Headscarves at universities


Questions about secularism as the government tries to lift the headscarf ban

As I write, a second round of voting is underway in Turkey for the easing of the headscarf ban in universities. The bill has the support of the governing Justice and Development (AK) and opposition Nationalist Action (MHP) parties. It will pass, just like a first round did earlier in the week. The real question is what happens next.

Normal procedure is for laws such as this – a constitutional ammendment – to be taken directly to the president, Abdullah Gül, who can either approve it or exercise his one-time veto. It won’t be that simple this time, because the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) says it will take the bill to the Constitutional Court, arguing the bill itself infringes the constitution. Once again we return to a situation where a panel of judges hold a remarkable say over a major political issue.

But is it a political issue? The protestors gathered outside parliament today certainly think so. The MPs voting inside the chamber certainly think so. But we’re talking here about relaxing a ban on a choice of clothing that prevents a group of women from attending university – it is surely a social question too.

To isolate the matter for just one moment: there should be no question of whether women should be allowed to wear their headscarves at university. If it represents a personal faith, it should be no obstacle to education. But like so many things in Turkey, this is a highly symbolic issue, and secularists say it goes to the root of everything Turkey stands for.

There is no doubt that secularism has made Turkey unique. From an empire that even at its weakest was the indisputed leader of the Islamic world, it was transformed into a nationalist republic, its religious element entirely removed, and set firmly on a westward course. The Turkey of today is an official candidate for EU membership. Never before has a country so predominantly Muslim been this close to a group of countries that so predominantly are not. There is no other country in the world like it, and secularists are rightly proud of that.

But for all its benefits, Turkish secularism does not help illuminate the boundary where public life ends and personal life begins. Universities represent part of that boundary: are they public spaces that should be religion-neutral, or centres of learning where personal faith is irrelevant?

Many headscarf-wearing women do, it is true, attend university. While some fumble with wigs, others just remove the scarf before entering the classrom and put it back on immediately after leaving. There was even talk last summer of lecturers at Sabancı University in Istanbul who cast a blind eye at those who sport it.

Two major issues that exist in Turkey have been exposed by this latest debate. They are issues that will not be resolved anytime soon.

The first is the secular structure itself. Many in Turkey would have you believe that secularism is the country’s most important principle. It supercedes everything else, they say, including democracy if necessary. The army chief, Yaşar Büyükanıt, frequently warns that “secularism is becoming a matter for debate”, implicitly suggesting that it shouldn’t be. He is wrong.

Turkey’s secularism is not sanctified, it should be justified. The concept of keeping apart mosque and state should be explored and debated, not committed to memory in endless platitudes. Part of the reason for hawkish generals and Ataturk statues is an intrinsic fear that the system could be lost. The way to prevent that is to talk about it rather than defend it with a gun.

The second issue is the oil-and-water manner in which politicians operate in Turkey. Today’s response to the long-running headscarf debate has been typically Turkish: a decree from above is made, and those below are left to sort out the details. There was a small cry that the AK-MHP committee putting together the bill contained not one woman, but then again, there isn’t a single woman MP in parliament who wears a headscarf. There couldn’t be.

What politicians in this country have yet to understand is that social politics involves actually talking to those people whose lives you intend to change. This would mean public consultations, campus debates with ministers, perhaps even a televised seminar or two attended by the prime minister – the kind of thing at which European hearts beat a little faster. Mr Erdoğan himself attended a meeting with Turkish students and German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin yesterday. He looked uncomfortable, but he was there. He wouldn’t do the same thing in Turkey.

Last modified: Saturday 6 June 2015

10 Responses to :
Headscarves at universities

  1. Tapline says:

    james, This is my first time to visit your blog and I was pleasantly suprised. This was an outstanding post, well documented with much to be disected. I posted a small post on this subject, but had not the background that you have available. I think this might be the tip of the iceburg so to speak. Once a start is made it opens the door and it will increase until All pre Ataturk advances will be thought outdated and obsolete…just my thoughts… I love Turkey and its people, when I was there many moons ago I was treated with respect and my oldest daughter learned Turkish before she learned English. I ramble…..stay well

  2. Lana says:

    Hello there from Australia. I think the headscarf points to deep issues. Similar to what is happening in Kosovo. The issues are Islam, demographics and democracy – the vehicle for stealing a country. Mark Steyn:

    “Ataturk’s modern secular Turkey has simply been outbred by fiercely Islamic Turkey. That’s a lesson in demography from an all-Muslim sample: no pasty white blokes were involved. So the fact that Muslim fertility is declining in Tunisia is no consolation: all that will do, as in Turkey, is remove moderate Muslims from the equation too early in the game.”

    I think your view entertains the idea that there can be some reconciliation between the scarfed and the secular. But what if there can’t? What if it is an impass? Irreconcilable differences? In a marriage, that would be grounds for a divorce.

    Looking at the masses that protested last year (I think about Gul’s appointment?) they looked like a people in fear of losing their country. A fear of being ruled by Islam, and all its potential for retrograde fundamentalism. And who wouldn’t, given Erdogan’s past and the things he has said?

