The veil in Turkey: Wrapped Up and Delivered

The constitutional amendment passed recently which allows young girls to wear head scarves at university has hit Turkish society like an earthquake. Turkish women, after all, were given the right to vote, own property, run for political office – and the freedom to choose whether or not to wear a veil – shortly after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s, under president Kemal Ataturk.

Effectively, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lifted a 1989 ban on the hijab that applied to institutes of education. Tens of thousands of protesters – mainly seculars – have spoken out against the new laws, claiming that it trashes the legacy of Kemalist Turkey and leads to “disintegration of the nation”.

One person described it as a “Black Revolution”, saying that the head scarf is a political symbol and that “we will never allow our country to be dragged back into the dark ages”.

Nisrin Baytok, a lawmaker, addressed the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, saying: “You are not opening the door for freedom; you are shutting it forever for the girls … [whose] heads are shaved by their brothers to force them to wear head scarves.”

Speaking on the new law, Erdogan said, “It ends the suffering of our girls at university gates,” referring to pious girls who are stopped at the gates of their colleges and university and forced to take off their veil when they enter campus.

When compared to hardline Islamic states, however, Turkey is like Disneyland – although it has become more “conservative” under Erdogan. It does not have religious police, as is the case in Saudi Arabia, Iran or Afghanistan when it was under the Taliban, that forces people to dress in a certain fashion. Nor does it persecute Christians or promote jihad against the West. Many Turks are actually defending the law, claiming that above everything else, it is democratic and upholds the freedom of religious belief and expression.

Secular officers in the armed forces and political establishments think otherwise, and have accused Erdogan of pursuing a hidden Islamic agenda. For a period this is what many people in the West thought as well, including the United States.

This debate has been ongoing for several months – on what Erdogan has in store for Turkey – and climaxed with the election of Erdogan’s ally, Abdullah Gul, as president of the republic, in 2007. Gul – a member of Erdogan’s AKP – is a firm believer whose wife is covered with the hijab.

His predecessor, Ahmad Necdet Sezar, once said “religious fundamentalism have reached dramatic proportions” in Turkey and argued that Islamic fundamentalism “is trying to infiltrate politics, education, and the state; it is systematically eroding values”. Understanding the message loud and clear, Erdogan snapped back in defense, saying, “Religious people also have a right to politics. If you want to keep the faithful out of politics, the people will never forgive you.”

Erdogan has been an earthquake – a civilized one – in Turkish society. When serving as mayor of Istanbul he did not prevent the sale of alcohol (although he does not drink and like Gul has a covered wife), but rather, increased the tax on alcohol. This led to a sharp reduction in the consumption of alcohol throughout Turkey.

He established links with people like Khaled Meshaal of Hamas, who was received as a guest of state, and met with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The man might be conservative and pious – but at least he does not hide or sugarcoat his Islamic orientation. He speaks a moderate Islam, arguing that an Islamic fanatic would not be working relentlessly to bring his country into the European Union – a coalition of Christian states.

And regardless of what the seculars think, he won the elections with thundering success and his party now legitimately controls the Turkish Parliament, with a historic victory in the 2002 elections, taking 34.3% of the votes. Thanks to Erdogan, the AKP won an overall majority in the Grand National Assembly. His greatest legacy is a booming economy; average annual growth rate reached 7.3% and per capita income almost doubled thanks to his reform process.

One would think that with so much trouble from Kurdish military operations on Turkish territory coming from Iraq, that Erdogan would want to minimize problems at home. In 2007, after all, military leaders delivered him an unusually sharp message – a warning – saying, “We want neither sharia [Islamic law] nor another coup, but a democratic Turkey.”

Erdogan should take the officers seriously since they have a history of dealing aggressively with issues and taking the law into their own hands through military coups. The Turkish military has carried out no fewer than four coups in recent history; in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997. They were seemingly on alert to do it again last year.

The military had been very opposed to the election of Gul, and Erdogan’s rising popularity both within Turkey and the Muslim world. The only thing that pacified them was the common threat of a Kurdish enemy coming from Iraq. There is no disagreement at any level of the political spectrum, from radical secularists to ultra-conservatives, on the need to root out terrorism on Turkey’s border with Iraq. By taking a tough stance against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Erdogan brought disgruntled secularists and the military under his wing.

By lifting the ban on the hijab at universities, he may cause them to rebel against him again. Meanwhile, the Kurdish wolf is still at the door. Why lift the ban now? An will the controversial decree improve or threaten his popularity?

A casual observer sitting in a heated office in a cold European capital might argue that this move will ruin Erdogan, believing that Turkey is made up of 71 million Ataturks and only one Erdogan. That is not true. Erdogan is popular and so are his policies. The West only sees the secular Turks who appear on CNN. There are millions who admire and support his “conservative” agenda. Islam – and religiousness on the whole – is increasing in the Arab world. Such action as lifting the head-scarves ban endears Erdogan to his constituency, rather than alienates him. The seculars are already opposed to him – the hijab story just added insult to injury.

