- The Washington Times - Monday, May 8, 2006

ANKARA, Turkey. — “Let those wearing headscarves go to Arabistan,” Turkey’s former president, Suleyman Demirel, said recently. Yet when I arrived in Ankara’s Esenboga international airport last week, I thought for a second that no unveiled women remained in the capital of this Muslim nation. Hundreds were returning from umrah — visiting the sacred lands in Saudi Arabia. Some even had black hijab, showing only a glimpse of their eyes. The baggage claim was chaos, and at the exit gate the passengers were outnumbered by nearly twice as many loved ones waiting to pick them up. Most of them wore a shalwar — a very loose pant, with a skirt on top of it. All wore dark colors.

It would have been a moment of truth if Mr. Demirel could see these people arriving in their homeland rather than leaving it. When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected almost four years ago, he didn’t bring them from Arabistan; he just encouraged them not to hide any longer. I would argue that even the black hijab is not a threat to the secular republic. It is, after all, just a piece of fabric. The problem is the mindset that puts women under the black hijab.

The problem is uneducated people pushing and shoving while doing something simple like passing through passport control and collecting their bags. The problem is men ordering women around: “stay,” “don’t move anywhere,” “pick that luggage up and bring it here.”

Mr. Demirel should be the last person to advise any Turkish nationals to go anywhere but Turkey. As one of the longest-serving public officials, he should question how he and the politicians of his generation let the secular republic down, jeopardizing the aim of Westernizing the country. He should question how the first lady of the first revolutionary Muslim nation in the region was accustomed not to shake men’s hands because it is not religiously “appropriate,” but advised to break that rule in the course of her state duties.

Turkey’s so-called secular and Western politicians did not prioritize either the education or the rule of law as they should have. They let the economy down and introduced corruption. And they are exactly the ones who allowed political Islam to emerge and are responsible for the backward image of women wearing hijab and headscarves in today’s Turkey.

While Turkey had its domestic troubles, Europe exploited its vulnerabilities. Before awakening to the presence of radical Muslim terrorists and ideology, European policies helped feed and encourage political Islam in Turkey. After September 11, French President Jacques Chirac defended secularism by banning all religious symbols from public and government places. Previously, France slammed the Turkish Republic by challenging a Turkish deputy who wanted to be sworn in while wearing her headscarf. Leyla Sahin, a medical student who was expelled from Istanbul University in 1998 because she insisted on wearing the headscarf to class, lost her appeal — in the aftermath of horrendous terrorist attacks on America — when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the state has a right to protect the public’s interest and its secular nature.

However, before September 11, Europeans viewed political Islam differently than the Turkish Republic that was trying to challenge it. They have a different, Christian history. But the Islamists challenged the secular nature of the new republic from day one. “All these problems do occur because of different interpretations of the principles of secularism,” Turkish Parliament spokesman Bulent Arinc said recently.

Evidently, Europe’s former approach to Islamist groups is partly responsible for the confusion. Otherwise, the Turkish Republic’s stand on the issue before September 11 seem to be in perfect alliance with Europe’s decisions after September 11. Europe should have known that political Islam, conducted in the absence of women, has an ideology quite different than the freedoms they pretend to defend in the name of human rights or freedom of religion.

Before September 11, Europe condemned Turkey by not respecting freedom of religious expression. Before September 11, they never dared question the responsibilities of the religious elites being open-minded to the standards of today’s and tomorrow’s education. They did not question the content of some so-called religious practices and culture. What’s more, Turkey’s so-called secular former presidents and prime ministers should question why Turkish emigrants have trouble adjusting to the European way of life, and why the Indians, with their distinct culture and religion, face no similar negative tension in foreign societies. India is a rising power, from its nuclear journey to its competition with Silicon Valley.

Turkey, however, is wasting time trying to solve the controversy over “a piece of fabric” on women’s heads. With women making up just 4 percent of parliament’s membership, men evidently make the final decisions over their affairs.

Failing a miracle that would take this matter out of the political arena, there is no hope that the issue will be solved in a peaceful manner soon. The question is, will the increasingly veiled masses be able to change the spirit of the secular republic?

Tulin Daloglu is the Washington correspondent and columnist for Turkey’s Star TV and newspaper. A former BBC reporter, she writes occasionally for The Washington Times.

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