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Recent articles by Hilal Elver
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Lawfare and Wearfare in Turkey
greece / turkey / cyprus | religion | non-anarchist press Friday April 11, 2008 15:28 by Hilal Elver
(Hilal Elver is a visiting professor of global and international studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara and an editor of Middle East Report.)
With war on its eastern borders, and renewed turmoil inside them, Turkey is transfixed by something else entirely: the desire of university-age women to wear the Muslim headscarf on campus, a seemingly innocent sartorial choice that has been forbidden by the courts, off and on, since 1980. At public meetings and street demonstrations, in art exhibits, TV ads, and dance and music performances, headscarf opponents argue vociferously that removing the ban will be the first step backward to the musty old days of the Ottoman Empire. A quieter majority of 70 percent, according to a recent poll, thinks that pious students should be allowed to cover their heads, perhaps because approximately 64 percent of Turkish women do so in daily life. There is almost no middle ground between the two poles: Even completely apolitical Turks have gravitated one way or another.
Headscarf opponents see themselves as following in the footsteps of founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who launched an ambitious program, beginning in the 1920s, to remake the heartland of the longest-lasting Islamic empire into a modern, Westernized nation-state. In the Kemalist camp are the majority of the officers in Turkey’s powerful army, as well as high court judges, opposition party leaders in Parliament, secular women’s organizations, business associations, many university presidents and professors, and the bulk of the mainstream media. They will stop at little to prevent what they perceive as the downfall of secular Turkey.
Proponents of lifting the ban also claim the mantle of history. In July 2007 elections, the Justice and Development Party (or AKP), made up of politicians with roots in a series of outlawed Islamist parties, retained its healthy parliamentary majority in one of the most decisive victories in the history of the Turkish multi-party system. The landslide came despite the disappointment felt by the AKP’s core constituency, the devout middle class, in the party’s failure to lift the headscarf ban at universities during its first term in office. To the surprise and perhaps the dismay of the secular opposition, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan carefully avoided the headscarf issue from 2002-2007, so as not to be seen as defying the will of the outspoken generals. Now that the Turkish public has endorsed its rule, and implicitly rebuked the army, the AKP feels justified in pleasing its electoral base.
The proscription of the headscarf is not black-letter law, but rather the Constitutional Court’s interpretation of the provisions for secularism and equality in the Turkish constitution. To lift the ban, Turkish politicians have tried multiple times to pass more specific laws or to amend the constitution, as the AKP succeeded in doing on February 9. Opponents of the headscarf have long relied on the courts to block such efforts. This time around, both sides have waged such “lawfare” with unprecedented vigor, bombarding not just the Constitutional Court, but also a host of lower courts, with claims and counter-claims. The chief prosecutor of Turkey, a staunch Kemalist, drastically upped the ante by asking the Constitutional Court to consider the extreme measures of closing down the AKP and banning Prime Minister Erdoğan and his top 69 colleagues, including President Abdullah Gül, from politics. On March 31, the judges agreed to hear the case, raising the prospect of a second “postmodern” coup in Turkey. Unlike the first of these in 1997, this coup would take place without the army’s direct involvement and would depose a party that, not even one year ago, was reelected by a significant margin.