Turkey is often referred to as the land where East meets West, an Islamic country with a secular state. But there are those who fear for the future of Turkey, who see the secular waters of the Turkish republic increasingly muddied with the silt of religious doctrine.
Now with the lifting of the ban on Islamic headscarves within universities, the phobia of Turkey’s de-secularisation is growing. Many see this as the first major sign of Islamic political control and the beginning of a ‘new Turkey’, but there is also the sense that the ‘issue’ is being magnified by secular media.
With hundreds of thousands gathering last month to protest against the lifting of the ban it seems the two sides of to the country are not in harmony. The protesters, who were brandishing banners that carried the messages “We are the soldiers of Atatürk,” and “Turkey is secular and will remain secular!” are part of a large majority who have denounced the in power Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Though the Islamic rooted party has been in office for five years it was not until their landslide victory in June of last year that they had any real weight. The secular military staged rallies, flexing its political muscles to remind the party of Turkey’s repeated history of military coups. But with the victory, and the succession of party leader, Abdullah Gül as president, the party has gained a new confidence, sporting the slogan; ‘the people have spoken’. This new found confidence has manifested itself with significant changes to the constitution.
Seville, who runs an art gallery in Istanbul, anticipates a break down in the freedoms of the Turkish people. Following the news of the election, her shock and dismay were palpable; “Everyone is asking who voted for them, nobody wants them. It’s the backward people who think he (Gül) will make them rich.”
Of course one must question who exactly falls into the categories of ‘everyone’ and ‘backward’ with AKP’s 46.6% of the vote. She went on to compare the climate in Turkey to Iran before its Islamic revolution in 1979, “They are crazy, they want to make us like Iran…before [the revolution] the women had mini-skirts. Now they wear only what the Koran tells them.” I asked Seville what she would do if such a change came about; “I think I will leave, maybe I will go back to Cuba”. This reaction is not uncommon.
The country has been in a process of unremitting modernisation for over 80 years, save a few coup ‘interruptions’. Since Atatürks establishment of the republic of Turkey, its exclusion of religion from government has fiercely and proudly been upheld, with instances of parties being shut down for being ‘too Islamic’
But why the almost fundamentalist vehemence to the preservation of the secular?
There is a subtle irony here: a non-democratic ban to impede what people fear will be the onset of a non-democratic Islamic government.
The ban that is being lifted was introduced 11 years ago, with the ousting of an ‘overly Islamist’ government. According to recent regulation of the Higher Education Board, female students must not wear head scarves when submitting application photos or sitting exams, but over two-thirds of women use some form of head covering. As a result the ban has prevented many of these women pursuing further education. The AKP are calling this an issue of human rights, and with the party pushing for EU integration, they must be seen to be improving Turkey’s murky human rights track record. AKP’s Aziz Babuscu sums up the party line; “We can’t be expected to remain indifferent to social expectations…We shall do what is expected.”
Yet the worry for many is that ‘what is expected’ is Islam playing a larger role in public life. The AKP focus on the headscarf ban, rather than on laws granting human rights has caused concern. Gursel Tenkin, of the Republican Peoples Party, sees this as a thin end of the Islamic wedge; “they are planning more…they want to go ahead in stages.”
The issue will remain on the forefront of the secular media in the upcoming months, even with the Prime Minister’s assurance that, “People who are devout and who cover their hair are in favour of secularism just like anyone else.” Some see this as a blip being blown out of proportion by the western media, but others like journalist Mehmet Ali Birand believe that “We must get ready to live in a completely transformed Turkey in 5-10 years.”