Angering the Secular Elite Turkey to Lift University Head Scarf Ban

Next week, the ruling Islamic conservative party in Turkey will likely succeed in lifting a ban on women wearing head scarves at universities. An end to the ban would infuriate secular elites, but please a growing conservative middle class.

Women at Turkish universities could soon show up in class wearing traditional Islamic head scarves, as the government moves towards lifting a ban on the practice.

Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has its root in an Islamist religious movement, reached an agreement with an opposition nationalist party on Thursday to cooperate on legislation to lift the two decade-old ban.

"Agreement has been reached … the issue of the head scarf was evaluated in terms of rights and freedoms," read a joint statement released by the AKP and the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The two parties control enough seats in parliament to end the ban with a vote that could be held as early as next week.

A lift on the ban would anger Turkey's secular elite, who view the wearing of head scarves as a political statement aimed at undermining the nation's secular principles.

"The logic is one of fear: if you give (people) one thing, they will ask and eventually get more … if you allow the head scarf in universities today, they will declare a sharia state in 10 years, wrote Ibrahim Kalin," director of a Turkish think tank called SETA, in the Turkish daily newspaper Zaman.

The ruling AK Party has attempted to do away with the ban since coming to power in 2002 , alarming Turkey's elite generals, judges and educators, who see themselves as protectors of the secularism introduced by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk soon after the 1923 founding of modern Turkey. The current head scarf ban dates back to a court ruling in 1989.

However, opinion polls show strong support for a lift on the ban among the Turkish public. A monied and pious middle class is growing in Turkey, and they are demanding that Turks be allowed to practice Islam more freely. Leaders of the nation's conservative middle class say the secularists use Islam as an excuse to keep key state institutions under their control. Many devout Muslim women currently opt not to study at universities because they are not allowed to wear head scarves.

"Our country does not deserve this … all female students may eventually be forced to wear head scarves," said Isa Esme, deputy head of the powerful Higher Education Board (YOK). "Turkey is turning to sharia law, not to the EU but to the Middle East."

A lift on the ban could exacerbate political tensions in Turkey, a candidate for EU membership, and provide fodder for politicians in Europe who oppose Turkey's EU candidacy.

In Germany, which is home to the world's largest Turkish diaspora, the conservative daily newspaper Die Welt criticized a potential Islamification of Turkey: "Nationalist forces prove time and again that (Turkey) has not yet found its center. ... This move by a majority of parliament is not a wise one. It encourages the opinion of many that an Islamization of the country is being planned in secret. That brings into sharper focus the shades of this culture war -- a war that this divided nation does not need."


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