Angst in Ankara Turkey Steers into a Dangerous Identity Crisis

Turkey's highest court in Ankara ruled on Thursday that a law passed by Erdogan's government easing the ban on headscarves at universities was unconstitutional. The ruling is a precursor to a dramatic confrontation likely to emerge in the coming months between Erdogan's Islamist-rooted AKP party and the country's secularist forces, led by the powerful military.

By and Jürgen Gottschlich

Turkish students shout slogans in support of wearing head scarf, in front of Istanbul University, which does not allow headscarfs, Istanbul, Turkey.

Turkish students shout slogans in support of wearing head scarf, in front of Istanbul University, which does not allow headscarfs, Istanbul, Turkey.

The atmosphere on Thursday afternoon in Turkey was fraught with anticipation. It seemed as though the country was waiting for the high court decision. And the justices didn't disappoint: The government's reform of a law regulating the wearing of the headscarf, the court decided, was unconstitutional.

The court delivered the verdict following an unusually short proceeding -- and left little room for compromise. The constitutional amendment -- passed by the Turkish parliament in February with the support of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the nationalist MHP party -- is null and void. The headscarf ban repeal, the court said in a brief ruling, infringes on the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

It is a verdict that went well beyond what observers had been expecting. Politicians and analysts alike had thought the court would merely request a supplementary law limiting the headscarf reform to the universities -- which would have maintained the ban in schools and for those working in public service positions.

Instead, Turkey's high court has handed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP party an important political defeat. More than that, however, the verdict is a message. Turkey's high court will soon be hearing a case aimed at banning the AKP due to its presumed roots in religion and intention to break down the barriers between church and state. Thursday's verdict seems to indicate that the justices are not going to back down.

The battle over the head scarf is a skirmish in the war currently being fought over the very identity of Turkey. The prevailing bureaucracy and military, the opposition -- stubbornly loyal as it is to the ideas of founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatärk -- and a big chunk of secularist Turks see the governing AKP as a threat to their way of life. They fear the government of Erdogan, along with President Abdullah Gül, who is also from the AKP, wants to strengthen the role of religion in the country. In AKP's rise, they see a creeping Islamization of Turkey.

There is evidence that they may be right -- that under AKP the balance of power is shifting in Turkey, and that the country is becoming more conservative and religious. There are new laws placing restrictions on the way alcohol is consumed and the sight of women wearing headscarves publicly has become more prevalent. In addition, the country's directorate for religious affairs published an article putting the onus on women to refrain from sexually stimulating men. Still, critics say it's questionable whether the developments can be effectively stopped through court rulings or official institutions.

The AKP showed its dissatisfaction with the ruling on Thursday. An AKP spokesman decried the ruling as anti-constitutional, calling it a political rather than legal ruling. "This is interfering with both democracy and parliament's legislative authority," the vice president of the AKP's parliamentary group, Bekir Bozdag, told reporters. "The decision opens the way to controlling every constitutional amendment that parliament would want to make."

But it's clear from the decision that the country is also moving towards a ban of the AKP. And that will create political turbulence for the country at a time when it is aiming toward membership in the European Union. This new verdict might not increase the country's chances. Europe has repeatedly criticized Turkey's heavy handed judiciary for standing in the way of freedom of opinion and true democracy.

The question is whether AKP will accept a ban without mobilizing its supporters. Speculation is already brewing of massive street protests and the possibility of early elections in the autumn. AKP, many suspect, would like to use the protests to build support for a referendum to install a new constitution that would strip the current court of its power.

The military will now be tracking AKP's moves closely. And if it has to, it will defend the country's secularity with any means necessary. Turkey, in short, appears to be on a dangerous path -- and one that may end in confrontation.


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