To better understand the reasoning behind the hijab decree, consider the story of the owner of a posh restaurant in Damascus. The cafe sold alcohol until the owner went on the hajj pilgrimage in Mecca and returned a changed man. Overnight he trashed all the whisky bottles and placed a big sign on the door which read, “Dear Customers, we no longer serve alcohol in this restaurant.” I told him: “This scares off your foreign customers [and there were many because of the excellent food].” He replied, “Yes, but trust me, it’s a magnet for many others – much more than the ones being scared away.”

That is the case with Erdogan’s Turkey. The ones put off by thehijab decree will be much fewer than those who are attracted by it.

All other forms of nationalism have failed for Muslims since the downfall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. They tried local nationalism (in Syria and Iraqi, for example) but it led nowhere. They then turned to Arab nationalism in the 1950s, which was combined with secularism, and it also failed to answer their numerous political and social grievances.

Political Islam returned to the limelight after Arab nationalism died out as a result of events like the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, and the visit by Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat to Jerusalem in 1977. Then came the Islamic revolution of Iran in February 1979. It spoke of hope, and promised salvation from the West through Islamic indoctrination.

The Islamists were given another push – this time by the United States – after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. By 1981, the Islamists had assassinated Sadat for signing peace accords with the Israelis, further endearing themselves to grassroot Muslims. Then came the invasion of Beirut in 1982, which gave birth to groups like Hezbollah, and the first Palestinian uprising of 1987, where Israeli officers were given orders to “break the bones” of Palestinian rebels – thus giving birth to Hamas, yet another Islamic group. The same trend carried on, producing radical Islamic fundamentalist groups like al-Qaeda, and moderate and progressive ones like the AKP in Turkey.

The veil and Turkey
Consider just where Turkey falls in line with other Islamic states around the world. In neighboring Syria, for example, the secular government does not encourage the veil – nor does it frown on it – because covering a woman’s head has become a popular trend over the past 20 years.

The government cannot say “no” to such a popular fashion, although in the early 1980s, when the fanatic Muslim Brotherhood was waging war against the Syrian government, then-Syrian strongman Rifaat al-Assad had his paratroopers storm the streets of Damascus to yank the veils off the heads of women. The move caused huge outcry and forced then-president Hafez al-Assad to explain that this was not a policy of state and express his faith, support and appreciation of Islam.

In Afghanistan, the post-Taliban leadership canceled all laws imposed on society in regard to Islamic conduct (like growing beards or wearing the veil that covers the face and head). Despite these moves, veiling remains a very strong practice in Afghanistan, although it technically is optional.

The same applies to India, a Hindu-majority secular democracy. No Indian law enforces hijab for Muslim women but it is de facto in certain districts with a Muslim majority. The same kind of social pressure applies to Muslim states like Pakistan, Indonesia and Jordan.

In cases where a theocracy is in power, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, the veil is obligatory and not observing it can lead to severe punishment. In Iran, prosecutor general Abolfazl Musavi-Tabrizi once said, “Anyone who rejects the principle of hijab in Iran is an apostate, and the punishment for an apostate under Islamic law is death.” Under the Taliban in Afghanistan, it was claimed that “the face of a woman is a source of corruption” and therefore, it should be covered.

The first example in the 20th century of a philosophical attack on the veil was Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain, the Bengali writer, in her 1905 book Sultana’s Dream. Other prominent examples include Huda Shaarawi in Egypt, and Naziq al-Abid in Syria (who took off the veil and went to fight against the French in 1920).

Modern examples of veiled woman who are very active in their careers are Khadija Bint Ganna, anchorwoman on Doha-based al-Jazeera, Maha al-Gunaidi, the founder and chief executive officer of Islamic Networks Group, Ingrid Mattson, a Canadian professor of Islamic studies and current vice president of the Islamic Society of North America, and the late Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan who was the first woman in modern times to lead a Muslim country (although her veil differed from the one worn in the Middle East).

Firm believers in democracy should respect a woman’s right to wear a veil. This is the matter of choice being upheld by Erdogan. One of the major principles brought into this part of the world by Christian missionaries in the 19th century was freedom of belief.

This freedom should be honored by Islam and Christianity. This was beautifully expressed by Daniel Bliss, the founder of the American University of Beirut (then named the Syrian Protestant College), in 1866 when he said, “A man, white, black, or yellow, Christian, Jew, Mohammedan or heathen, may enter and enjoy all the advantages of this institution for three, four or eight years; and go out believing in one God, in many gods, or in no God. But it will be impossible for anyone to continue with us long without knowing what we believe to be the truth and our reasons for that belief.”

Erdogan is a leader who believes in the truth, regardless of how correct that truth is or whether the Western world appreciates it or not.


Asia Times Online, 15 February 2008