Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 11

On January 18, the Turkish Council of State, known as the Danistay, issued a written statement warning the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) not to push ahead with its plans to lift the ban that currently prevents women who wear headscarves from attending university.

The Danistay’s warning came the day after Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, the chief public prosecutor at the Yargitay, Turkey’s High Court of Appeals, implicitly threatened the AKP with judicial sanctions if it attempted to lift the ban (see EDM, January 18).

In its statement, the Danistay warned that any attempt to allow covered women to study at university would violate the principle of secularism that is enshrined in the country’s constitution as one of the four unchangeable characteristics of the Turkish state. More ominously, the statement predicted, “Such initiatives will damage not only educational institutions but also social peace” (Radikal, Hurriyet, Milliyet, Vatan, NTV, January 19).

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reacted furiously. Addressing a meeting of the Women’s Branch of the AKP, most of whom were themselves wearing headscarves, Erdogan bluntly dismissed the threat. “Everybody should know their place,” he said (Milliyet, Yeni Safak, CNNTurk, Vatan, January 20).

Tensions between Erdogan and the Danistay are nothing new. On May 17, 2006, Alparaslan Aslan, a 29-year-old lawyer with ultranationalist and Islamist sympathies, walked into the Danistay building in Ankara, shot dead one of the judges and wounded four others. When he was arrested, Aslan told police that he had carried out the assassination to protest the Danistay’s rejection of appeals by female students who had been expelled from university for wearing the headscarf.

Instead of simply condemning the attack, the AKP attempted to shift responsibility by peddling a series of unlikely conspiracy theories. On the following day, the then-Justice Minister Cemil Cicek warned the Turkish public to prepare for shocking revelations. None came.

It is traditional in Turkey for the serving prime minister to attend the funeral of any high-ranking state official killed in the line of duty. Few doubt that, under almost any other circumstances, particularly if the attack had been carried out by Kurdish or leftist militants, Erdogan would have done the same for the funeral of an assassinated judge. But this time he refused to attend, opting instead to open a new road in the Mediterranean resort of Antalya.

Erdogan’s decision was undoubtedly the product of personal stubbornness rather than support or sympathy for the attack on the Danistay. But it left an indelible mark. In contrast, the high command of the Turkish military turned out in force for the slain judge’s funeral, walking through the streets to the ceremony to the cheers of secularist mourners. On the following day, the country’s leading judges issued a joint statement calling on all of the institutions “responsible for protecting secularism” to “do their duty” (Hurriyet, Aksam, Radikal, Vatan, Sabah, May 20, 2006). No one doubted that these institutions were headed by the Turkish General Staff (TGS).

In spring 2007, the Turkish military played a leading role in the campaign to try to prevent the AKP from appointing Abdullah Gul as Turkey’s next president, including posting a statement on the TGS website warning of the threat that Gul’s appointment would pose to secularism and implicitly threatening a coup if the AKP pushed ahead with its plans.

As a result, the AKP’s landslide election victory in July 2007 and the appointment of Gul to the presidency in August 2007 were not only a major setback for the TGS but, for an intensely proud institution, a very humiliating one. Perhaps most critically, the strength of public support for the AKP appears to have taken the TGS by surprise. The results of the July 2007 elections showed that, regardless of whether or not they were justified, the TGS’s warnings about the threat posed to secularism by the AKP were simply not shared by most Turks.

In recent months, the TGS has adopted a low public profile in the debate over secularism, preferring to focus on its military campaign to eradicate the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). But there is no reason to suppose that either the high command or the majority of the Turkish officer corps are any less suspicious of the AKP’s intentions than they were in early 2007. If anything, the AKP’s plans to lift the headscarf ban will only have reinforced their doubts about the party’s commitment to secularism.

Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit is known to be under pressure from within the military to take a more assertive stance towards the AKP. But the events of summer 2007 have also suggested that there may now be limits to the TGS’s ability to exert political influence.

For most Turkish officers, allowing any erosion of the principle of secularism in the Turkish constitution would be tantamount to denying their raison d’être, particularly as the Turkish judiciary has already demonstrated its determination to confront the AKP. Yet the Turkish military’s ability to exercise political influence has long depended more on its public prestige than its ability to put soldiers on the street and stage an old-style coup. The TGS can ill afford a repeat of the humiliating rebuff of summer 2007.

Buyukanit is currently on an official visit to the United Kingdom and is not expected back in Turkey until January 23. But the headscarf debate is unlikely to go away and, when he returns to Turkey, Buyukanit is likely to be faced with a major dilemma.