Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 35

As supporters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) stage sporadic protests in western Turkey against the ongoing Turkish military operations in northern Iraq, the government’s hurried attempt to lift the headscarf ban in Turkish universities appears to be deepening the other great divide in Turkish society, namely that over the role of Islam in public life.

By February 25, although the Turkish military had yet to release details of the numbers of troops involved in the incursion launched into northern Iraq on February 21, the operation now appears to consist of a series of coordinated commando raids rather than the fully fledged invasion originally reported by the Turkish media (see EDM, February 22). But the Turkish army appears to have been met with fierce resistance. On February 24, the Turkish General Staff (TGS) announced that 15 Turkish soldiers and 112 PKK militants had been killed been killed since the start of the operation (Hurriyet, Yeni Safak, Radikal, Cumhuriyet, February 25). However, the TGS’s figures for the PKK’s losses include estimates of the number of militants killed in air strikes and long-range artillery fire. In what is likely to be a considerable exaggeration, on February 25, the Firat News Agency, which has close links to the PKK, quoted Bahoz Erdal, the commander of the organization’s military wing, as claiming that 81 Turkish soldiers had been killed since the start of the operation (Firat News Agency, February 25).

The military operation has been vigorously condemned by the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP). On February 23, an attempted demonstration in Istanbul by a group of DTP supporters protesting the incursion was broken up by police. Later that evening, PKK supporters torched at least six vehicles in different neighborhoods of the city (NTV, Hurriyet, Vatan, February 24). More protests are expected in the weeks ahead, particularly in the run-up to the Kurdish New Year of Newroz on March 21.

As if the threat of social polarization over the Kurdish issue was not enough, on February 24, Yusuf Ziya Ozcan, the head of the Higher Education Council (YOK), which oversees higher education in Turkey, instructed all universities in the country to start admitting students wearing headscarves with immediate effect (Yeni Safak, Zaman, Hurriyet, CNNTurk, February 25).

Ozcan’s announcement followed the approval by President Abdullah Gul on February 22, when media attention was focused on the military operation in northern Iraq, of two constitutional amendments passed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on February 9. The amendments do not directly address the headscarf ban, which is based on a 1989 ruling by the Turkish Constitutional Court (see EDM, February 11). However, initially, they had been expected to be followed by changes to YOK regulations, which would have explicitly lifted the headscarf ban and – provided that they were not subsequently annulled by the Constitutional Court on the grounds that they violated its ruling of 1989 – would have finally allowed students who cover their heads to attend university.

The members of YOK are appointed by the president. Ozcan was named head of YOK on December 10, apparently more for his closeness to the AKP than for his academic or administrative abilities (see EDM, December 11). On February 15, Izzet Ozgenc was appointed as Ozcan’s deputy. Ozgenc had served as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s legal advisor during Erdogan’s term as mayor of Istanbul in 1994-98 and was the architect of the AKP’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to criminalize adultery in September 2004.

In recent days, there have been signs that the AKP has been hesitating about amending the YOK law, precisely because it fears that the changes could be annulled by the courts. However, in his 24 February directive to the nation’s universities, Ozcan declared that no further legal changes were needed and that the constitutional changes had already lifted the headscarf ban. This is not the view taken by the vast majority of the Turkish legal profession; nor, indeed, by the AKP or it would not have felt it necessary to draw up plans to change the YOK regulations.

The constitutional amendments were only published in the Turkish Official Gazette on February 23. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has already indicated that it will appeal to the Constitutional Court for the amendments to be annulled. It is possible that the court will choose not to annul them, arguing that, as they do not explicitly lift the headscarf ban, they do not contravene its ruling of 1989 on which the ban is based.

However, Ozcan’s directive to Turkey’s universities without waiting for a ruling from the Constitutional Court has infuriated many Turkish secularists; not least because, as it is still the middle of the academic year, it will only affect those women who had already removed their headscarves in order to attend university, not the many thousands who had been prevented from receiving an education by refusing to uncover their heads.

The initial indications are that the vast majority of Turkey’s 115 universities have ignored Ozcan’s directive (NTV, CNNTurk, February 25). On February 25, nine of the 20 members of YOK went one step further and issued a public statement not only refusing to follow Ozcan’s orders but accusing him of instructing them to break the law by violating the Constitutional Court’s ruling of 1989 (NTV, CNNTurk, February 25).

Ozcan has also infuriated those in the Turkish judiciary who already suspect that the AKP has ambitions to erode secularism. On February 25, Sabih Kanadoglu, the Honorary Public Prosecutor at the High Court of Appeals, dismissed Ozcan’s claims that the constitutional amendments of February 9 had lifted the headscarf ban.

“It’s a big lie,” said Kanadoglu (NTV, CNNTurk, February 25).