Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Turkey's Islam debate comes to a head - literally. New code on headwear symbolizes controversy over rising fundamentalism

Debate is rising in Turkey over the issues of secularism and religious fundamentalism. An immediate focus of the controversy is a dress code issued by the Higher Education Council that went into effect Jan. 8. Under the terms of the ``Regulation on Contemporary Dressing in Universities,'' female students may not cover their heads in class with a scarf or turban (a widespread practice in many Islamic countries). The head-scarf rule has sparked sharp protests from religiously observant Muslims, who say women are not allowed to show their hair in mixed company.

Several university professors have joined a chorus of protest from thousands of female students, who have been sending cables to politicians and threatening to boycott classes unless the ban is rescinded.

About these ads

The head-covering controversy symbolizes the broader debate over whether or not the increasing trend toward religious observance in Turkey poses a political threat to the nation's secular and Western-style institutions.

One view holds that the current religious trend is a symptom of irtica (Arabic for ``a reaction'' or ``going back'') - a movement that could ultimately lead to the establishment of an Iranian-style ``Islamic'' state. The opposing view is that the revival of religion is a natural social phenomenon and in no way runs counter to secular politics.

Turkey, with a population that is 99 percent Muslim, was proclaimed a secular nationalist republic in 1923. Under the reforms of modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the nation abandoned much of its Ottoman and Islamic heritage - including the caliphate system of government, sharia (Islamic law), the traditional veil for women, and certain sects.

Those who support the ban on women's head covering in public institutions - among them Turkey's educated elite - fear that the fundamentalist trend, if not checked, could lead to a theocracy.

``It's not a question of people becoming more involved with religion,'' says Figen Aral, a 19-year-old student. ``What is disturbing is the reactionary and backward character of fundamentalism which is now emerging.

``When you have an increasing number of people saying that it is haram [religiously unlawful] for women and men to sit together, for women not to cover their head and body, for young people to watch movies or television,'' Ms. Aral continues, ``all this means that an organized effort is under way to change the pattern and values of the Turkish society.''

Opponents of the dress code also cite the concept of secularism in their defense. The ban on head scarves, they say, violates civil rights, including that of freedom of religion.

About these ads

The regulation ``is inconsistent with secularism and a challenge to the freedom of faith,'' says Ali Ozek, a professor of theology.

His colleague, Huseyin Varol, agrees: ``The head scarf does not represent an ideology. Wearing a head scarf is an order of the Koran and is just a religious practice. Banning it is contrary to the Constitution and to all national and international laws on human rights.''

The difference of opinion about fundamentalism and its effects reaches into Turkey's highest political echelons.

President Kenan Evren has expressed concern about the spreading of an ``antisecular'' movement in the country. It is understood that the council's ruling was imposed after Mr. Evren's appeal to take ``appropriate'' measures against the increased practice of women students covering their heads.

Prime Minister Turgut Ozal maintains, on the other hand, that irtica is not a danger in Turkey. The free exercise of religion, he says, is in full conformity with Turkish law. Prime Minister Ozal says that recent revelations about sectarian activities are isolated instances and should not be exaggerated.

These recent revelations include:

An announcement Thursday that 44 cadets in military schools had been expelled on grounds of having connections with fundamentalist religious organizations. These students, Evren said, were among 813 who had been brainwashed in ``dormitories and student hostels run by the fundamentalists'' as part of a plan to infiltrate the armed forces.

Press reports late last year that an Islamic fundamentalist sect was holding secret meetings in a government department headed by Ozal's younger brother. A top official reportedly organized the meetings and was later detained and put on trial, with some 20 other suspects allegedly involved in ``antisecular'' activities.

Subsequent police raids on alleged ``reactionary dens'' and the arrest of people organizing or attending illegal sectarian rites and advocating the return of sharia.

Local press reports of a campaign of religious training in schools, dormitories, and hostels supported by private organizations. The Suleymanis, a growing sect, reportedly run 1,500 such establishments providing housing to 150,000 students.

The imposition of religion as a compulsory subject in some public and private schools.

The emergence of so far unheard of underground groups such as the ``Muslim Militants'' and ``Islamic Turkish Fighters,'' which call for a jihad (holy war) to restore Islam as the basis of the Turkish state. Hassan Damar, the recently arrested leader of one such group, confessed that his group's target was to bring Iran's Islamic revolution to Turkey.

Critics of Prime Minister Ozal claim irtica is tolerated by his government because of its own conservative character. Ozal's Motherland Party draws much of its grass-roots political support from pro-Islamic sectors of the populace.

While President Evren and many liberal intellectuals see the wearing of the head scarf as symbolizing a growing fundamentalist threat, conservatives complain that secularism is misinterpreted, and the ``turban'' affair is exaggerated.

Despite their concern over the spreading of pro-Islamic trends in Turkey, many liberal Turks do not expect an Iranian-style ``revolution'' here.

Reasons mentioned include: the fact that the Turks are predominantly Sunni Muslims, not Shiites, as in Iran; that Turkey has a secular Constitution; and that the Army - together with the intelligentsia - opposes religious extremism.

``Turkey is unlikely to be an Iran,'' a Western analyst says.

``But, it will probably continue to face growing fundamentalist tendencies.''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.