Today's date:
Spring 2008

Beneath the Headscarf: A Modern Individual

Zeynep Karahan Uslu, a professor at Istanbul Aydin University and the president of Turkey Research Center (TAM), is also a vice chairman of the PR department of the ruling Justice and Development Party.

Istanbul -- Turkey's political agenda is riveted on a single issue -- the headscarf -- that even overshadows the military operations against the Kurdish PKK terrorists in northern Iraq.

Long a controverisal subject, the headscarf issue turned red hot when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made this statement on a visit to Madrid to attend the Dialogue of Civilizations Forum in February: "Let us assume that a woman wears her headscarf as a political symbol to show her political affiliation. Is that a crime? Can you ban symbols? In which part of the world is there such a ban?"

This statement was controversial because the secularists opposed to the law passed in February to end the ban on wearing the headscarf in universities, which has existed since 1997, have argued it is a political symbol of Islamist resurgence, not a sign of religious conviction, and thus should remain banned.

For now, the main opposition party has appealed to the Constitutional Court to nullify the law. As we wait for that decision, the universities are in turmoil, with some rectors insisting they would go to jail before allowing headscarved students into their classrooms. They see these young women who are only seeking an education as a threat to the secular system. Others see the new law as competely in accord with Article 26 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, the Magna Carta of the modern world, which protects the freedom of religion and expression.

What, though, is really behind this curtain of controversy?

The answer to this question lies in the fundamentals of the Turkish project of modernization. This project was designed by the European-oriented elites at the center of Turkish power in the early 20th century. It has, by and large, been successful, facilitating material progress and forging a unified nation by achieving the homogenization of society, thus creating a distinct Turkish identity.

Turkey's modernization project also entailed a scientific-based positivistic understanding of the world, thus promoting a non-religious Western-type of society as the precondition for progress.

This positivistic approach however, created public/elite, center/periphery dichotomies. The general public remained religious while the elites were secular; the European oriented elites at the center adopted a commensurate style of life; the largely Anatolian public remained non-European in their orientation. Because of this enduring division, the periphery developed its own parallel set of elites, businesses, institutions and media over the course of modern Turkey's existence.

Not surprisingly, since Turkey is a democracy despite periodic military interventions, the majority in the periphery, led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) which gained allegiance because of its religious sensitivities, finally came to power in 2002. Also, not surprisingly, this has caused a reaction among the central elites who face the loss of power.

Neither the AKP government's adoption of Turkey's commitment to become a full member of the European Union nor the government's embrace of the principles of a liberal economy, not to speak of Erdogan's personal assurances, has been able to convince the skeptics that what is going on is not an Islamist takeover that is against modernity, but the fulfillment of democracy as part and parcel of the unique Turkish route to modernity.

It is in this context that the headscarf has indeed become a symbol -- a symbol of fear used by the displaced elites to mobilize support against the periphery entering every sphere of society, demolishing the status quo and the invisible walls which have long kept the peripheral majority out of power. Remembering the elite theory of Pareto -- "the law of the vital few" -- the elite equates the removal of the headscarf ban with their removal from power as the guardians of modernity in Turkey.

Oddly, the central elites don't seem to see the irony in the fact that they are defending something that is anathema to the very idea of modernity. As is well known, the project of modernization only succeeds if it is adopted by every part of the society. And the universities are the temples of modernization. It is obviously irrational from this perspective to open the doors of the university to some, but then close them to others because of the prejudice that a modern mind cannot wear a headscarf.

The findings of a survey taken in nine provinces of women expelled from universities because of the headscarf ban, entitled "The Hidden Reality of Turkey," shows that 99 percent of them, who were supposed to be hostile to dominant modern values, think that women should be able to choose their husbands. Eighty-six percent of them think that women should work and be economically independent. Most think that the way one chooses to dress should not be a determining factor when choosing friends.

In other words, all these findings show that these women have the values of a modern individual. As an academician who taught before 1997, when headscarved students were able to attend universities, I observed personally that these findings are accurate. The headscarved students who came to the universities as the less socialized children of conservative families have graduated from their schools equipped with universal values. Along with their religious sensitivities they have adopted strong affiliations with the secular system and have been "mentally modernized" for years.

Consistent with these findings, a recent Gallup survey conducted in 40 Muslim countries reveals that Turkey is the only one where a majority rejects the application of sharia law in governance. This survey is testament to the fact that wearing the headscarf is preferred not as a political challenge to the system but as a mere observance of religious belief.

In light of this data, supporting the ban on the headscarf as a way of protecting modernity has tragicomical aspects. The claim that the secular system is being challenged by the sinister force of women students wearing the headscarf is belied by the reality that devoted Muslim men are allowed to attend the university and even work in government offices without constraint. Needless to say, this is problematic both in terms of the modern goal of gender equality as well as plain old logical consistency.

Turkey is in the midst of transformation to a new, broader and more participatory political environment based on democracy and secularism. The digestion of this transformation -- which means the acceptance of the plural, hybrid nature of our globalized world in place of the homogeneous flattening of culture envisioned by positivist notions of modernity -- will be painful and take time. But, inevitably, it will be accomplished.