As a lover of the country of Turkey, I’ve been following the recent tug of war between the secular forces and the elected parliamentary leaders of the AKP (Ak Partesi), which includes members who are observant Muslims. Both Prime Minister Erdogan and President Gul are AKP members, although Gul’s prospective presidency nearly caused a military coup last year. A hastily-called election widened the AKP’s lead in parliament, and the military was forced to back down.
The secular forces have not given up, though. According to reports in numerous international news sources, and my friend Jenny White, who blogs from Istanbul, the secularists have turned to the courts to accomplish what they failed to achieve at the ballot box. Turkey’s chief prosecutor has proposed a ban on the ruling party, who have, he asserts, been guilty of various crimes against secularism. Should this strategy succeed, both Erdogan and Gul could be banned from political office and their party disbanded.
Ever since the visionary leader Kemal Ataturk emerged from the chaos following the fall of the Ottoman empire after World War I, the doctrine of secularism has been one of the Turkish Republic’s core values. Although the country is 97 percent Muslim, a strict separation of church and state has been enforced. When I lived in Turkey for two years during the 1970s with my Turkish husband, the people who moved in our social circle (mostly university professors and other professionals) were almost exclusively secular in their views. Although religious holidays like Ramadan and Kurban Bayram were generally celebrated, about the only time anybody we knew prayed five times a day or went to the mosque was when someone died.
At the time, however, it was not unusual for devout women to cover their heads with headscarves, even within public institutions like hospitals and universities. Some years after I left Turkey, head covering was banned in the universities, forcing religiously observant Muslim women either to leave the university or subvert the ban by wearing a less obvious head covering, like a wig.
The ban on headscarves in the universities has been lifted recently, due to the efforts of the AKP. (Both Basbakan Erdogan’s and President Gul’s wives cover their heads in public). The secularists are not happy about this, apparently fearing that permitting devout Muslim women to wear the headscarf represents a slide down a slippery slope toward the complete destruction of the rights of women in Turkey.
Now forgive my cynicism, but I seriously doubt that the real issue here is the rights of women. Anyone who reads my blog will have figured out that I don’t believe too many male politicians anywhere in the world care very deeply about women’s rights. If they did, women wouldn’t continue to be the second class citizens that we remain, in country after country, state after state.
What the Turkish secularists are worried about is the same specter that dominates so many of our fears in the West — the possible upsurge of Islamic fundamentalist extremism. And they do have a point. Turkey is one of the only nations in the Middle-east where Islam, the religion, is not tightly intertwined with Islam, the state. Turkey has thrived in recent years as a modern, secular, industrializing country.
Even so, the AKP has prevailed in several elections, and there seems to be little evidence that their recent dominance in parliament has harmed the country (for a much more in-depth discussion, I once again recommend Jenny White’s blog). Turkey has been at pains to prove to the European Union that they meet all the benchmarks of a fully democratic nation, and the last thing the country needs is a military coup or other strong-arm tactics intended to overthrow a democratically elected government.
This article was written by Linda