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Religion, secularism and the headscarf in daily life

The above phrase is the title of a survey conducted by Tarhan Erdem’s polling company and subsequently published in the Milliyet daily.


In the wake of social scientist Şerif Mardin’s coining the phrase “mahalle baskısı” (neighborhood pressure), the Turkish media has allotted extensive coverage to the place of the headscarf in secular life.

It is only natural that this sort of survey attracts interest in Turkey, where political struggle is staged through religious symbols. Likewise, these surveys are used somewhat frequently as tools of manipulation. Erdem’s survey fits perfectly into this category. The survey results have been discussed in Milliyet and on some leading TV stations.

The survey was publicized on the one hand, and it was also used to justify certain assumptions on the other. The primary assumption and assertion was that the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) rule has had a significant impact on society’s becoming more conservative. A bitter opposition based on this sort of assertion is carried out in the media against AK Party rule. The basic assertion is that the AK Party relies heavily on the state apparatus to transform society. It especially uses educational institutions to create an anti-secularism society. The expression “mahalle baskısı” (neighborhood pressure) borrowed from prominent political scientist Şerif Mardin is used to define this situation. The government does not use the administrative tools directly. Instead it implements policies that make conservative values appealing to the public. Consequently the majority imposes these conservative values on the minority. In short, the assertions mainly note that the secular order is under direct threat from a growing social opposition.

Opposition through religious symbols

The notion “mahalle baskısı” is more relevant to group dynamics of social psychology than it is to sociology. It may be defined as the individual’s inclination to act in conformance with the social rules or the norms of his group and the imposition of internal rules by the group on the individual. Erdem’s controversial survey was conducted to prove this “mahalle baskısı” exists and influences society. The survey measures the commitment of the majority to mainstream social rules and the pressure imposed on those who violate these rules. For instance, it measures the pressure exerted by those who fast over those who do not and by those who do not drink alcoholic beverages over those who do. Yet it is fairly obvious that the survey was done with manipulative purposes, and the statistical results of the survey are cause for serious doubts.

Above all, the survey was completed in early September and is thus relatively old. Erdem is a renowned field researcher by practice and profession. Shortly after Erdem’s research, Professor Binnaz Toprak and Professor Ali Çarkoğlu also conducted a study. These two scholars are known as experts of methodological research; their findings contradicted those of Erdem. Interestingly, both surveys were conducted by two closely related companies. The relatively newer survey was published in early September by another daily paper from the same media group. It seems that the media group publicized two separate and different surveys at different times according to the state of its relations with the administration.

If it seeks to deliver warm messages to the AK Party, it uses the moderate survey done by Toprak and Çarkoğlu; but if it wants to incite opposition to the government, it publishes Erdem’s survey, which asserts “mahalle baskısı” is influential in society. It appears that the first survey was published to extend support to the government in the presidential election. It is argued that the said media group published the second survey because of its discontent over the sale of the ATV-Sabah media group.

Alleged increase in the number of women wearing the headscarf

Erdem’s survey suffers from a colossal flaw -- it makes a distinction between those who wear the “türban” and those who wear the “headscarf,” and it compares the differences through dependent variables. The problem is that the türban-headscarf distinction has been invented by the modern-secularist elite. Those who cover their heads based on their religious beliefs do not consider this distinction. They simply deem the action a form of modesty and they cover their heads because of their religious beliefs. The modern-secularist elites divide those who cover their heads into “modern” and “traditional” groups. For them, those who prefer the türban are modern and those who prefer the headscarf are traditional. Erdem based his survey on this distinction.

But this distinction is baseless. Those who cover their heads do not make such a distinction. Therefore, the distinction is artificial. During the transition to democracy after the military coup in September 1980, then-chairman of the Higher Education Board (YÖK), Professor İhsan Doğramacı, invented the “türban” to circumvent the headscarf ban. Doğramacı declared that headscarf was banned in the universities whereas wearing the türban was allowed. Today’s YÖK chairman asserts just the opposite -- he notes that they are tolerant of the headscarf whereas they oppose the türban because it is a political symbol. There have been serious discussions in Turkey on what the türban is and what the headscarf is, and those who cover their heads based on their religious beliefs don’t understand the difference. Yet its use for manipulative purposes seems very familiar.

The headscarf ban itself is ridiculous. The ban exists as a blight inconsistent with human dignity, civilized principles and fundamental freedoms. Erdem’s attempt to assess the türban in a separate category is the primary reason for the major “finding” of the survey’s being headlined in the paper. The legend that the “türban is a political symbol” produced by those who invented the headscarf issue is also the major departure from the plot reflected in the research.

The percentage of those who wear the headscarf has increased from 64.2 to 69.4 in four years. The number of women wearing headscarves increased from 13 million to 14 million. Apparently this is not a dramatic change given social trends, population expansion and other factors in Turkey. But how does the number of people wearing the türban increase fourfold? In the introduction to the survey, Erdem says in relation to this finding, “The reason for this striking increase is not clear.”

Religion is exploited for political purposes in Turkey. We may apply this argument particularly to the cases like the survey under review. Aren’t these discussions ones that turn religious precepts into marketable items?

I hold the opinion that the headscarf ban is a practice of power. An elitist minority holding the power sustains its privileged status owing to these symbolic bans. The imposition of bans implies possession of power. Maintenance of the headscarf ban represents the continuation of the power of the minority. For this reason, it is no coincidence to see the presence of the ban in the universities, where arbitrary rule is most visible. Erdem’s research is a manipulation that seeks exploitation through politics.






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