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It’s the Turkish secularists who look backwards

  • Last Updated: June 08. 2008 11:14PM UAE / June 8. 2008 7:14PM GMT

When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey was re-elected in 2007, it campaigned on a platform of overturning a ban on wearing the hijab in state-controlled areas such as universities and government offices. It fulfilled its election pledge earlier this year, paving the way for thousands of religiously-observant women to enter university. However, the Constitutional Court, Turkey’s highest legal body, overturned the government’s decision last Thursday, claiming that it violated the principles of secularism enshrined in the country’s constitution.

Turkey’s people are predominantly Muslim, but there are powerful state institutions – in particular the army, the courts, and the higher education council – that work hard to ensure that the country remains secular. The AKP has attempted to avoid confrontations with the secular establishment, especially the army (which has a habit of deposing governments it feels are too Islamic), although in 2004 it passed a constitutional reform that removed military representation on the higher education council.

The headscarf ban itself dates back to the founding of the republic in 1923, although it only began being seriously enforced in 1997. It is only one front in a battle between secular and Islamic forces in Turkey that has been waged for decades. On the secular side, the army sees itself as the defender of Kemalism, the official (secular) state ideology. It has staged a number of coups over the years and as recently as 1997 manoeuvred to have the then prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, removed for his religious leanings. However, given that the vast majority of Turkey is Muslim and roughly 65 per cent of Turkish women wear the hijab, more recently the army has taken greater care not to appear to meddle too deeply in politics.

The courts, however, as they showed last week, have not been so chary. Not only did they affirm the ban on headscarves but they are also hearing a case that may outlaw the AKP and ban its members from politics for five years for “undermining the secular ethos”. The prosecutor alleges that initiatives such as the removal of the headscarf ban are first steps in the party’s attempts to create an Islamic state.

While the headscarves issue and the constitutional court attract the most attention, the country has been steadily emerging as a regional powerhouse. The prime minister, Recep Erdogan, is refereeing the renewed peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, and Turkey is fast becoming a bridge between the East and West; a moderate Islamic society that fits equally well in Europe as the Middle East or Asia. It would be supremely unfortunate if Turkey were to become destabilised and Mr Erdogan removed from power at a time when the country is beginning to exercise its geopolitical muscle.

The institutions of the army and higher education have an aversion to the hijab, viewing it as a backward-looking representation of radical forms of Islam. The forces of secularism must realise that their country is predominantly Muslim and its people have the right to express their faith. A moderate reform such as lifting the headscarf ban demonstrates that Islam and democracy are not mutually exclusive 

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