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Peter Heine {*}

Cultural Struggle for Clothing

Ideological Arguments in Turkey


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 10/2008, P. 513-517
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The motion of prohibition against the Turkish ruling party ACP failed this summer before the Constitutional Court. But the arguments over laicism and Islam in Turkey continue. They not least crystallize around the question of the headscarf, which is still taboo at the universities.


Truisms, political ones too, need not always be wrong. One reads: When the problems of domestic policy get out of hand the politicians like to turn to foreign policy. This also applies to the government in Ankara. For in recent months the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government had sufficient domestic political problems. The year 2007 was dramatical but successful for the prime minister and his party, the Adelet ve Kakinma Partisi, ACP (Party of Justice and Upswing).

By a clever move he had played off the Turkish military leadership: In spring 2007 the election of a new president was approaching. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül applied for the post. The parliamentary opposition prevented his election by boycotting the vote. After an examination of the legal regulations by the Constitutional Court there were new elections. The Turkish military leadership admittedly tried to influence the election by threatening statements. But its efforts proved to be counter-productive. Erdogan won an absolute majority in Parliament. His party won 330 of the 550 seats. Without further delay Abdullah Gül was now elected state president.



But in the context of the parliamentary elections also the disintegration of the country became visible. There were mass demonstrations in the major cities of Turkey, in which the participants declared themselves in favour of a secular state and against any religious influence. This corresponded also to the position of the Turkish military. The General Staff sees itself as the guarantor of the decisive ideology of the country, of Kemalism. That ideology, which goes back to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish state ( 1938), originally consists in several articles, such as populism, etatism, or the demand for Turkey's neutrality in matters of foreign policy.

Only laicism, i.e. the strict separation of religion and state, is actually still left of those regulations. The Turkish army sees itself therefore as a bulwark against any political influence of religious organizations over state and society. The fact that with the ACP once again a party in Turkey has the parliamentary majority which in its party program feels obliged to Islam is still a thorn in the flesh of the leading military. But there are different movements among them, so that up to now no majority for a coup d'etat could be found. The AKP government, however, is obliged to use caution and mustn't too impetuously tackle its goals.

In 2007 one of the political objectives and an election promise of the ACP had been to bring about changes in the question of the headscarf. It wanted to make time, however, for that topic still until 2009, in order to prepare the public. But the nationalist MHP (Milliyet Halk Partisi, People's National Party) pushed the issue, which the ACP then didn't want to leave to the nationalists. The following fierce debates about this piece of cloth have a long tradition. The weal and woe of the Turkish Republic is fastened to the headscarf.

The arguments in that question are led with a ferocity which foreign observers cannot always comprehend. For many Turks in that matter the secular foundation of the state is at stake. Since the founding of the Republic questions of clothing were always of great ideological importance. The reformers around Ataturk prohibited the fez, a head covering for men, which had been introduced in Turkey hardly 100 years before, but which had become a symbol of a backward-looking, traditionalist society without any dynamism. The compulsory introduction of the hat with brim for men had two aspects.

On the one hand it was a European article of clothing. Turkey saw itself as a state on the way to Europe, as a state for which it was about social, political and cultural renewal and modernization. In the Kemalists' opinion also laicism belonged to the modern age, in which religion could only be a private matter. Every public display of religious beliefs and rituals was prohibited. Significant religious monuments such as mosques were converted into museums and withdrawn from the ritual use.

On the other hand the hat by its brim also hindered the devout Muslims from properly doing their obligatory prayer. As is well known the worshipers then repeatedly touch with her forehead the ground. Traditionally, many Turkish Muslims wear a headgear during prayer. But the brim of the hat hampers a correct performance of the prayer. It cannot be excluded that the Kemalist opponents of religion gave that circumstance their tacit approval.


Young Women from the New Middle Class Wear the Headscarf

Women were prohibited from wearing any form of veiling in public. That did not only apply to the full-body veil or the masking of the face by scarves or masks but also to the headscarf. Of course, the Kemalist state did not think it was able to carry through these clothing regulations up to the remotest corner of East Anatolia. But in the large cities especially of western Turkey women with headscarves were regarded as exotic and were instinctively classed as belonging to the often poor population which had moved here from the country. In public institutions, especially also at universities, a strict prohibition of headscarves is in force.

