Yet this remains a heated issue. When AK first proposed repealing the ban, protesters stormed the parliament building shouting, “Turkey will not become Iran!” Leaders of the opposition party said in 2008 that repealing the ban would lead to “chaos in society” by melding politics and religion and fundamentally undermining secularism. That same year, parliament passed a constitutional amendment allowing the ban to be lifted, and Turks poured into the streets of Ankara in protest. Since then, the issue has been deadlocked in the courts.
Many Turkish college students oppose repealing the ban because they believe that their fellow students want to wear the headscarf as a political statement, rather than from religious conviction. A female student from Bogazici University in Istanbul recently told me she believes the government shouldn’t cater to the scarf wearers: “For some of them the headscarf is just a trend. You can tell by the way they tie the scarves. It doesn’t represent religious conviction for many of them.”
Erol Aslan Cebeci, an AK member of parliament, concurs with those who believe religion should not be a factor in politics. Though personally a devout Muslim, Cebeci says that his religious beliefs should not affect his work. However, he does not see the repeal of the headscarf ban as a religious statement by the government. Instead, he sees it as expanding freedom of religious expression in society.
Cebeci’s argument is counterintuitive for many European secularists: He believes that loosening religious restrictions leads to stronger political secularism. But he points out that there is more than one kind of secularism: “There is American/Anglo-Saxon secularism and French secularism.” American secularism is religiously neutral. French secularism (laïcité) allows the government to control how civilians practice their religion. Since 2004, students in French public schools have been forbidden to wear “ostentatious” religious symbols — including headscarves, but also yarmulkes and oversized crosses.
Cebeci believes that American secularism is the desired model. The question before the Turkish court system is much more than whether women can cover their heads. It is whether to follow the pattern of French liberalism or American liberalism.
Some Turks see the shadows of Islamic dictatorship in any political nod to religion. Conversely, the AK party believes that by repealing the headscarf ban, it has a chance to propel Turkey to a stronger democracy — Atatürk’s goal in the first place. Since 1923, Turkey has been assuring the world that it is secular and democratic. With the repeal of the ban, Muslim Turkey will also become a freer society.
-- Jane Clark is a junior at the King’s College, New York City, majoring in politics, philosophy, and economics.