the AKP itself.

Earlier this month, President Gul repeated the Turkish official line that EU accession remained a priority and promised that “2008 will be the Year of the EU” (Turkish Daily News, January 18). However, recent developments suggest that 2008 is more likely to be the year of the headscarf.

Opinion polls consistently suggest that the majority of the Turkish female adult population cover their heads and that a majority of both men and women favor the lifting of the headscarf ban. But, even if the proponents of the headscarf ban are a minority, they are a very powerful one: including not only the secular establishment, such as the judiciary and the military, but most of the business elite and the majority of the university rectors, who would be responsible for ensuring that women wearing headscarves were allowed to attend classes.

Even if the AKP succeeds in pushing its proposed constitutional amendments through parliament, the legal situation is far from clear. Ataturk did not introduce any laws that regulate female attire. However, his commitment to secularism was unequivocal. The current headscarf ban is based on a ruling by the Turkish Constitutional Court that describes it as being anti-secular. In November 2005, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the ban was legal; admittedly on the somewhat bizarre grounds that banning those who wore the headscarf, which in Turkey means the majority, was necessary in order to preserve the rights of those who did not, which in Turkish is the minority. If the AKP succeeds in passing its constitutional amendments, there will inevitably be legal challenges both to the amendments themselves and any attempt to apply them in practice. Unfortunately for the AKP, the Turkish judiciary is still dominated by hard-line secularists.

There are also reports that hard-lines secularists, who have been relatively quiescent since the AKP’s election victory, are now planning mass public protests against the AKP’s plans to abolish the headscarf ban (Bugun, January 29). Even if the AKP eventually wins and the headscarf ban is lifted in theory and in practice, the price of victory is likely to be high in terms both of social cohesion and the expenditure of so much time and effort when Turkey is already facing a number of pressing challenges. These include not only its relations with the EU but increasing signs that – even without the global fallout from concerns about a possible recession in the United States – the pace of growth in the Turkish economy is beginning to slow.