- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 1, 2005

There are few countries in the world in which policemen ensure that women dress appropriately. Saudi Arabia is one example. Its notorious “religion police,” called mutawwa, force women to cover their heads and bodies. In Turkey, the story is reversed: The Turkish police require the removal of headdresses.

To be fair, Turkey’s dress code is much less severe than Saudi Arabia’s. In Turkey, the ban is enforced only in defined parts of the public square: government buildings, courtrooms, university campuses and all schools.

This ban has been a hot issue in Turkey for many years. While no civil servant or high school student has ever been allowed to wear a headscarf, university students once were accorded this privilege — until the 1990s, when the secularist establishment was alarmed at the growing number of such “religionists” in colleges, and strict rules were applied to ensure the “tightheads” wouldn’t be taken in.

Some students agreed to uncover their heads and continued with their education, but thousands lost their chance to graduate — simply for choosing to wear a cloth over their heads, which they believe to be God’s will.

A few months ago, a new episode was added to the longstanding drama. In the Ataturk University of Erzurum, a very conservative town in the East, all students, of course without any headscarves, came to receive their diplomas at graduation. With them came many mothers and grandmothers. Alas, some wore headscarves. Following a order from the university rector, police denied them entry.

The women cried and swore that they, too, believed in the principles of Ataturk, Turkey’s founding father; but the orders were strict. In secular Turkey, no religious garment must ever appear on the “public square” — the liberated zone of Turkey’s self-styled secularism.

The bone of contention here is the rigid ideology of Turkey’s secularist establishment. Theirs is an intolerant version of secularism imported from France in the early 20th century, a time when the anticlerical zealotry of French revolutionism was at its zenith, and the Nietzschean claim “God is dead” was the intellectual norm. An all-powerful state and a uniform society were seen as the key to “progress.”

The young Turkish Republic, founded in 1923, formulated an authoritarian mode of secular nationalism, not neutral to but dominant over and sometimes outright hostile to religion. In two decades of single-party rule, most Islamic traditions were replaced with European ones. Speaking against these “reforms” was punished severely.

That’s why Turkey was never a really convincing example of the compatibility of Islam with modernity for Muslims in other nations. At the problem’s heart is the lack of real democracy. While Turkey evolved into a much more democratic country in recent decades, it still retained some vestiges of the authoritarian secular nationalism.

Turkey’s current conservative government, run by the AKP (Party for Justice and Progress) is very much willing to lift the headscarf ban. Yet whenever AKP leaders speak about changing the ban, they are reminded by the secularist establishment such a move would create a “regime crisis,” a euphemism for pressure from the military. Consequently, Turkey remains the only country in the world in which a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf has simply no chance for any kind of education. Turkey’s secularist establishment claims this is necessary, because otherwise Islamists will turn Turkey into another Iran.

That’s an unsubstantiated fear. Turkey’s current government led by AKP leader Tayyip Erdogan is not Islamist — let alone “Islamofascist” as a commentator recently argued — but a conservative political force that has brought more freedom to the whole Turkish society in recent years. Polls show more than 90 percent of Turks wish to live under a secular regime, but more than 70 percent oppose restrictions on the headscarf and such personal Islamic practices.

What the people actually want is a government that makes no laws — and employs no police — “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Thus, while the United States promotes liberty and democracy in the broader Middle East, it should remember even Turkey needs more of both. Apart from secularist and Islamist authoritarianisms, there is a third way called liberal democracy. That is exactly what the Turkish society needs — and deserves.


A journalist and writer in Istanbul, Turkey. On the Web at: www.thewhitepath.com.

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