Conflicting Liberties


Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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On February 7, Turkey's Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) assumed a united front by introducing a constitutional amendment that would allow women with headscarves to attend university. Turkey's ardent secularists are up in arms, with 110 lawmakers opposing a bill that won 400 votes in parliament. While a second round of voting will follow on February 9, the motion is expected to pass, granted president Gul's blessing.

The piece of cloth has caused division and grief, pitting Turkey's strict secularists against the conservative elite in a country where 99% of the population is Muslim. The ban on the headscarf in universities was introduced following the military coup of 1980 - intended as it was to help dispel radical religious and ideological forces from Turkey. The fear amongst staunch secularists, that laicism will be rolled back and replaced by Sharia law, has grown since the ruling party successfully won a resounding victory in the 2007 parliamentary elections.

Though the AKP avidly denies any intent to whittle down the republic's secularist character, Turkey's old school secularists remain deeply distrustful of a party with Islamist roots - accusing it of a covert Islamist agenda. "I entrust the liver to the cat but not secularism to you," Deniz Baykal, leader of the People's Republican Party (CHP) said in parliament this month.

The CHP has not been the sole voice of alarm amongst secularists. In early February, more than 100,000 demonstrators gathered and marched to the mausoleum of Mustafa Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic. Leading academics have warned that the bill would trigger clashes on campuses, lead teachers to boycott lectures across Turkey, and cause trade unions and civic bodies taking to the streets of Ankara. Turkey's military has laid low this time, realising the futility of making bold - if not threatening - statements to the ruling party and not following through with action.

Opponents to the headscarf bill argue that females who do not wear headscarves at university will be forced to cover their heads due to peer pressure, and see the move as the first step to introducing headscarves in primary schools, high schools and government offices.

The AKP considers such concerns as exaggerated. Lifting the headscarf ban in universities should reinforce the principle of secularism, reported Prime Minister Erdogan.

Turkey's Nationalist Movement Party has also refrained from pulling its punches in response to criticism over its agreement with the AKP on allowing headscarves in universities. "There were groups that have been milking faith. Now, a new group has emerged that is milking secularism" Devlet Bahceli, leader of the MHP said in a public statement in February. "No one can accuse us of undermining the republic or secularism. This is unacceptable illusion and arrogance." The headscarf ban will, moreover, remain in place in primary and secondary schools, the MHP pointed out.

This sense of assurance is rooted in the knowledge that the bulk of the Turkish population supports an end to the ban on headscarves in universities. A February poll conducted by the Ankara-based Metropoll Research Company showed that 64.9% of respondents believed that female students should be allowed to wear the headscarf at university, while 27.6% opposed.

Despite the level of popular support for the ban to be lifted, Turkey's staunch secularists could yet throw a wrench in the works. The country's old guard secularists still occupy positions of power in the judiciary, bureaucracy and academia. The CHP for its part will put up a fight and has promised to bring the bill before the constitutional court - a move that some political analysts believe would trigger a serious crisis.

But the government has plenty of recent experience in defusing seemingly intractable conflicts between themselves and staunch secularists at home. The days when women were forced to wear wigs at university to cover their headgear may soon be gone.

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