- The Washington Times - Monday, June 16, 2008

AMMAN, Jordan | The controversy over the legality of the wearing of Muslim head scarves at universities in Turkey has taken a new turn that could lead to a serious political confrontation between hard-core secular institutions and the ruling party in parliament and government.

The country’s highest court said last week that it would provide its reasoning for its June 6 verdict, in which it annulled the law that lifted a head-scarf ban.

The promise came a day after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the constitutional court of overriding parliament and threatening national stability.

In his first reaction to the June 6 verdict, Mr. Erdogan last week demanded reasoning for the ruling that revoked the law, which he criticized as ideologically motivated.

“Acting in negligence of these constitutional provisions will lead to a system failure, a clash between the [legislative, judicial and executive] powers,” he told his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) parliamentary bloc.

Four-fifths of parliament in February voted in favor of a constitutional amendment that lifted a strict ban on female university students wearing the head scarf on campus, a promise the AKP had made to its electorate when 16.5 million people voted for the party in the 2002 elections.

Mr. Erdogan, whose wife wears a head scarf, warned that no power, including the highest court, can override the will of parliament.

“Legislative powers belong to the elected parliament,” he said. “No one has the right to put itself in the place of the lawmaker.”

Many independent Turkish legal experts say the court’s verdict is not legally sound because the court does not have the authority to deal with the actual content of the law, but to assess how the bill was passed, or overseeing the necessary of a two-thirds majority needed in parliament.

Therefore, many think it was a political decision by stringent secularists to pave the way for banning the AKP itself, which is facing a court case to ban it on the grounds that the party violates Turkey’s secular system.

Since its establishment in 1961, the Constitutional Court has banned 26 parties, and analysts expect the court verdict in August would add the ruling AKP to the list.

Thus, Mr. Erdogan received parliamentary support to keep the legislature open throughout the summer until the court rules on the AKP. The legislature normally takes a recess from July 1 to Oct. 1.

The issue of the head scarf is but a symbol of a growing dispute between the ruling party and the secularists - who dominate the military, judiciary, much of the media and academics - over the identity of the country. Restrictions on wearing the Muslim head scarf date back to the founding of secular Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923.

The campus ban was imposed after a military coup in 1980 in an attempt to eliminate religious militancy on campus. But it has forced many women in this Muslim country to either abandon their education or hide their head scarves under wigs to attend classes.

The government says abolishing the no-scarf policy is part of democratic reforms to advance free speech and minority rights, and has the support of the European Union that Turkey is seeking to join.

The secularists, however, see the head scarf and the AKP as shaking the very foundations on which modern Turkey was established after the fall of the Islamist-oriented Ottoman Empire at the start of the 20th century. They fear this would lead to the Islamization of the country.

Analysts say the Constitutional Court’s head-scarf ruling was a political blow to the AKP and a clear message that it was on the verge of banning the party, virtually tying its hands before an upcoming decision against it.

They add that while parliament can theoretically annul the head-scarf verdict, the legislature the AKP dominates is paralyzed owing to the court case it faces.

Turkish commentators warn that banning the party, of which President Abdullah Gul is also a member, will create a political turbulence the country would rather avoid when seeking membership in the European Union, which has often criticized Turkey’s harsh judiciary for obstructing democratic freedoms.

The AKP has already begun to mobilize its many supporters to confront the expected ban, to call for early elections and possibly for a referendum to vote on a new constitution that would strip the court of its authority.

And the military, which backs the judiciary, has historically proven it is ready to defend Turkey’s secularity through force, which could plunge the country into a violent crisis and an instability Mr. Erdogan has warned against.

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