Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan Leader Says Headscarf Ban at Universities 'Unfortunate'

Will the headscarf ban at Turkish universities soon be lifted? Prime Minister Erdogan is taking on one of his countries most contentious issues. In an interview, the prime minister discusses his party's draft for a new constitution and Tehran's role as one of his country's most important energy partners.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: "Freedom of religion and conscience is a part of democracy that cannot be neglected."

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: "Freedom of religion and conscience is a part of democracy that cannot be neglected."

Question: Your party, the AKP (Justice and Development), is preparing a new Turkish constitution. Your critics in some circles suspect that you are trying to use this as an opportunity to change Turkey's secular regime.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan: It is strange. Before we formed a government five years ago, all political parties agreed that we needed to create a new, civilian constitution. Our current constitution, as well as the one that preceded it, has no civilian foundations …

Question: … it originated under the direction of the military after a putsch …

Erdogan: We want a constitution that is going to protect a state that is a democratic, secular and social state of law. First it is about individual freedoms. We are putting forward a proposal, a draft, that we will discuss with all parties in parliament, the NGOs and the universities. We will debate it in the widest sense possible before we put it forward to a vote. That is our responsibility -- after all, the constitution is going to point Turkey in a certain direction.

Question: Talking about freedoms, the headscarf ban has been underlined as the most critical issue when it comes to constitutional changes, and there is widespread understanding that that issue is going to be presented for your consideration as prime minister. What is your take on that?

Erdogan: Freedom of religion and conscience is a part of democracy that cannot be neglected. The same applies to the right to obtain an education. I believe that anyone who calls himself a democrat thinks that a person cannot be denied a university education simply because that person wears a headscarf. There is no such problem in Western societies, so why is there one in Turkey? I believe it is the first duty of those in politics to solve this problem.

Question: The draft just presented by a commission of legal experts appointed by you says very clearly that: "Nobody can be refused a higher education on the grounds of their clothing and appearance."

Erdogan: What we have now is just a draft and no decisions have been made about what will be written in the constitution in the end. You also have to understand that it wouldn't be novel in any way in Turkey to go to university with a headscarf. Earlier it used to be possible -- but then, unfortunately, the ban started.

Question: You claim you want to strengthen secular and democratic laws. Does that also apply to freedom of opinion, which is especially important to Europe? Brussels is still waiting for you to change the disputed Paragraph 301, which is again and again used to prosecute authors, journalists and academics in court.

Erdogan: We will be able to overcome all this. We are going to finish this in 2008.

Question: Do you feel there are false perceptions in the West of your party when it comes to Islamic references?

Erdogan: It makes me sad when the AKP is described in articles as a religiously based party. People should take a look at our political program and our set of codes and listen to what we are saying. It is rude and unfair against any party that is saying it is not religiously centered as an Islamic Party, and so is trying to pinpoint it in a certain area just by looking at our family lives. Do people who try to be religiously observant in their private lives not have the right to be active in politics? In the West, that is quite accepted, and it is also perceived as something good. There, one can speak openly about being a Christian Democrat. Of course, we have never accepted the name "Muslim Democrats" because that would be exploiting religion. Because our religion is free of errors, but in our political party we may commit mistakes or wrongdoings. That's why we say we are conservative.

Question: There are still reservations about your party in your own country. Take, for example, the attitude of the military towards the new president, Abdullah Gül.

Erdogan: Our relationship with the Turkish people is very good. The only other time in Turkish history that a governing party improved its results in an election (as we succeeded in doing this July) was in 1954. That shows how much belief the people have in us. We are the only party in parliament that has representatives from 80 out of 81 cities.

Question: Does the military recognize that?

Erdogan: I'm not the right person to whom this question should be asked. The army has a role that is clearly written in the constitution and they are acting on that. But the military is not the policy-maker -- that's the job of the Turkish people. And the people have made the decision.

Question: The conflict with your neighbor, Iran, over Tehran's nuclear program is far from having been resolved. Now France's foreign minister is warning of the possibility of war. Are you alarmed?

Erdogan: It would be entirely wrong to start any kind of military operation against Iran if nothing has been proven. The bill for this we know from Iraq. Before we always said people needed to view things differently. And now you see that tens of thousands have died and so much art and so many cities have been destroyed.

Question: So do you trust the Iranian leaders?

Erdogan: So long as the contrary has not been proven, we have to trust them. I, too, am opposed to weapons of mass destruction. But it is unacceptable to say that other countries may possess weapons of mass destruction but not Iran. When I speak with the Iranian leadership, they stress again and again that they only want to use nuclear energy for humanitarian needs. We are also considering nuclear energy and we are in talks with German, French, Canadian and American firms. We need new energies. But if we take more concrete steps, will they label us in the same way?

Question: The United States has criticized your current negotiations with Iran over gas supplies as untimely.

Erdogan: It is not as if our relations with Iran only began recently. We receive natural gas from Iran that is crucial to our economy. Iran is our second biggest supplier on this. Why should I sever (ties with Iran) if nothing really strange or serious has happened? The aim of Turkish foreign policy is to make friends, not enemies.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan answered the questions of SPIEGEL correspondent Annette Grossbongardt in the context of an interview given to SPIEGEL, the New York Times and the Financial Times.


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