- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 12, 2008

NICOSIA, Cyprus — The Turkish parliament’s decision to allow female students to cover their heads at universities has created a potentially explosive situation with religious, political and ideological implications, diplomats and area specialists say.

Participating in the growing imbroglio are Islamic scholars, defenders of Turkey’s secular system instilled more than 80 years ago, army generals who have pledged to defend the republic and the country’s leading politicians.

The stakes involve Turkey’s stability and its Westward orientation, as well its aspiration to join a European Union that strictly separates religion and state.

The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former Islamic militant, has appealed for calm after several mass demonstrations by opponents and backers of the decision. The influential army, which during the past 50 years has ousted four governments, has remained watchful.

To many Turkish generals, educators and judges, the introduction of what has become known as “the Islamic scarf” or “hijab” into academia is an ominous sign, indicating that “political Islam” could encroach further into the nation of 71 million.

Apart from heady slogans used by opposing sides in the increasingly heated atmosphere, the debate has focused on whether female attire is dictated by the Koran, Islam’s holy book.

An increasing number of Islamic scholars say the only indication of female dress in the Koran is in Verse 24:31, which says: “Tell the faithful women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts and not display their beauty except what is apparent of it, and to extend their scarf to cover their bosom.”

Countless discussions have taken place across the Muslim world about the exact meaning of the text. Some say the prophet Muhammad left the decision to female “faithful” without demanding strict application of the text.

Olfa Youssef, a university professor in Tunis, Tunisia, said the wearing of the veil or scarf “was never one of the Pillars of Islam. There is no particular dress that has to be worn.”

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