Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 10

Two statements by Turkish state officials have once again highlighted the paradoxes of the Turkish interpretation of secularism.

On January 15, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reignited the long smoldering debate over women who cover their heads being prevented from attending university by declaring that the ban should be lifted even if the women regarded their headscarves as a political symbol (see EDM, January 16). On January 17, the Turkish judiciary – which, together with the military, is regarded as one of the twin bastions of the Turkish secular establishment – entered the debate. Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, the chief public prosecutor at the Yargitay, Turkey’s High Court of Appeals, issued a written statement warning that the lifting of the headscarf ban would lead to social conflict and result in universities becoming breeding grounds for separatist and anti-secular activities. More ominously, Yalcinkaya warned that political parties would be held responsible for any initiatives that resulted in such conflict and he formally requested a copy of Erdogan’s speech (Milliyet, Radikal, Hurriyet, Vatan, Yeni Safak, Zaman, Sabah, January 18).

In the past, such comments by a public prosecutor have usually led to an application to the Turkish Constitutional Court for the political party concerned to be closed down. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was established in August 2001 by former members of the Virtue Party (FP), which had been outlawed by the Constitutional Court in June 2001. The FP was the fourth in a series of Islamist parties that had been established over the previous 32 years. All of them were eventually closed down by the Constitutional Court.

Having won 46.6% of the popular vote in the July 22, 2007 – and given the continued failure of the opposition parties in Turkey to provide a remotely credible alternative to the current government – the AKP appears electorally unassailable. If anything, any attempt to close the party down would probably boost its popularity still further. Nevertheless, Yalcinkaya’s statement highlights not only the dangerously deep divisions in Turkey over the role of religion in public life but also the paradoxical nature of the interpretation of secularism that the statement was designed to defend.

On the same day that Yalcinkaya issued his statement, Professor Ali Bardakoglu, the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, known in Turkish as the Diyanet, was interviewed on the privately owned news channel NTV. The Diyanet is affiliated with the Prime Ministry and, in theory, responsible for the administration of religious affairs in Turkey. In practice, this means Sunni Islam. The Diyanet has a larger budget than several ministries and is responsible not only for paying the salaries of Sunni Muslim clergy and mosque personnel, who are classed as civil servants, but also for building mosques and organizing Kuran courses. No such state support is extended to members of any other belief, whether they are members of Turkey’s dwindling non-Muslim minorities or its substantial Alevi community (see EDM, January 14).

During his interview on NTV, Bardakoglu stated that the wearing of the headscarf was a religious obligation incumbent on all Muslim women. “Any woman who says ‘I am a Muslim’ should cover her head,” he said, adding that such religious obligations were eternal and unchangeable (NTV, January 17). Bardakoglu refuted Alevi claims that they should be allowed to practice their beliefs in their own places of worship, insisting that they were all really Sunni Muslims and that the only place of worship for a Sunni Muslim was a mosque.

Bardakoglu also dismissed complaints that the current system of compulsory religious education in all schools was discriminatory, particularly against the Alevis; a claim that last year was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights (see EDM, October 12). Bizarrely, Bardakoglu maintains, “These courses are not intended to shape students’ minds according to a specific religion. The courses provide them with accurate information on religion and protect them against misinformation and the abuse of religion” (NTV, January 17).

Unfortunately, this is simply not true. Although religious textbooks instruct students to respect those who hold different beliefs, they explicitly inculcate Sunni Islam. Textbooks published by the Turkish Ministry of Education teach students that the Kuran is the revealed word of God, instruct them to memorize prayers in Arabic and describe the Prophet Muhammed as “our Prophet” and Sunni Islam as “our religion” (for example, Din Kultur ve Ahlak Bilgisi 4, page 34). Turkish social studies textbooks describe a shared religion as one of Turks’ unifying national characteristics, with the clear implication that those who are not Sunni Muslims are not fully Turkish.

The Turkish Ministry of Education also runs over 450 of what are called Imam Hatip high schools. The Imam Hatip schools were originally established to train Muslim clergy. However, even though there are no female clergy in Islam, since the mid-1970s the schools have also accepted female students. In addition to the standard Turkish curriculum applied in all high schools, students at Imam Hatip schools also learn Arabic and have extra lessons in Sunni Islam; with the result that schools have become very popular with conservative Turks anxious for their children to have a religious education. Erdogan himself is a graduate of an Imam Hatip school.

Islamic tradition maintains that females should cover their heads while reading from the Kuran, although they are usually forbidden from doing so when they are menstruating when they are regarded as being ritually impure. As a result, under the current system, the Turkish state not only inculcates Sunni Islam through compulsory religious courses but – both in state-run Imam Hatip schools and university faculties of theology – requires female students to cover their heads while reading from the Kuran. But covering their heads at any other time – whether as a result of the compulsory inculcation of a religious belief that they are taught is a national characteristic or because of a statement made by the civil servant in overall charge of religious affairs in the country – is regarded as an assault on the principle of secularism enshrined in the constitution.