Ever since in Turkey since about the seventies religious parties have played a role they have argued that Muslim women and girls should be allowed to appear with the headscarf in state training centres. The regulation of the headscarf prohibition however has constitutional rank.

In the course of re-Islamization movements in various neighbouring countries of Turkey and the growing importance of religion in Islamic countries also here an Islamization of clothing can be noticed. Considered from the textile historical viewpoint it is definitely a modernization of clothing. The "Islamic clothing" worn today by young Muslim women in Islamic countries but also in the Diaspora has little to do with the traditional clothes of women in the Middle East.



Turkey could not remain unaffected by that development. Now also young women of a newly emerging middle class more and more often took over the headscarf. With this new middle class it is about a social group which moved from rural areas into cities. It distinguishes itself by great economic ambition. At the same time it also has the necessary knowledge for successful economic action. Especially in this section of the population a connection of modern secular knowledge in the areas of technology and/or business with traditional ideas of family and religious convictions beliefs can be noticed.

Such combinations are promoted by various networks of schools and training institutions in which apart from modern practical knowledge also religious knowledge is imparted. Entrepreneurs from this stratum of society in the meantime control entire branches of business in the field of food industry, textile industry and meanwhile also of the media industry. Despite all competition these companies are linked with each other through different organizations. They are more and more becoming a significant factor in the Turkish national economy.

Girls and women from those strata would be intellectually and financially in the position to study at the Turkish universities. But for religious reasons they refuse to attend lectures and seminars without the headscarf. In the headscarf they would infringe the Turkish state's order of laicism, just as parliamentarians of the ACP who were elected in free elections are not allowed to attend the sessions of Turkish Representations of the People in a headscarf. So Prime Minister Erdogan complains that his daughters who wear headscarves are not allowed to study in Turkey and must instead pursue their studies at a foreign university.

While the opponents of the headscarf see the abolition of the headscarf ban pursued by the ACP only as a first step in a development which in the end could even lead to the order to wear the headscarf and ultimately even to a general prohibition of studies for girls and women. The positions on this issue are so hardened that at present a compromise seems hardly possible.

In February 2008 after more than 13 hours of fierce debate the majority of the Turkish parliament passed a motion to lift the headscarf ban at universities. But civil servants, students at state schools and parliamentarians should continue to do without the headscarf. Since it was about an amendment of the Sections 10 and 42 of the Turkish Constitution a two-thirds majority was required. Together with the ACP also the representatives of the MHP voted for the change. With it the required majority was achieved.



The opposition had rejected the law on the grounds that in this way the laicist character of the Turkish state would be weakened. A member of the opposition "Republican People's Party (CHP) said the law was a sign of Turkey's creeping Islamization. The government abused the religious feelings of the population for its dark purposes: "The veil splits the country and makes women second-class citizens." Against it the governing party had declared that the fundamental right of free exercise of religion was established by the amendment.


No Prohibition of the Ruling Party ACP

After that the opposition, supported by important members of the military and the secular parts of the public appealed to the Turkish Constitutional Court. In June the court then declared the constitutional amendment regarding the headscarf as inadmissible. A recommendation of the rapporteur of the Constitutional Court had been submitted to the judiciary to dismiss the action against the amendment of the respective Article of the Constitution. But the majority of the judges who are classed as belonging to the secularist camp had decided differently.

That verdict was generally seen as an indication of the verdict that Erdogan and his ACP had to expect. In March 2008 the Turkish General Prosecutor Yalinkaya had opened proceedings in the Constitutional Court the end of which should be the prohibition of the party. Besides, leading members of the ACP, especially the prime minister himself should for several years be prohibited from any political activity. The motion of prohibition was substantiated by the argument that the AKP was a centre of "anti-laicist" activities. In Turkey as well as abroad the motion was assessed as highly unusual.

The military had made quite clear its position in that question. In a speech before the Military Academy the Chief of Staff of the army, Yasar Buyukanit, had expressed his concern about the fact that the "laicist democratic structure of the Republic of Turkey" could be destroyed by some "foci". After all, the AKP had won a brilliant victory in elections. There was no doubt about its democratic legitimacy. That's why foreign observers and the ACP were in agreement that it was about an anti-democratic attempt to overthrow the government.

