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Secular Turkey roiled by head scarves
by Jake Highton
Mar 08, 2008 | 397 views | 1 1 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Kemal Atatürk as a reform-minded young Turk saw clearly that the enemy was Islam.

It oppressed the Turkish people and stunted their growth, “shutting them off from the more advanced and enlightened ways.” Islam held back democracy. It “stood for authority, not discussion, for submission, not freedom of thought.” It was superstition of a primitive kind. Islam and civilization were a contradiction in terms.

In contrast, Atatürk touted Western civilization as liberating, freeing an enslaved people.

Yes, Atatürk was a dictator. But it was the only way to establish modernity. So in 1923, after leading a successful nationalist revolution, he created the Republic of Turkey from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

Atatürk would bring tears to the eyes of women listening to his speeches by declaring that they must enter a new age, abandoning customs of yesteryear and becoming emancipated. Women would have the same education as men. He ended segregation of women and men. He got the vote for Turkish women in 1934 and allowed them to serve in parliament.

Atatürk abolished the fez for the hat. He declared that Turkish must be written in the Latin alphabet and replaced sharia law with the Swiss civil code. In 1927, he erased from the constitution the requirement that Islam be the state religion. He abolished the Islamic caliphate.

So no wonder posters of him are ubiquitous in Turkey. Kemal Atatürk is the Father of modern Turkey.

But the secular country he founded is in for wrenching change. The Turkish parliament passed a bill allowing women to wear head scarves at universities. President Abdullah Gul signed the measure. Gul, a devout Muslim whose wife and daughter wear the scarf, said the change does not violate Turkish secularism.

But it does, enraging many secular Turks. They fear religious creep — into government and into private lives where it does not belong.

Their concerns are real. Islam is still the enemy of freedom. It dictates rules for daily life, including restraints on women appearing in public. It says that women are inferior. It allows limited inheritance for women while permitting multiple wives for men.

The head scarf measure undermines the strict separation of church and state.

Science also suffers when religion encroaches on government. It is already happening in Turkey. One eighth-grade science book no longer elaborates on Darwinism. Instead, creationism now gets equal time. But that unscientific view is like U.S. fundamentalists who insist on burying their heads in the sand.

The woman at the center of the political storm, lawyer Fatma Benli, says of the head scarf she proudly wears: “This is related to my personal life. It’s my personality. My wholeness.”

People like Ms. Benli see the scarf ban as coercive secularism, relegating religious Turks to second-class citizenship. Another religious Turk declares: “I am an enlightened woman and I wear the head scarf.”

But is the wearing of the head scarf wholeness? Is it enlightened? No. It is the brainwashing of a society that Atatürk sought to stop.

To secularists, wearing head scarves is nothing more than wearing a sign of superstition. Indeed, it even might be considered a remnant of women’s enslavement.

Still, if Ms. Benli wants to parade her superstition, she should be allowed to. Under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, allowing freedom of even symbolic speech, people have a right to be silly. Ergun Ozbudun, a law professor in Ankara, call it “an issue of human rights, not secularism.”

So it is.

Ozbudun added that while teaching in America he had orthodox and conservative Jewish students wearing the yarmulke — and nobody cared.

True, but then America is not really a secular country. Prayer opens sessions of Congress and state legislatures, much to the chagrin of Justice William Brennan in vigorous dissent to a Supreme Court decision upholding legislative prayer.

Nevertheless, religion is deeply engrained in the souls of so many people worldwide. A 2006 study by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation bears this out. It found that 59 percent of Turks described themselves as “very religious” or “extremely religious.”

The communists made atheism the state “religion” of the USSR. A sound policy intellectually but wrong politically, spiritually and psychologically. Today, religion is rampant in Russia.

So, too, it is likely to happen in once strictly secular Turkey after approval of the hijab amendment. Religion cannot be suppressed. People need it and will always cling to it. Alas.

Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Comments-icon Post a Comment
April 12, 2009
Your desire to frame the developments in Turkey into your own personal narrative (secularism good, religion bad) clearly inhibits your from understanding what is going on.

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) does have an Islamic base, but they are hardly fire breathing fundamentalists. Their desire to allow girls to wear headscarves to universities seems pretty sensible to me. Obviously you would prefer the government to have the power to dictate how people observe their own religion. It sounds to me like you are the one espousing fundamentalism, simply of the secular sort.

I noticed that you failed to mention that the AKP has made efforts to bring about equality for Kurds who under previous "secular" governments have faced blatant harassment. Also it is because of the secularist elite in Turkey that denial of the Armenian genocide is such a taboo subject. Strange that AKP seems to be making efforts to ease relations with Armenian. The only real threat to democracy in Turkey comes from a group of military officers who have from time to time overthrown democratically elected governments on behalf of an Istanbul based ruling elite who are reluctant to give up power.

You seem to have a complete inability to empathize with people who are different from you.
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