Today's date:
Spring 2008

Headscarves Are Secular Turkey's Waterloo

Haluk Sahin, one of Turkey's prominent TV newscasters, is also professor of communications at Istanbul's Bilgi University.

Istanbul -- Foreign observers are perplexed by the ferocity of the headscarf debate raging in Turkey. They can't understand why a piece of fabric covering a female university student's head should engender so much sound and fury in a country negotiating for full membership with the European Union.

From the outside, wearing headscarves might appear as a minor dress code problem that could easily be solved by university administrations. Instead, political parties are engaged in fierce parliamentary fighting over it while high courts await their turn to speak.

Actually, the Islamic-style headscarf wearers will constitute a small minority in most universities if the ban is lifted. Most people would not even notice that a change has taken place. Yet, in Turkey, the issue has once again taken on formidable proportions. Political tension has risen to alarming levels, resulting in deep socio-cultural divisions.

This is because the issue has come to symbolize the central line in the century-old tug of war between the secularists and the Islamists. It has come to be seen as the Waterloo of a longstanding struggle. The outcome will be celebrated as a major victory by one side and mourned as a disastrous defeat by the other.

According to the conservative alliance led by the ruling neo-Islamist AKP (Justice and Development Party) that favors the lifting of the headscarf ban, a basic freedom is at stake. For the secularists, on the other hand, allowing the "turban," as the uniform-like Islamic headgear is called, would be a critical step in the deliberate destruction of Kemal Ataturk's principle of laicite and the gradual Islamization of Turkish society.

Once this line is crossed, nobody can tell how far Turkey will drift, they say.

Before dismissing the fears of the secularists as the paranoia of a declasse elite, as most Western observers enamored of the AKP are prone to do, it would be wise to place the case of Turkey in the larger context of the Middle East and the Islamic world. It would be good to remember that Turkey has been the only functioning democracy in that geography, despite certain deficits and setbacks, over the past 60 years.

It is generally accepted that Turkey is leaps and bounds ahead of her Arabic neighbors in terms of democratic institutions, vivacity of political discussion, and women's role in society. The religious issues Turkey courageously dealt with some 80 years ago under the leadership of Ataturk have yet to appear on the to-do lists of the Middle Eastern autocrats.

Foreign observers are impressed by the robustness of public debate in Turkey as well as by the enterprising spirit of the Turkish people. All these lead them to say that Turkey is unique in the region.

Yet, ironically, the very same people often disparage the sensitivity of Turkey's Westernized institutions about secularism. They see it as the reaction of a defunct elite that has failed to keep up with the times and is only trying to prolong its reign by resorting, if necessary, to undemocratic means.

Now here comes the critical question: What if what they appreciate in Turkey and what they despise are the two sides of the same coin? What if Turkey's uniqueness in the midst of a most difficult cultural geography has been due to the rigorous secularization therapy the country has undergone over the past century?

And what if the country slides back to its former condition when the patient is taken off the pill? What if the headscarf ban is one of those pills?

Yes, it sounds paranoid, but not all paranoid fears are based on delusions.