September 27, 2007
Turkey: Headscarf Politics
BY Phil Zimmerman
Fashionable headscarf displays adorn many storefront windows in Istanbul.
Editor's Note: The recent election of Islamic president Abdullah Gul has raised concerns about Turkey's secular future. Read what young professionals in Istanbul are saying about faith-based politics.
It's just slightly past 4 a.m. and like clockwork, I am awakened by the cacophony of chanting voices, which reverberate off the towering buildings and echo through the open windows of my hot, sticky apartment in downtown Istanbul. Outside the window, I can see several minarets dotting the Istanbul skyline, each with a balcony where the muezzin, or crier, leads this morning's call to prayer.
Today, I am meeting up with my friend Nilgun who has lived in Istanbul for most of her life. Nilgun grew up in Turkey and at the age of 18 moved to the United States to earn her bachelors degree and is currently studying for an MBA. I first met Nilgun while living in Boston and was immediately struck by her strong intellect. She would later introduce me to her Turkish friends who also studied in the United States -- a rarity here where only a quarter of high school graduates are accepted into Turkish universities with even fewer having the opportunity to study outside the country.
As I cross the Bosporus Bridge on the tramway to meet my friend in the urban-chic neighborhood of Beyoglu, the scenery changes. The grand palaces where sultans once lived vanish from my sight and I'm surrounded by sushi restaurants, teashops, Irish pubs and rooftop lounge bars. For a moment, it seems like I could be in just about any European city.
I meet Nilgun in Taksim Square, which is considered the heart of modern Istanbul. She explains that the square is a gathering spot for locals and a place where official ceremonies often occur. Towering above us is the Independence Monument, which commemorates Turkey's national hero, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, whose influence on the Turkish psyche is profound. His image looms nearly everywhere I look. He is honored by monuments, paintings, statues and songs. As I pull out my wallet to pay for dinner, Ataturk stares back at me on the 100 New Turkish Lira note.
Turkey's national hero, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is honored by monuments, paintings, statues and songs. As I pull out my wallet, Ataturk also stares back at me from the 100 New Turkish Lira note.
Nilgun, like many who view themselves as part of the Turkish elite, reveres Ataturk for toppling the Ottoman Empire in 1923 and establishing a modern republic.
"Ataturk replaced many Ottoman elements, which he thought of as antiquated." Nilgun tells me. "Women received the right to vote and run for office. He also believed that Turks should use the Latin alphabet and dress like their Western neighbors."
Nilgun speaks English fluently and like many of the young Turkish people in this neighborhood, wears Westernized clothes. In many ways, she exemplifies the type of individual Ataturk's reforms helped shape.
Most importantly, she admires Ataturk's principle of secularism -- the separation of government and religion. Turkey's ruling elite and military see it as their job to protect the secular republic that Ataturk established.
Unlike the armed forces in the United States and Western Europe, Turkey's military plays a central role in politics. Constitutionally, the Turkish generals have the authority to overrule democratically elected officials. Since 1960, the military has ordered four governments out of office for not adhering to Ataturk's reforms.
The reporter met Erol (pictured) in the historic district of Sultanhamet, where they discussed Turkish politics over hot glasses of tea.
The recent election of the country's 11th president Abdullah Gul has many secularists and military officials concerned. Gul serves as the first president with roots in the Islamist political movement. In May, when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan nominated Gul as the presidential candidate of the Justice and Development Party (the AK Party), his choice sparked public demonstrations and protest by thousands of Turks who feared that Gul would undermine the secular state. The debate about Gul's intentions zeroed in on his wife, who wears a Muslim headscarf. Currently, headscarves are banned from all public offices, including the presidential palace, as well as all universities.
When Gul was first announced as the AK Party presidential nominee, the military signaled its displeasure by posting a warning on the general staff's Web site that the armed forces might intervene in the political process. This was quickly dubbed an "e-coup." In response, Erdogan pushed for new parliamentary elections in July, which the AK Party won resoundingly.
"To the surprise of some, AK Party won with 47 percent of the votes," Nilgun says. "While we, the Turkish elite, see AK Party as an Islamist party, apparently half of our people care less about secularism than they do about economic stability." (Under Erdogan's watch, Turkey has generally prospered.)
When Gul was first announced as the AK Party presidential nominee, the military signaled its displeasure by posting a warning on the general staff's Web site.
On August 28, the third and final round of presidential voting occurred and Gul secured the support of 339 of the 550 members of parliament, well past the 267 required. But much of the media coverage in Turkey focused on the absence of many of Turkey's top military officials from the presidential swearing-in ceremony. A few days later, the news was all about the military's refusal to allow Gul's headscarfed wife to attend a reception in Ankara, the capital.
