What Would Ataturk Say?

An electric bulb crowned with rays of light is the symbol of Turkey's Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP). Last month this electric light had good reason to shine. With a large majority, the Turkish parliament voted to allow women to wear a head covering at the country's universities, something that had been forbidden since the founding of the secular republic. The vote sent Turkey into a tumult, and large numbers of people took to the streets. But the AKP, which is headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had won its first significant religious victory since it was first elected to govern, in 2002.

Celebrations were held in some universities. Students and guests flocked to the campuses covered in head scarves, even if just to demonstrate their support for the decision. Older religious women declared that they, in their day, had been unable to study but that now their religiously observant daughters and granddaughters would be able to get a higher education. Religious lecturers said that while they still expected their secular colleagues to be examining them closely to determine their level of devotion, at least now such secular fanatics would not be able to get rid of the women.

But it transpired that the rejoicing was premature. This week, the high court for administrative affairs ruled that the higher education council had overstepped its jurisdiction when it instructed the universities to permit women to cover their heads. Hadn't there just been legislation on this subject? Indeed there had, but since the constitutional court is currently debating an appeal to the law's passage, the administrative court believed that it should not be implemented until there is a decision on the matter.

While this attempt to prevent the lifting of the ban on head scarves was taking place, the Turkish chief prosecutor, Adurrahman Yalcinkaya, called on the court to close down the AKP for five years. According to the prosecutor, the party has turned into the "central focus" of anti-secular activities. True, the phrase "central focus" was included in a law adopted last year that was aimed at making it difficult to close down parties for religious reasons, but this apparently did not deter the chief prosecutor. He referred to what had been said by Prime Minister Erdogan to a Turkish TV station during a visit to Spain two months ago, "Even if they are a political symbol, one must not ban head coverings."

According to the prosecutor's interpretation, what Erdogan said was that the disagreement over head scarves was not a legitimate civil-rights struggle, but rather a political one - against the Turkish constitution, which sanctifies secularism. That is why the prosecutor decided to test his strength. He assumes that even if the party is not shut down, the very pursuit of a case against the AKP will leave no room for doubt that the institutions that see themselves as being in charge of maintaining the country's secular nature - the army, the legal system, the national security council, the senior administrative apparatuses - do not intend to allow the Islamic party to change the country's character.

In Turkey, it appears that the change does not have to be formal.

In an article in the Turkish Daily News, one of the country's most important commentators, Mehmet Ali Birand, described some of the everyday ways in which there had been changes in favor of "Islamization" in the country: The spoken language has become loaded with expressions from the Koran, as well as with Arabic words; men make do with a little bow when they meet women, out of fear they might otherwise have to shake the woman's hand; alcohol is no longer served at the dinner table and some of the hotels do not serve it at all, and more and more people are starting to drink fruit juice or ayran (made from yogurt and water); more women are starting to wear a black Iranian-style chador, especially those "who do not have good taste in clothes and on whom the chador looks as if it is a curtain"; more TV stations have begun promoting religious programs; and there are a growing number of beaches with separate bathing areas for men and women.

Birand says that the entire Turkish lifestyle is beginning to change before the eyes of the supporters of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, those who sanctify the legacy of the founder of modern-day Turkey. The country is undergoing a character change from top to bottom, and that is what the next struggle will be about.

Even more to the point was the journalist Burak Bakdilb, who, in an article entitled "The Big Turkish Hypocrisy," referred to the official Turkish reaction to Israel's policies in Gaza. Bakdilb expressed surprise that the prime minister had said nothing about the firing of rockets at Sderot or the terrorist attack two weeks ago on the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, but had limited his criticism to Israel, for its attacks on Gaza.

"It is possible to understand Erdogan's Islamic sensitivities, but he is likely to regret his remarks in the near future," Bakdilb wrote. "Erdogan accused Israel of using disproportionate force. Does Turkey always make sure that it is using proportionate force in its battles with the Kurdish PKK rebels? We know the cliches that are always used in response - the PKK and the Taliban are terrorist organzations but the Palestinians and Hamas are not so. But was it the PKK and the Taliban who killed the yeshiva students? Who killed dozens of other Israeli children? We know well that the selective tolerance of Erdogan and most of the Turks has religious connections."

In the eyes of Erdogan, Bekdilb says, the Palestinians have become his "Muslim brothers," and therefore "the Israeli children can go to hell." The journalist queried: "Has anyone complained about the double standards of Turkey?"

The connection between faith and voting

Is the picture indeed so gloomy, and are the chador and the head scarf indeed covering the secular face of Turkey? A survey published by the newspaper Star revealed that only 5 percent of the 4,500 people questioned said that "they cannot tolerate seeing a woman whose head is not covered." A similar number among those who defined themselves as secular expressed lack of tolerance toward women who cover their heads. But 92 percent declared that they hold religious beliefs, and half of these said that they pray five times a day. Only 7.2 percent said that religion plays no part in their lives.

One can indeed say that the findings of the survey support the assumption that there is a connection between citizens' private faith and the way they voted in the elections. That is to say, there is a wide majority in favor of those who are religious, or at least those who believe that the religious path being taken by Turkey is not something so bad. But if that is so, where did the hundreds of thousands of people who demonstrated last year against the passage of the law allowing head coverings, and against the government in general, come from?

Whatever the case, the constitutional court does not take into account surveys or other expressions of public opinion. Now its judges will have to decide what interpretation to give to the constitution and to the head coverings law, and in particular, whether the ruling party is indeed undermining the very foundations of the state.