The Court's decision was eagerly awaited. On 30 July 2008 the Chairman of the Turkish Constitutional Court, Hasim Kilic, pronounced the decision. But previously he showed that he was outraged about the political pressure to which the court had been exposed in its decision. He demanded of Turkish politics legal regulations by which prohibitions of parties would be prevented. A court should not have to make political decisions.

Then he announced that there had not been a majority for a prohibition of the ACP. By a majority of one the verdict turned out most bare. It's true though that the AKP got a strict reprimand and the State party financing of the ACP was reduced to half. The verdict was received with caution by Erdogan and the ACP. Once more Erdogan pointed out that the AKP was "no centre against laicism". He continued standing up for the separation of religion and state as one of the fundamental values of the Republic. Also the supporters of his party restrained themselves from dancing for joy. The Turkish press interpreted the verdict as the Constitutional Court's warning to Erdogan. The inviolability of the principle of laicism was stressed. But who determines what laicism means in Turkey still remains unclear.


Foci of Foreign Policy

In the following weeks the AKP government took trouble to make a parade of foreign policy. With it the current conflict in the Caucasus was of great importance. Erdogan surprisingly visited Tbilisi, what the Turkish press stamped as a rash step. The motive of the trip is obvious. Turkey and Georgia have a minority problem. Here the Kurds, there Ossetians and Abkhaz demand independence. The important oil pipeline connecting Europe with the Caspian Sea runs through Georgia to Turkey and bypasses Russia.

On the other hand Turkey has close economic and political relations with Russia. And Russia already once showed Turkey the torture tools: Turkey supplies Russia with large quantities of fruit and vegetables. The Russian customs suddenly began meticulously to control Turkish trucks with perishable goods at the Georgian-Russian border.

Counter-measures threatened by Turkey could be quite counter-productive. After all, more than one million Turkish construction workers work for Turkish companies on Russian sites. Russian tourists are the majority of visitors to the Turkish Mediterranean coast and in addition 68 percent of Turkey's gas supply come from Russia.

All in all, Russia is the main trading partner of Turkey. So Turkey is stuck in a dilemma and has now anew put forward an old plan on cooperation and security in the Caucasus. Here it agrees with relevant European initiatives. Also in another trouble spot Turkey has a finger in the pie. In September 2008 the French president made a relaxation between Israel and Syria his subject. On that occasion he relied on Turkey's good services, which maintains intensive relations with Syria and Israel.



While in that conflict a very cautious optimism does not seem out of the question, a visit of the Iranian President Ahmadi-Najad in Istanbul in mid-August has brought no success. Planned was the conclusion of a major gas deal. But the parties couldn't reach agreement on the conditions. At any rate the negotiations are to be continued. A natural gas pipeline from Iran to Turkey would also improve Europe's energy security. The United States are critical of such a project because of Iran's nuclear policy.

But the most notable foreign-policy event has been initiated by a football match. The draw for the group qualifying matches for the World Cup 2010 in South Africa brought Turkey and Armenia together in one group. On 6 September the two national teams played against each other in Yerevan.

The relations between the two neighbours are historically heavily burdened. Turkey is not even ready to take notice of the accusations of genocide of Armenians during the First World War. Even scientific symposiums about that issue in the past in Turkey led to fierce official reactions. There are no diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Now President Abullah Gül has accepted the invitation of his Armenian colleague Sersch Sarkisjans to follow the game together. Even though he was only for a few hours in Armenia observers speak of a taboo break, even of a historical step. Some people feel reminded of the "ping-pong diplomacy" of the United States and China in the early seventies.

In the discussions between the two presidents the effort of both sides became visible to solve the existing problems between the two countries, "in order not to hand them over to future generations", as the Armenian president put it. The Turkish media saw the meeting positive. "A first step in order to let the ice of 85 years melt", read the newspaper headline of "Aksam".

According to information from diplomatic circles Turkey plans to open the border between the two countries at first for relief supplies. The Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan did not rule out a future establishment of diplomatic relations. But much snow will probably still fall on the Ararat before the relationship between the two countries returns to normal. By the way, the game ended 2:0 for Turkey.


    {*} Peter Heine (born in 1944), Dr. phil., in 1978 habilitation for the subject Islam science; since 1994 professor for Islam science of the non-Arab area at the Berlin Humboldt University; numerous publications, last "Schauplatz Irak. Hintergründe eines Weltkonflikts", Freiburg 2002; "Islam zur Einführung", Hamburg 2003.


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