    Its the same problem all Western countries with rising Muslim populations now face: the slow Islamification of their countries through birth rate imbalances. Politics follows demographics.

    “They are issues that will not be resolved anytime soon.” I do not believe the issues will ever be resolved – for one reason. The notion of “distance”. It was Erdogan who said (I think of PKK): “Those who are unable to distance themselves from terrorism cannot avoid being adversely affected by the struggle against terrorism.”

    Ironically, he and fellow pios Muslims fail to apply this notion of distance to their own religion (intentially or innocently, I don’t know). Secularists want to keep Islam at a comfortable distance, because they believe Islam is inherently trouble – it needs to be kept at arms length.

    Erdogan again:
    “These descriptions are very ugly, it is offensive and an insult to our religion. There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam and that’s it.”

    Contrast this to scholars in the West who are trying to bring moderate Muslims to account for the violent nature of Islam. Robert Spencer:

    “… peaceful Muslims have never formulated an Islamic response to the jihadists’ claim to represent pure and true Islam — and as long as they do not and apparently cannot do so, the jihadists will continue to hold the intellectual initiative within Islamic communities worldwide. “Moderate” Muslim spokesmen such as those above have not just not answered me; they’ve done nothing to seize that intellectual initiative and blunt the force of jihadist recruitment among Muslims …

    … no one, Muslim or non-Muslim, has ever yet refuted the contention that Islam teaches warfare against and the subjugation of unbelievers. And so one thing is certain: that warfare will continue.”

    And …

    “The Qur’an, on the other hand, quite clearly does teach believers to commit acts of violence against unbelievers — see 2:190-193, 9:5, 9:29, 47:4, etc. There are no equivalents to such open-ended and universal commands, addressed to all believers to fight unbelievers, in the Bible.

    … all of the schools that are considered orthodox teach, as part of the obligation of the Muslim community, warfare against and the subjugation of unbelievers …”

    The issue secular Turks face is the same as the West: Islam is at heart a violent religion with no inherent restraining mechanism. An Islamic community only remains peaceful in spite of the violent and retrograde beckoning of the Koran.

    Faced with rising demographics and a belief that Islam is inherently retrograde, secular Turks – like the West – are wise to be concerned about living as a minority within an Islamic regime. That is why some in Turkey and the West will not even open up for debate: they believe Islam must be contained, not entertained with liberties.

    Myself, I concur with Robert Spencer that moderate Muslims have done nothing to sieze the intellectual intiative away from radicals. Hence we hold moderates to account for being the face of a violent religion – whether they intend to be or not. No liberties should be granted to a religion that has done nothing to distance itself from trouble.

    The end result? If the army will not save secularism in Turkey then you face the same fate as the West: increasing polarisation, independence movements, separatists, etc. Nothing but trouble.

  3. Bad Tyrpist says:

    Lana’s views are very clearly put. It is quite a common viewpoint in Turkey, I think. Differences are irreconcilable, so we need to suppress the headscarf and any islamic expression to avoid polarisation.

    However, there are a couple of points worth keeping in mind. One is that a quarter of the human race are muslims. Let’s say, purely for the sake of argumnet, that only a quarter are believing muslims. That’s still a lot of people. If there is no reconciliation, no point of contact between Islam and the “secular”, then we are well and truly screwed.

    Second, there are numerous non-violent strands in Islam. To criticise such “moderate” ıslam for not fighting with “immoderate” Islam is to misunderstand the debate within in Islam.

    One is, what it means to be a muslim. If you call a muslim a “moderate” muslim, it means someone who is only a bit muslim. No muslim can accept such a description. Erdoğan’s point is that non-violent muslims are just as much muslims as violent ones – perhaps even more so. So why do you denigrate them by calling them “moderate”? The insulting nature of the term “moderate” is underlined by the fact that in Turkish, it translates as “ılımlı”….which has connotations of “lukewarm”.

    “peaceful Muslims have never formulated an Islamic response to the jihadists’ claim to represent pure and true Islam” quotes you.

    Well, that is not true. What Erdoğan and Gül are doing is just the latest in a long line of such attempts. The real problem is that secularists will not accept any such formulation unless the formulators recant their basic beliefs. Which they are not going to.

  4. Lana in Australia says:

    Tyrpist, I’ve had this debate elsewhere, and it involved a lot of talk about Muslims but none about the ideology of Islam, so I’ll be blunt. Spencer contends:

    “all of the schools that are considered orthodox teach, as part of the obligation of the Muslim community, warfare against and the subjugation of unbelievers.”

    Disprove it. Give me some names, some Islamic scholars, some schools. Something that contains a refutation of the above statement. Something that deals with the violent, supremist passages of the Koran – instead of ignoring them.

    Of course there are non-violent Muslims. But secularists want ALL Muslims to be accountable for the violent religion that they front. To account for the fact that jihadists and the Taliban quote from the same book as the non-violent do.

