The headscarf controversy:

Beyond the headscarf

posted by Ahmet Kuru

Last March, the Chief Public Prosecutor of Turkey’s High Court of Appeals opened a closure case against the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party, which had received 47% of the votes in an 18-parties election eight months ago. The prosecutor asked the Constitutional Court not only for the closure of the party, but also for a ban on 71 leading politicians for five years, including Prime Minister Erdoğan and President Gül. The indictment presents the case as if it is based on the AK Party’s support for the recent constitutional amendments that would lift the headscarf ban at universities.

I am not convinced that the lifting of the headscarf ban is the real basis of the case for three main reasons. First, the constitutional amendments do not mention headscarves or anything else related to religion or secularism. They added the following two phrases into the Turkish Constitution. To article 10: “state organs and administrative authorities shall act in compliance with the principle of equality before the law in all their proceedings and in benefiting from all public services.” To article 42: “no one can be deprived of his/her right to higher education for reasons not openly mentioned by laws. The limits of the use of this right will be determined by law.” (The amendment specifically mentions “higher education” since the ban in all schools will continue while it is lifted at universities.) Second, the amendments were initiated and supported by the National Action Party (MHP), yet the prosecutor has not done anything against the MHP. Last, but not least, despite the constitutional amendments, the presidents of universities did not lift the ban. Students wearing headscarves are still not allowed to enter the campuses of almost all Turkish universities.

One may argue that the main reason for the case is the AK Party’s anti-secular activities in general. Yet, this is not convincing either. In Turkey, there has been a debate between the pro-Islamic conservatives, including the AK Party, and the Kemalists, including the majority of military and judicial bureaucrats, as well as the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The Kemalists have accused the AK Party for being anti-secular, while the AK Party members have criticized the Kemalists for being anti-religious. Actually, both sides defend secularism; but they have different notions of secularism.

The AK Party defends what I call passive secularism, which requires the state to play a passive role in the public sphere to accommodate the public visibility of religion. The United States, at this specific point, seems to be a model for the AK Party. The Kemalists, on the other hand, defend the dominant assertive secularism in Turkey, which asks the state to play an assertive role to exclude religion from the public sphere and confine it to the private life. In a 1997 decision, the Turkish Constitutional Court stresses that secularism does not mean separation of religion and the state, but it implies “separation of religion and worldly affairs, [such as] social life, education, family, economy, law, manners, dress codes, etc.” This is an extreme version of assertive secularism, even more radical than the dominant understanding of secularism in France.

The dominant assertive secularist ideology is problematic for not only the Muslim majority, but also non-Muslim minorities in Turkey. For decades, it had been illegal to construct churches and synagogues in Turkey. The AK Party government made it legal in 2003 through a legal reform to expand religious freedoms. That is why the Armenian Patriarch called all Armenians to vote for the AK Party in the elections of July 2007. Two months ago, the AK Party group also passed a law to maintain the rights of Christian and Jewish foundations. The assertive secularist CHP applied to the Constitutional Court to strike down the law. That also shows the assertive secularist intolerance toward not only Islam, but also all other religions in the Turkish public sphere. In sum, the debate between the Kemalists and the AK Party is not a struggle between secularists and Islamists; it is a struggle between the defenders of two types of secularism.

How can we explain the closure case against the AK Party if it is not really based on the headscarf issue, in particular, or secularism, in general? The best explanation has already been made by several Turkish and European commentators: the closure case against the AK Party is a “judiciary coup d’état.” The Kemalists try to stage a judiciary coup, since a military coup is no longer an option in a country that negotiates membership with the European Union. The main reason why the Kemalists have supported coups, rather than defending democracy, is the tension between the Turkish society’s religiosity and the Kemalist assertive secularist ideology. This tension dooms the Kemalist CHP to be a loser in elections (it has been unable to receive more than 20 percent of votes). Since Turkish society is highly religious, people do not vote for the assertive secularist party; therefore, the assertive secularists support military or judiciary coups.

As I explain in my forthcoming book, Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France, and Turkey, these three are secular states since a) their legal and judicial processes are out of institutional religious control, and b) they constitutionally lack an establish religion. In the three cases, the relationship between societal religiosity and type of secular ideology plays important roles regarding state-society synchronization. Based on three criteria (percentages of those believing in God, affiliating with a particular religion, and attending religious services weekly), Turkish (99%, 99%, and 69%) and American (96%, 85%, and 40%) societies are highly religious, whereas the French society (61%, 55%, and 10%) is low religious. In the U.S., a high level of societal religiosity co-exists with passive secularism that tolerates such religiosity. In France, low religiosity of society fits to the assertive secularist ideology of the state; both are comfortable with the absence of religion in the public sphere.