On this official Election Day, I made my way through the chaotic streets of Istanbul where women in headscarves walk alongside women whose hair is not covered. Downtown, the difference doesn't seem to matter much. I was going to meet a Gul supporter, a young man named Erol who knew my friend Nilgun. We met in the historic district of Sultanhamet and for several hours discussed Turkish politics over hot glasses of cay, the traditional tea.
Currently, headscarves are banned from all public offices, including the presidential palace, as well as all universities.
Erol studied engineering at Purdue University and after working for an IT consulting agency in New York City for three years, decided to move back to his country to join the family business of selling wholesale carpeting. He is also trying out a career in real estate. But from an early age, he tells me, he was fascinated by politics. And he says that's not unusual.
"In Turkey, we say everyone is an expert in politics and soccer," he says with a laugh.
Erol strongly supports Gul's presidential win despite disapproval from some of his closest friends.
"When I tell my friends that I voted for AK Party, they can't believe it. They will say, 'You voted for headscarves.' Or ask me, 'Are you very religious or conservative?'" But Erol says he likes Gul because "I believe he is a hard worker and will do a great job."
"If there was another party that was better than AK Party, I would vote for them. What's different about Gul is that he talks about issues other politicians avoid. He hasn't stayed away from the headscarf debate. He talks about it and other issues that affect Turkey."
Gul has fired back against critics about his stance on headscarves. In an interview with the Turkish Daily Press, he reiterated his position that the constitution, "guarantees the basic human rights including the right to dress as one pleases... It's me who is going to be elected as president and not my wife. I'll do my own job and I know how to do it."
"What's different about Gul," Erol says, "is that he talks about issues other politicians avoid. He hasn't stayed away from the headscarf debate. He talks about it and other issues that affect Turkey."
Erol's Western-educated friends fear that under Gul's presidency Turkey will shift away from the West and forge closer political and social ties with Islamic countries in the East. But Erol believes those fears are exaggerated.
"Gul and AK Party have been in office for nearly five years and the secular system has not ended and ties remain strong with Europe and the United States," he says. "When I look at [Gul's] resume, it is very impressive. He was a very successful student, worked in banks, London, and after that became a parliament member. He represents the country well and was a powerful foreign minister."
But other young, Western-oriented Turks are deeply skeptical. A few days after meeting Erol, I caught up with a young woman named Selin who studied political science at Tufts University and received a masters at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris. She views herself as a social democrat and is concerned that Gul will change the country for the worse.
His win will strengthen Turkey's relations with the conservative Muslim world for he is from a conservative Muslim party. Since AK Party has been in power, 'hot money' from Arab countries has been flowing," Selin says.
The Blue Mosque, Istanbul.
She also explains why the headscarf issue has been such a focal point in this election.
"He is challenging the state by becoming the president in a secular system where his wife's headscarf is forbidden by law," she says. "It was a revolution for women to take off the headscarf when the Republic was founded. This [election] is contra-revolution, which is highly accepted and supported by the masses in Turkey. Thus, the election results."
As I read Gul's speeches during the campaign, I was struck by his careful balancing act -- recognizing the military's constitutional role and praising Ataturk's reforms, yet speaking in language that would appeal to the base of his Islamic party.
"Secularism -- one of the main principles of our republic -- is a precondition for social peace as much as it is a liberating model for different lifestyles," Gul said during his inauguration speech. "As long as I am in office, I will embrace all our citizens without any bias."
He later noted in the same speech that the army represented "a symbol of our independence."
Gul comes across as a moderate Islamist, who continually asserts that his election poses no threat to the system. Most of the people I met do not believe a military coup will occur anytime soon since Gul has strong popular support and there is a great, general desire to have political stability as Turkey aims to join the European Union.
For now, the military has backed off. However, the prime minister, an AK Party member, will soon make a controversial decision on whether Turkey's new constitution will allow headscarves at universities. That could enflame political passions. Secularists will be watching carefully for any sign that Gul and his party will pursue an Islamist agenda.
Whether secularists and Islamists can continue to co-exist peacefully in a democratic state is the challenge facing Turkey's elected officials, as well as its generals. The debate over headscarves revives an old dilemma -- whether to strive for freedom of religion or freedom from religion
Phil Zimmerman is a freelance reporter who has written online stories for "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." On a Fulbright Fellowship, he completed his masters in Film and Media Studies at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. He currently works for FRONTLINE and FRONTLINE/World as a publicist.