At Large

Headscarves and Helmets

What happens when a secular Muslim government disallows gestures toward Islamism?

By 6.17.08

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Turkey's parliament passed a bill several months ago allowing girls to wear the Moslem headscarf at the state universities. That single act now may precipitate a complete change in the country's political environment.

Turkey's constitutional court in a clear 9-2 vote on June 5 struck down the earlier parliamentary action. The majority opinion held that the headscarf measure was a threat to its constitutionally enshrined secular state. The result of this historic finding has been to put into jeopardy the existence of the entire ruling party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A petition has been submitted by Turkey's top prosecutor to remove the Justice and Development Party (AKP) from the legal political representative rolls. In effect this action would place a ban on the party that has been in power since 2002 and a prohibition of Erdogan and his leadership team from further political life for at least five years, and perhaps permanently.

The basis of the prosecutor's charge (which AKP's stalwarts call an attempt at a "judicial coup d'etat") is that the party's objective is to "Islamize" the nation and overthrow the secular constitution. Two openly Islamic parties during the 1990s were closed down on similar charges.

AS STRONG a popular following as the AKP may have, it is no match for the determined "protector of the secular state," the Turkish military aided by the judiciary and a major portion of the media. The ideology of the man who created modern Turkey in the 1920s, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, wanted secularism to control all aspects of Turkish life. In practice this has meant that religion is subordinate to state control.

It seems a small thing that female university students have been given the right to wear Islamic headscarves. Not to the court. The Turkish court is very resistant to such devices that they see as the thin edge of the wedge of introduction of Sharia law.

That the scarf issue was immediately followed by action to shut down Erdogan's internationally respected political party is consistent with past experience. So why was the headscarf matter pushed through by the AKP in the first place?

The term used to describe traditional female Arab attire is hijab. In Arabic the word means "screen." It includes a scarf covering the head and also the neck and upper chest. A full hijab would be a long dress to the ankles with only the hands showing from the sleeves. The concept of this mode of dress is to have a "screen" between public and private life. The headscarf alone is a symbol of the larger Islamic cultural guide.

The seemingly innocuous introduction of the hijabi headscarf into an otherwise secular couture can appear therefore to be the first step in introducing religious instruments into ordinary public life. This is not only against Kemalist principles; it is an affront to the entire secular ideology of Mustapha Kemal. At least this is the way the secularists see it.

WHO ARE these "secularists"? They are urban professionals, state employees, business people, the media and, most importantly, the armed forces who were charged by Kemal Ataturk with the ultimate responsibility of defending of the state. These groups are termed by European commentators as "the republican elite" fearful of the reemergence of the caliphate that existed before Mustapha Kemal's assumption of power.

Outside of the major cities, in the towns, villages and farms of the rest of Turkey, there is a deep belief in the practice of Islam. To Turkey's secularists these communities breed willful ignorance. The image exists among metropolitan sophisticates that the "unwashed" of the countryside want to impose religious rules on everyday aspects of life. In other words the specter of a revival of Sharia law haunts urban Turkey.

The AKP in its application to join the European Union has been characterized as a modern Turkish political party with solid Islamic credentials which nonetheless did not keep them from envisioning a modern, principally secular, Turkey. The issue of the student headscarves was something that Europe's leaders tended to overlook, but Turkey's protectors of secular life have not.

Will Turkey be thought of less by a West eager to pretend to equality with certain Islamic traditions while fearful of Islamic radicalism? Which is more democratic? Restricting religious costuming in the name of secular-demanded separation of state and religion, or allowing limited emblems of religious cultural belief to exist as a symbol of democratic process? And will Turkey's military care?

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.