Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 8

An off-the-cuff response by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to a question by a journalist has unexpectedly reignited the long-running debate in Turkey over the Islamic headscarf by triggering a furious reaction from Turkish secularists.

The headscarf has long been one of the main ideological battlegrounds between Islamists and secularists in Turkey. Recent opinion polls suggest that around 70% of Turkish women cover their heads (see EDM, December 3). However, women wearing the headscarf are forbidden from being employed by the state or from attending university. Women who wear the headscarf have repeatedly insisted to Jamestown that they do so out of a sense of personal religious obligation. But, for hard-line secularists, the headscarf is a political symbol that silently advocates the establishment of a state based on Islamic Sharia law. Leaked copies of a draft new constitution drawn up by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) suggest that it will attempt to include a clause that will make it unconstitutional to prevent women wearing headscarves from receiving a university education (see EDM, January 7).

On January 15, Erdogan attended the first meeting of the UN-sponsored Alliance of Civilizations forum in Spain. The alliance is the brainchild of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who decided to take action to build bridges between the Muslim and Christian worlds following the devastating Madrid bombings of March 11, 2004, which killed 191 people.

Erdogan has been a strong supporter of the initiative and was one of the main speakers at the alliance’s inaugural meeting in Madrid. While responding to questions from Turkish journalists, Erdogan was asked whether he would consider it a crime if the Islamic headscarf was worn as a political symbol. He replied that he did not believe the headscarf should be banned even if it was worn as a political symbol.

There is little doubt that Erdogan merely meant that he regarded the headscarf as a question of freedom of conscience and that women should be allowed to cover their heads, whatever the reason. His remarks were largely ignored by the Islamist press. However, both the political opposition and the mainstream secularist media seized on them as proof that Erdogan was finally admitting that the headscarf was a political symbol.

“Until yesterday the prime minister was claiming that the headscarf was not a political symbol. Come on, admit it!” crowed Deniz Baykal, the leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) (Milliyet, Vatan, Hurriyet, January 16).

“Erdogan has dynamited social reconciliation,” declared Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) (Milliyet, CNNTurk, Sabah, January 16).

But AKP Deputy Chair Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat, who is overseeing the preparation of the AKP’s draft of a new constitution, remained defiant, insisting that a clause guaranteeing that covered women can attend university will be included in the new constitution, which is expected to made public in early February (Milliyet, January 16).

The furor has demonstrated the continuing deep divisions in Turkish society over the headscarf. The liberal daily Radikal reported that university rectors in Turkey are virtually unanimous in opposing any lifting of the headscarf ban (Radikal, January 16). Nor is there any doubt that the traditional bastions of the Turkish secular establishment, such as Turkey’s powerful military, will also voice their concerns if the AKP presses ahead with the current draft of the new constitution. Although the AKP appears electorally unassailable, its plans to lift the headscarf ban appear to be a recipe for social unrest and a deepening of the already dangerous divides in Turkish society.

Ironically, at the same time as his remarks were causing uproar in Turkey, the main theme of Erdogan’s address to the forum in Madrid was how Turkey served as an example of tolerance and harmony between people of different faiths. However well-intentioned Erdogan may have been, it is hard to escape the conclusion that his sentiments have yet to be internalized by some elements in Turkish society. The last 18 months have seen an alarming rise in an aggressive combination of nationalism and religious intolerance. January 19 marks the first anniversary of the murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink by an ultranationalist-Islamist youth. The trial is still continuing of seven more nationalist-Islamist youths who tortured and then cut the throats of three Christians in the southeastern city of Malatya in April 2007. Threats and attacks on non-Muslims have become increasingly widespread. Perhaps one of the most telling indications of the deteriorating situation is an ongoing dispute between the Anglican church in Istanbul and the Anglican bishopric of Gibraltar, which has recently ordained a Turkish convert to Christianity. One of the main reasons that representatives of the Anglican community have opposed the ordination is that they fear that appointing as a priest a Turk who was born into a Muslim family will further fuel local hostility towards non-Muslims and endanger their lives (Turkish Daily News, January 15).

Nor are feelings running any less high among secular Turkish nationalists. Last week, a group of students from a high school in the central Anatolian city of Kirsehir presented a framed picture of the Turkish national flag to General Yasar Buyukanit, the chief of the Turkish General Staff (TGS). The students said that they had been inspired to make the painting after the killing of nearly 40 Turkish soldiers in attacks by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in early fall last year. Over a period of two months, the students – who included both boys and girls – pricked their fingers so that they could use their own blood for the red of the Turkish flag. Not only was their gift accepted by the TGS but they were eulogized by both Buyukanit and the nationalist press as an example for the youth of Turkey to follow.