    “What Erdoğan and Gül are doing is just the latest in a long line of such attempts”. There you go again, talking about Muslims but not about Islam. Where do Erdogan and Gul talk about the Koran? How do they defend the fact that Muhammad was a violent warlord? Serge Trifkovic:

    “The simple preacher eventually morphed into a vengeful warlord, who jubilantly exclaimed that the spectacle of severed enemy heads pleased him better than “the choicest camel in Arabia.” Killing prisoners was divinely condoned by Allah. (8:68) Fresh revelations described the unbelievers as “the worst animals” (8:55) and “the vilest of creatures” (98:6) undeserving of mercy. The enemies’ heads were to be cut off. (47:4) Killing, enslaving and robbing them was divinely sanctioned and mandated.”

    Show me where the debate within Islam is please.

  5. Nihat says:

    I disagree with the view that “moderate Muslim/Islam” is a denigrating description, or that it means “a bit Muslim” and “watered-down Islam.” While such may not be too apt a self description on the part of a Muslim person, it is nonetheless a legitimate differentiation that many non-Muslims are forced to seek given the senseless acts of violence committed in the name of Islam. So, our angry PM’s words don’t always carry that much weight, besides being reflections of his personal views or frustrations. For example, Erdogan said and Lana quoted above:

    “These descriptions are very ugly, it is offensive and an insult to our religion. There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam and that’s it.”

    Well, apparently that is not true, and a massive official effort has been undertaken by Turkey’s Department of Religious Affairs repudiating these very words. I am agnostic about the prospects of such an effort, but here is a BBC report about that for your information.

  6. mr. brooks says:

    hi james, you say:

    “The Turkey of today is an official candidate for EU membership. Never before has a country so predominantly Muslim been this close to a group of countries that so predominantly are not. There is no other country in the world like it, and secularists are rightly proud of that.”

    Are they really?

    They were shouting like this while protesting Justice and Development Party in their meetings:
    Neither US, Nor EU
    We want an independent Turkey!

    Today it’s clear in Turkey that; the ones who resist against European Union and integration are seculars, not religious people. Mr. Erdogan is the political leader who took the most important steps for EU membership in Turkey’s history.

    I recommend you to try to understand demands of Turkish people better who are insulted for years by a group of furious minority who mostly kept bureucratic and pecuniary power in their hands.

    If this legislative action is really something unwanted for modernization of a country,
    why, in western countries, can the girls wearing headscarves are allowed to enter universities?

  7. Lana in Australia says:

    I am also skeptical of the reform initiatied by Turkey’s Department of Religious Affairs. Comments from Jihad Watch …

    Robert Spencer:

    Could this be what we have all been waiting for? Possibly. It will be interesting to see its content, and what reception it receives from Islamic authorities outside of Turkey. My guess would be that that reaction will be hostile, because to accept this would be to assume that Islam has gone drastically wrong almost from its inception — militating against all the claims of Allah’s careful protection of his umma. But we shall see …

    Certainly Muhammad never uttered a significant number even of the ahadith that are generally considered sahih, or reliable. Whether the Turks will be able to convince any significant number of Muslims of that is another matter …

    … So to say that this whole process represented a “hijacking” of Islamic tradition is tantamount to saying that the whole thing was “hijacked” from the very start, before it even got off the ground.

    Of course, that may be the only way of selling the idea that ahadith considered authentic should be junked …

    Hugh Fitzgerald:

    Those waiting with bated breath should keep carefully in mind that a rearrangement, as to assigned rank of authenticity, of the Hadith, is the easiest of the tasks of those who would make less dangerous the texts of Islam.

    But since the Hadith were spun, quite naturally, out of the Qur’an, it is the text of the Qur’an itself that will need changing. Eliminating the doctrie of “naksh” or abrogation will soften the many blows delivered, in the Qur’an, against Infidels, but the dangerous passages will remain. The task will still be that of somehow managing to interpret such passages as 9.29 — unambiguous passages — so that their clear meaning is made only “symbolic.”

    And then there is the figure of Muhammad himself, the Model of Conduct, uswa hasana, the Perfect Man, al-insan al-kamil. Just how will those scholars bent on reforming Islam by changing the texts manage to eliminate so much of what is recorded as being part of Muhammad’s life. Will they declare his participation in the decapitation of the bound prisoners of the Banu Qurayza to be a fiction? The attack on the inoffensive farmers of the Khaybar Oasis? The seizure of loot, and the women of those whom he and his followers killed? The murders of Asma bint Marwan and Abu Akaf? The marriage to little Aisha? Will all of this somehow disappear?

    And even if these Turkish scholars manage to re-assign levels of authenticity, presumably through their own study of the isnad-chains, there is a question of authority and of acceptance. How many of the world’s Muslims are likely to accept what these latter-day Bukharis and Muslims suggest, rather than to stick with what, in history-haunted fossilized Islam, was decided long ago, by the real Bukhari, and the real Muslim, and the other celebrated muhaddithin whom presumptuous twenty-first century moderns, in still-Kemalist Turkey, dare to re-arrange, dare to second-guess?

    De Gaulle’s laconic comment on another proposal for a similarly large undertaking:

    Vaste programme, monsieur.

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