- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2005

ISTANBUL — Graduation celebrations this month were tarnished at a few universities by decisions to bar entry to female relatives wearing kerchiefs.

“I was turned away like a common criminal,” wept Sabire Karsi, sitting outside Ataturk University in Erzurum, where the youngest of her sons was receiving his degree. Her elder son died in the army fighting Kurdish separatists in 1995.

“This was an isolated and provocative event,” said university rector Yasar Sutbeyaz. “Carrying out the state’s instructions makes the state strong.” He was referring to the touchstone of Turkish republicanism, its staunch secularism.

Similar arguments failed to convince families attending a graduation ceremony at Marmara University here in Istanbul. When officials denied entry to an 85-year-old grandmother who refused to uncover her head, relatives and the students walked out in protest.

The ceremony was postponed.

“These shameful events do not suit Turkey,” said Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, promising to “do away with them.”

Since the rise of political Islam in the 1980s, few issues have been more divisive in Turkey than kerchiefs. Though worn in various forms by around 70 percent of adult women, many continue to see it as a dangerous political symbol.

Its use is forbidden to university students and employees in state offices.

Held in deep suspicion by secularists because of the use of kerchiefs as a head covering for women in mosques, the current government has avoided addressing the issue. Vaguely expressed laws have left plenty of room for others to be less careful.

Until 2002, nobody blinked when women wearing kerchiefs attended the annual reception in the president’s lodgings, political commentator Hasan Cemal points out. “As soon as this government came to power, they were forbidden” on the president’s orders.

For most commentators, the novelty of this month’s bans on women attending graduation ceremonies has more to do with state attempts to destabilize Turkey’s current government than with any real concern for secularism.

They point to a bizarre debate triggered in mid-June when the pro-state parliamentary opposition suddenly began insisting on early elections. Without them, it argued, the current government would be in a position to elect Turkey’s new president in 2007.

“They are trying to put a mullah like themselves in the president’s chair,” said opposition MP Ali Topuz.

If the next president’s wife wears a kerchief, added opposition leader Deniz Baykal, “it will become impossible to walk Turkey’s streets bare-headed.”

Such attitudes go down well among Turkey’s Westernized elites, strongly attached to the authoritarian modernization process begun by Gen. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a World War I Turkish military hero who founded the Turkish Republic and was its first president.

But for Ismet Berkan, editor of the liberal daily Radikal, they are just proof that Mr. Baykal and his colleagues have misread the Turkish public.

“If you put secularism to a referendum, 90 percent of the public would approve it,” he said. But “over 80 percent would vote for an end to the kerchief ban.”

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