Turkey is the most paradoxical of the three by having a highly religious society and a very assertive secularist state ideology. That is the reason for the substantial tension between the state and society, as well as between assertive secularism and democracy. The conflict will not end unless a shift in the state ideology (from assertive to passive secularism) occurs, or unless there is a decline of societal religiosity in Turkey.

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3 Responses to “Beyond the headscarf”

  1. avatar Galymzhan Kirbassov says:

    If elections are all about winning and being in the office, then why don’t assertive secularist parties such as CHP moderate their policy stances and shift them toward the median voter’s preferences? It’s hard for me to understand why CHP still defends an assertive secularism which does not give the party many votes. So, according to this reasoning, CHP either does not want to be elected, or as a rational profit-maximizer, CHP is already maximizing its preferences without an office.

  2. avatar Mustafa Gokcek says:

    Excellent article. The last two paragraphs lay out a superb analysis and explanation of the secularist tension in Turkey. After reading this article I am convinced that headscarf issue ‘alone’ is not the reason.
    While naming the closure case as “judiciary coup” is a good way to address it, it doesn’t necessarily answer the question ‘why’. Some Turkish intellectuals have explained the Kemalist reaction in terms of class struggle, Kemalists getting deprived of their status as the ruling elite, and in terms of a center-periphery struggle for power.
    To note another point, EU process is not the main factor that prevents a military coup in Turkey. As the failed coup attempts of 2004 and 2005 reveal, it is the lack of unity and inner support from the military and business circles together with lack of public anarchy that has prevented a military coup so far.
    This struggle is not there to end very soon.

  3. avatar Kate Van Scoter says:

    Growing up in America, it is always so interesting for me to read about the political uprisings that happen in other countries in regards to religion. Furthermore, since the United States, France, and Turkey are all secular states, their fixation upon religion seems contradictory. The more an more that I read about secularism, the more that I am reassured in my theory that secularists are more concerned with religion that pious individuals are. Furthermore, I must constantly remind myself that just because someone is a proponent of a secular states does not say anything about their religious upbringing. While I was raised in a household where secular was almost a bad word (akin to “atheist”) exposure to foreign policy such as what is written here about Turkey, has really opened my eyes.
    Two weekends ago, I had the pleasure of traveling to Harvard University where I attended the bi annual “Harvard Islamic Finance Conference.” Interestingly enough, I traveled with two of my Turkish classmates who were both pious muslims (stopping to pray 5 times a day ect). When we arrived at the conference, the boys started joking to themselves about how I was going to stick out like a sore thumb. When I went to tie my jacket around my waist, they jokingly suggested that I tie it around my head so that I would blend into the room (clearly a dead give away and as to why they thought that I would stick out). Though I refrained from covering my hair, I was shocked to see that many of the progressive Muslim women sitting in the auditorium were not wearing the headscarf. This did not go unnoticed by my male accomplices who later mentioned it on our way back to school. This experience is what prompted me to read Kuru’s article about the governmental regulation of headscarfs in Turkey.
    Most interestingly to me was Kuru’s explanation of the AK Party’s policy of passive secularism and how it has caused such a violent uproar over its “support for the recent constitutional amendments that would lift the headscarf ban at universities.” In my opinion, the context of this particular amendment is what has elicited such a negative response. A college student myself, I have seen how easy it is to manipulate the minds of young adults. While I never saw myself even considering liberalism before coming to college, I have since engaged in a sort of syncretism (fusing conservative and liberal thoughts in order to formulate my own moral compos). It is my experience, which has lead me to concur that if this amendment was not specific to college campuses that it would have caused less of an uproar. Turkish voters who are either anti Muslim, atheist, or very private might be more likely to make a racket in regards to the presence of overt religious symbols in the context of the classroom than in any other situation. Furthermore, I was surprised to read that, while the Turkish tend to believe in God and affiliate with a particular religion, they are not overt about their religious displays (as evidenced by their lack of service attendance). This resistance towards displaying religious symbols in the public sphere also points to Turkish fear of religious coercion despite their belief

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