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Hijab in Turkey

Interview with Zaman Editor, Ekrem Dumanli


By Manal Lutfi


Istanbul, Asharq Al-Awsat- Ekrem Dumanli, the editor-in-chief of the popular Turkish daily ‘Zaman’ newspaper, is a supporter of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP). The ‘Zaman’ newspaper has close ties to the movement of Fethullah Gulen, the prominent Turkish cleric. However, in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Dumanli stated that the newspaper is independent and is not affiliated to any particular political trend, pointing out that some believe that the newspaper is close to the Turkish government due to its positive coverage of government activity. Nonetheless, Dumanli argued that the newspaper is also critical of the government.

The interview proceeded as follows:

Q: The ‘Zaman’ newspaper’s stance towards the veil is different from other secular newspapers; do you oppose the hijab ban at universities?

A: The subject of the veil is not a religious issue, rather it relates to personal and individual freedom. There are many different reasons for wearing the headscarf in Turkey. There are women wearing the veil out of “modesty,” those who wear it out of “fashion” and others who wear it as a “political demonstration” of a certain affiliation. If there are girls that are about to join university and want to wear headscarves, they should be allowed to. This is a personal choice. But the Supreme Council of Education has said no.

If we look at the past 30 or 40 years, we find that the Turkish government used to urge conservative people in Turkey to allow their daughters to attend state schools, and at that time, most of the girls used to wear the veil because many conservative families were not comfortable sending their daughters to schools to get an education without wearing headscarves.

Today, conservative families want to send their daughters who wear headscarves to government schools but the authorities have said no, it is not allowed. I have written about the Supreme Council of Education and the subject of hijab in universities. In my opinion, there are two groups involved in this issue; firstly, there are the girls who want to wear the veil, who can be described as religious, Islamist or conservative. Secondly, there is the Supreme Council of Universities that has said that girls with headscarves cannot attend university.

But what about men who might be more extremist or hard-line than veiled women? Because they do not wear a veil they can attend university without any problems. We must look at the minds rather than the headscarf. I think the problem began in 1983, a long time ago when the government decided to ban the veil in universities. To solve this problem there needs to be consensus within society.

Q: Do you think the government will annul the banning of the headscarf at universities?

A: Turkish society has solved the problem of the veil but the problem continues regarding the state and the constitution. There are no rifts within Turkish society between those who are for the veil and those who are against it. On the same street, you’ll find some wearing the veil whilst others wear shorts; each party has respect for the other.

Let us look at another problem in Turkey, namely, the Kurdish issue. The problem has continued since 1980 following the coup carried out by the Turkish military. Over 27 years have passed and more than ten thousand people were killed. If we look at society, we will find the Turks and the Kurds living together in the same city and on the same street. There are joint businesses and inter-marriages between Kurds and Turks. Where is the problem if we can live together? The problem, in my opinion, is not between the Turks and the Kurds; rather it is between Turkish society and the state. I say the same thing about the veil in Turkey. In society, there are many nationalists, liberals, Islamists and secularists; however, they are not fighting one another, rather they live together [peacefully]. The problem, in my opinion, is that the Turkish state fears its society. It is afraid of veiled women and the Kurds and this is unacceptable.

Q: Therefore, since you support the right of veiled women to attend universities, do you support the right of veiled women to work in public places?

A: The government offices are different to universities as there are two kinds of people. The first kind is those who receive the service and the second is those who provide the service. Those who provide services to people in government offices should not wear the hijab because they are representing the [secular] state. This is different to university where veiled girls should be able to attend without any restrictions because they are not employees at government institutions and they have the right to an education from the state. Nobody has the right to deny them this right.

Q: Were you surprised by the results of the last election that led to the AKP’s success?

A: I was not surprised. Public opinion polls indicated that the AKP would gain 45% to 50% of the votes but many writers and intellectuals did not believe that and said that it was difficult to trust opinion polls. However, I did expect this result; before the elections I wrote about this and talked to my colleagues about this matter. A number of reporters and I were in Washington with [Turkish Prime Minister] Erdogan last year and he told us that the AKP would lose up to 26% of the votes. But I did not believe this. There are many reasons behind the AKP gaining such a large result including its economic and social achievements and the way it dealt with the different threats to Turkey including the extremist Islamist elements.

Q: Are there extremist organizations of any kind in Turkey?

A: About six or eight years ago, there was a group that called itself “Turkish Hezbollah” that killed Turkish Muslims, but I, and many others, have doubts that they are Islamists because of the way that they selected their victims and carried out operations. In one operation, about 15 Turkish citizens who had no affiliation to politics, were tortured and killed by the group. In addition, a female Islamic writer was also tortured and killed. A few years ago, a security meeting was held and a reporter asked a senior general in the military about the Turkish Hezbollah. From what I remember, the general replied saying: “There is no Hezbollah in Turkey; they are a group of Islamists who seek to counter the influence of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).” Therefore, I, as well as others, have suspicions about the organization and if there really is a Turkish organization affiliated to Hezbollah, why did a senior official of the military deny its presence. This group, calling itself the Turkish Hezbollah, is not active now but some say that the more power that is gained by the elements of the PKK, the more this organization will appear publicly to fight it. However, there are other Islamist groups that are more dangerous but marginal such as the ‘Mobtadaein’ organization that attempted to assassinate a number of businessmen in Istanbul ten years ago but failed.

In general, the majority of Turks are moderate. If you went to any ordinary person’s home, you would find that there are those who pray five times a day and there are those who drink alcohol. This is Turkish society, moderate and diverse. To some people this is unbelievable that those who do not pray or who drink alcohol for example are Muslims who have respect for Islam and consider it part of their identity.

Q: You have excellent relations with Israel and America on the one hand, and with the Arab and Islamic countries on the other. Which is more important to you?

A: I believe that Turkey perceives the Arabs as allies and brothers, but at the same time it does not want war with Israel. Erdogan has criticized Israel’s policies; however, this does not mean that there is anti-Semitism in Turkey, but the people are furious about Israel’s policies. At times, the Israelis are confused because of the increasing criticism from the Turkish government and the Turks as a whole of Israel’s policies. However, criticism is levelled against the Israeli government rather than the Israeli people.

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