Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 229

Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s choice of a conservative as the new head of the Higher Education Council (YOK), which oversees university education in Turkey, has reinforced Turkish secularist fears and raised concerns about the possibility of renewed tensions over the role of Islam in public life.

Education has always been one of the main battlegrounds between Turkish Islamists and hard-line secularists, with the issue of a woman’s right to wear an Islamic headscarf in a university taking on an almost iconic status. Hard-line Turkish secularists have long regarded the headscarf not so much as an expression of individual piety but as a political symbol, and the wearing of it in state institutions – whether by civil servants or students in state-monitored educational establishments – as a violation of the principle of secularism enshrined in the constitution.

The fact the Gul’s wife wears a headscarf was one of the two main reasons for the massive secularist street protests against his nomination for the presidency in April 2007. The other was the fear that, with a prominent member of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the presidential palace, the party would begin to fill the higher echelons of the state bureaucracy with Islamists. Gul’s predecessor, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, had vetoed hundreds of government appointments precisely because he believed that the nominees were Islamist sympathizers.

Since he was finally appointed president in late August, following the AKP’s landslide election victory of July 22, Gul has approved every law and appointment presented to him by the AKP government. But most of the appointments have been for relatively minor positions. The real test was expected to come when Professor Erdogan Tezic completed his four-year term as head of YOK on December 8. A secularist, Tezic had often been fiercely critical of the AKP, making it extremely unlikely that Gul would appoint him to another term.

In the weeks before Tezic was due to step down, the Turkish media vigorously debated who was likely to succeed him. Traditionally, the head of YOK has been someone with considerable experience with university administration, typically – as was the case with Tezic – a former rector. However, yesterday (December 10), Gul surprised everybody by naming Yusuf Ziya Ozcan, a relatively unknown sociology professor, as Tezic’s successor.

In the Turkish media, the first reaction to Ozcan’s appointment was one of bewilderment. Initially, the only information Turkish websites were able to provide was a brief CV, copied and pasted from the list of faculty staff at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University where Ozcan worked. However, as researchers feverishly tracked down more information, Ozcan’s appointment quickly split the media on ideological lines, causing consternation among secularists and approval from Islamists, such as the pro-AKP dailies Yeni Safak and Zaman, which are run by followers of the exiled Islamic preacher Fetullah Gulen (see EDM, November 21).

It later emerged that Ozcan had been one of the founders of the Pollmark research company, which conducts opinion polls for the AKP, and that much of his recent academic research had been on the role of Islam in social life, including a refutation of claims that Islam is an impediment to development. Several newspapers noted that in an interview with the daily Sabah in September, Ozcan had said that he supported lifting the headscarf ban in universities (Sabah, September 10). In conversation with this Jamestown correspondent, some of Ozcan’s academic colleagues described him as a former leftist who in recent years had become increasingly conservative and closer to Islamist circles. The daily Vatan bluntly accused him of being a follower of Fetullah Gulen (Vatan, December 11). The accusation is impossible to verify. However, an article in the Gulen movement’s English language daily, Today’s Zaman, enthusiastically endorsed Ozcan’s appointment, describing him as a “moderate” (Today’s Zaman, December 11).

There are many liberal academics who, although far from being Islamists themselves, regard the issue of female students being able to wear headscarves in universities as a simple human right. However, in conversation with this Jamestown correspondent, several questioned the motivation behind Ozcan’s appointment, commenting that it looked not only ideologically motivated but, because of Ozcan’s close relationship with the AKP, nepotistic – particularly as it came within days of the sale of the ATV/Sabah media group to a company with close ties to the party (see EDM, December 10). Others were more damning. Within hours of Ozcan’s appointment, Professor Aybar Ertepinar, the deputy head of YOK, tendered his resignation, stating that he would not be prepared to work under Ozcan (Radikal, Milliyet, Hurriyet, Vatan, December 11).

In late November, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that in mid-December the AKP would make public a draft new Turkish constitution (see EDM, November 27). The general expectation is that the draft will reflect the intense pressure from the AKP’s grassroots to lift the ban on the wearing of the headscarf in universities. The identity of the head of YOK at the time was always regarded as being the key to whether any theoretical lifting of the ban could be implemented. Nobody doubts that, with Ozcan as head of YOK, it will considerably easier.

There is also little doubt that Ozcan’s appointment will be seen as a declaration of intent by Gul, raising fears among Turkish secularists that even more controversial appointments may follow. The question now is whether, after being defeated in their attempts to prevent Gul’s appointment to the presidency, hard-line secularists have the appetite for another battle. But, if they do, the staunchly secularist Turkish military is unlikely to withhold its support.