Politics & Policy

Turkey, the Headscarf, and Secularism

Some Turks fear a drift toward theocracy. Others believe Turkey is mature enough to permit some freedom of religious expression.

This April, Western society laughed off an Iranian cleric’s assertion that women’s clothing choices are responsible for earthquakes. Commentators assumed that he was speaking literally, and most probably he was. But if he had been speaking metaphorically, he would have had a point: From Belgium to Turkey, Muslim women’s clothing is causing plenty of political tremors.

Two months ago, the lower house of Belgium’s parliament voted to ban the wearing in public of the burqa and the niqab (garments that cover the entire body, including the face). In July, the French parliament will vote on a similar law. But as France and Belgium are attempting to ban the burqa and the niqab, an antithetical drama is playing out on the other side of Europe, in Turkey, a 99.8 percent Muslim nation that doesn’t allow women to wear the traditional headscarf (which covers only the hair and neck) in public buildings.

The majority party in Turkey’s parliament, the Justice and Development (AK) party, is pushing to lift the 90-year-old ban on headscarves. As in France and Belgium, the Turkish debate over women’s clothing is symptomatic of a national identity crisis. Some Turks fear that the repeal of the headscarf ban is a pro-religion move that indicates the erosion of Turkey’s prized secular democracy. For others, it’s an extension of that democracy and a movement toward more freedom of religious expression.

The argument for the ban stems from the founding of the modern Turkish republic. From the 1920s until just a few years ago, there has been one standard of right governance in Turkey: What would Atatürk do? Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, rose to power in the wake of World War I by sweeping Allied occupying forces from the decaying Ottoman Empire. In the space of only three years, he removed the existing government and established a secular democracy, enabling Turkey to identify itself with something other than the old Ottoman Empire. In the interest of protecting the new democracy against becoming an Islamic regime, Atatürk established laws to keep any vestiges of religion from creeping into politics. These included the headscarf ban.

But Turkey has changed quite a bit since the days of Atatürk. From the perspective of the ruling AK party, Turkey has outgrown the headscarf ban. It is no longer in danger of reverting to an Islamic theocracy, as Atatürk feared. Indeed, AK argues that today, repealing the headscarf ban is a continuation of Atatürk’s project of bringing democracy and freedom to Turkey.

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.

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