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Turkey's Scarf Controversy

One of the more intriguing political dramas of recent days involved a newly elected member of the Turkish parliament, Merve Kavakci. She threw the country into near crisis by wearing a head scarf, like that traditionally worn by Muslim women, at her swearing-in ceremony.

This was unheard-of in sternly secular Turkey. For some, it threatened the very foundations of the Turkish republic established in the 1920s by Kemal Ataturk.

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Turkey's Constitution prohibits any "interference whatsoever of sacred religious feelings in state affairs and politics."

Ms. Kavakci's troubles have now shifted to the question of whether she hid her dual citizenship (US as well as Turkish) from officials. But the scarf controversy persists. Does such an expression of religious belief really threaten democracy? Turkey's secularism, after all, has become deeply rooted in the 75 years since it was planted by Ataturk.

Without question, Turkey's neighborhood offers worrisome examples of political systems heavily influenced by religion. In this context, a stand for secularism is both understandable and practical.

The tensions obvious in Turkey lie just beneath the surface in other democracies, including America's. The rise of the religious right as a political force in the US has sparked concerns about mixing political decisionmaking and religious motivation.

Turkey will have to shape its own modus vivendi between religion and politics. Certainly it is right to steer clear of the theocratic tendencies of some of its neighbors. But there are dangers, too, in stifling the political voice of believers. That all too easily seeds radicalism.

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