Neighbors / Turban Warfare

Turkey is in the midst of a pitched battle over whether to let women cover their head in public. At stake is the secular nature of the country, some say.

"I'll leave Turkey because the Islamists have won," promised famous Turkish pianist Fazil Say about a month ago in an interview with the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung. Say, who has performed several times in Israel, immediately came under attack. Opponents of the religious ruling party considered Say someone who doesn't understand politics, and willing "to desert in the face of the enemy." On the other side of the political barricades, he was described as a member of the Turkish elites "who want to expand their influence by using baseless scare tactics," as religious columnist Mehmet Kamis wrote in the newspaper Today's Zaman, which represents a moderate Islamic worldview.

The debate surrounding Say's statements picked up speed last week in the wake of a debate aroused by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Alliance of Civilizations forum in Spain. Erdogan said in an interview with the Turkish NTV network, "Today, in a world where liberties are discussed, where every person dresses as he wishes wherever he goes, it would be a serious problem in terms of liberties if Turkey is not able to solve this problem."

"This problem" has been dubbed the "turban problem," meaning women who want to cover their heads in public places, particularly at universities. According to a 1989 decision by the Turkish constitutional court, women are forbidden from entering university campuses while wearing a head covering. Wearing head coverings in other public places also is forbidden.

The head covering is not only a private matter for religious Turkish women. It is the very heart of the bitter political struggle between the Justice and Development Party, headed by Erdogan, and the establishment and the secular majority, which consider any religious symbol a blatant violation of the country's secular constitution and a threat to the secular character of the country as it was established by Kemal Ataturk.

Erdogan and Islamist President Abdullah Gul, whose wife cannot enter university campuses, have always claimed that this is a matter of individual faith and not a religious symbol, which means that it is a matter of individual rights that liberals must back, too. But in a television interview last week, Erdogan deviated from this line by stating, "Even if it is a political symbol, the head covering must not be prohibited."

That is exactly what scares the secular community in Turkey. Since if it really is a political symbol, then the entire struggle over "the turban" is political rather than religious, and it is not a matter of individual rights - it is a power struggle between secular and religious over the character of the country. The response of the anti-religious establishment was not long in coming.

"Political parties cannot present motives, engage in actions or make declarations that could change the secular character of the country," warned Turkey's general prosecutor Abdurahman Yalcinkaya. "Such declarations begin by arousing public awareness, and afterward lead to isolationism and confrontations."

The distance between such a warning and filing a lawsuit against the prime minister for acting against the constitution is short, and some people may hasten to act on this law in order to shake up the ruling party. The prosecutor also interpreted the essence of Turkish democracy, explaining that according to the Turkish constitution, initiatives with religious motives cannot be defended in the name of democracy. But a country that blocked access to the video sharing Web site YouTube this week for the second time, claiming it publicizes content that undermines Kemal Ataturk, has a unique interpretation of democracy.

Not everyone agrees with the prosecutor general. The highly regarded columnist Yusuf Kanli, of the English-language Turkish Daily News, believes women should be allowed to study at universities while wearing head coverings, "just as students wearing long coats, a symbol of leftist leanings, or men with large mustaches, a symbol of extreme nationalism, are allowed to study." He stated, "Isn't it primitive to allow entry to the university of men whose turban is located inside their head, and to block women whose turban is on their head?"

We would do better to stop the preoccupation with the turban, says Kanli, to allow it to be worn at universities, and to be more concerned about the fact that the government ministries are becoming filled with officials from the Justice and Development Party.

But that is exactly the reason the turban has aroused such anxiety among its opponents. Because if it is allowed at the universities, tomorrow people will call for it to be allowed in government ministries and public places, and all the attempts to keep religious women out of the government establishment will go down the drain.

Professional positions at government ministries are open only to college graduates, so women who wear head coverings, and thus cannot study at a university, cannot obtain such jobs. Incidentally, the laws for men are different. Religious school students can study only subjects related to religion at university, and therefore cannot acquire the professional skills required in the government ministries.

Sushi versus kebabs

This is also the main complaint of Mehmet Kamis in Today's Zaman, who used a lexicon familiar in Israel to attack opponents of the head covering.

"The secular elites are full of vengeance. If the ban on the head covering is removed, they will surrender even more to the psychology of defeat, which is driving them crazy. After all, nothing will happen if the ban is removed. Didn't they claim that Recep Tayyip Erdogan couldn't even be a village head, and now he has been a prime minister for five years, and the regime is not in danger?

"And they said that Abdullah Gul (who was the foreign minister in the Erdogan government and No. 2 in the Justice and Development Party - Z.B.) must not be allowed to be president, and now he has been elected president and nothing has happened to the regime. They also said the Justice and Development Party would not receive more than 20 percent of the votes, and it received 47 percent."

To judge by rhetoric of this kind, the secular majority in Turkey has become a group of elites who should not be heeded, since all they do is sow panic. As usual, the elites are negatively associated with hedonism, left-wing tendencies, hatred for the country and other labels designed to undermine their public legitimacy.

Secular columnist Burak Bekdil was unable to remain silent about that. In a penetrating and sarcastic article in the Turkish Daily News, he cites an article by Islamist Ali Bulac published in Today's Zaman, which Bekdil disparagingly calls "the liberal/Islamist/former Islamist/moderate Islamist/conservative newspaper," playing on the evasiveness that characterizes members of the Justice and Development Party, who are trying to distance themselves from the label "Islamist."

In the article, entitled "Sushi and Oratorios," Bulac criticized pianist Fazil Say: "First of all, music is not a universal product, music belongs to a time, a religion and a place. Say does not play our music, he plays Western music. Our music is Umm Kulthum, Mohammed Abdul Wahab and Abdul Khader Marari. Our people will never enjoy theater, opera, an oratorio or a symphony forced on them by the republican elites (meaning the secular community - Z.B.). High society that eats sushi is schizophrenic. They run to eat kebab immediately after eating sushi."

Bekdil responds to these assertions and asks: "Are people like Erdogan, Gul, and all the male MPs who wear a Christian tie, Christians because of their Western/Christian garb? Are Turkish girls who wear a head covering along with American jeans Muslim because of their head covering, or Christian because of the jeans?"

The debate between Turkish intellectuals, supporters or opponents of the head covering, does not touch only on the question of the image and character of the country. It reminds the ruling party of the extent of its failure to keep its promises to its religious voters. Although it received an impressive majority in the most recent elections, it has not succeeded in actively promoting its religious agenda regarding the head covering, higher education for religious school graduates or the dismissal of overly devout soldiers from the army.

The secular nature of Turkey is not under threat, even by the constitutional amendments that the ruling party proposes to introduce, which will soon be tested in Parliament. That will be the most important political test for the party that made overturning the head scarf ban into a central issue in its election campaign.

Meanwhile, it seems to have support from both its partners on the right and the Kurds, two parties hoping for perks in exchange for their backing on the issue. The question now is whether the legal system will be enlisted to seal a possible breach in what it sees as the secular dam, or whether the ruling party will finally win its first ideological victory: the head covering.