FRONTLINE/World [home]

Search FRONTLINE/World

FRONTLINE/World Dispatches





Editors' Notes

Pakistan Blog



recent posts

Interview With Sharmeen Obaid-Chinnoy

Pakistan's Taliban Generation

Bangladesh: The Mystery of a Mutiny

Afghanistan: A Hard Fight

Cambodia: Confronting Its Past

Pakistan: An Unsettling Peace

Zimbabwe: A Harsh Reality

Virtual Gitmo: Human Rights in Second Life

At Siemens, Bribery Was Just a Line Item

Mumbai: Eyewitness to the Attack



April 2009

March 2009

February 2009

January 2009

December 2008

November 2008

October 2008

September 2008

August 2008

July 2008

June 2008

May 2008

April 2008

March 2008

February 2008

January 2008

December 2007

November 2007

October 2007

September 2007

August 2007

July 2007

June 2007

May 2007

April 2007

March 2007

February 2007

January 2007

December 2006

November 2006

October 2006

September 2006

August 2006

July 2006

June 2006

May 2006

April 2006

March 2006

February 2006

January 2006

December 2005

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005


RSS Feeds

Turkey: Headscarf Politics

headscarves in shop window.

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.

young women in streets wearing headscarves.

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.

Blue Mosque.

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.


david bonin - tucson, az
More and more I see the country going towards an Islamic culture . The strong military cannot forever control the politics and the non seculars are winning. They are distancing the country from Ataturk's principles to modernize and civilize the country. Admission of that country to the EU will be the beginning of the end of the European Union... This will create a massive immigration into the EU and , if we think there are too many Muslims in Eurpoean countries now,it is nothing compared to what it will become. There will be a mosque in every street in every city like Paris, Berlin, etc. Intolerance and total destruction of the Western civilization wil then ensue within a generation..

Marilyn LaMonte - Tampa, FL
I have a very dear Turkish friend, whom I met on the The France, a transatlantic sailing ship in 1966. He had just graduated from MIT, and he was very interesting, and modern. He shared his concerns for the future of his country with me, and so much is still the same, including Turkey's quest for a government that will be fair for all people.Great article.

I found your article really interesting because the ban on headscarfs is blatant legislation banning a religious practice, which is so contrary to what I've experienced in the US.

A - Cambrdige, MA
I am originally from Turkey and currently live in the U.S. ... I am a secularist and work as a flight attendant from NYC to Istanbul almost on a bimonthly basis. I am already seeing subtle changes. Approximately two weeks ago, I was walking along the shore "sahil" in Yesilkoy, Istanbul. I was amazed at how many females were wearing headscarves since the election. Yesilkoy, Istanbul is a very secular area. Ataturk created a secular/modern Turkey and put systems in place to prevent the Islamists from eroding the secular rights of the citizenry. We always have to keep Turkey's geography in mind. Some of my friends in Istanbul stated that Turkey is getting funds from the Middle East. Surely, just like the lobbyists in the U.S. they will want some type of payoff in the future. This is not about headscarves or the right to wear whatever one likes. This is about trying to get Turkey to align herself with the East and not the West. President Abdullah Gul (his name Abdullah by the way means "servant of God") is using the basic democratic principle of "freedom of expression" to align Turkey slowly but surely to become an Islamic state. Some restaurant owners in Istanbul told me that it is more difficult to renew their liquor licenses. Headscarves are only the beginning.

Sharon Chae - Washington, DC
From an American-style democratic standpoint, it's hard to argue when someone sites "freedom to choose" one's attire. The headscarf issue in Turkey, however, is difficult to assess in that framework because o the context. When Gul's wife wears a headscarf in public, is it truly because she prefers it, or because she is playing a political role? She is certainly restricted from not wearing a headscarf now that it has become her husband's stance. Ironically, Gul states that it's not his wife that the public has elected but him, but that statement ignores the fact that a political spouse is an indispensable identity-shaping tool for any politician.
When it really is a woman's choice, it's fine, but is it really the woman's choice in Turkey's case?

Chicago, IL
Compelling, well written and researched article by Mr. Zimmerman. Interesting to read the perspective of a Turk who lived and worked in the US and is now back in Turkey supporting Gul.

Ashley - Boston, MA
Great article! Turkey is on my list of places to go and now I am intrigued, more than ever, to go. Thank you!

tampa, fl
A very insightful article. I've been following Turkish politics in newspapers for the past few years.... This covered both sides of the political debate very well.

I really enjoyed reading about this country and its culture through your article. Very insightful...

Craig Wilson - Minneapolis, MN
Thank you for exploring such a complex issue at the confluence of epistemological differences. Hopefully Turkey will nurture pluralistic diversity.

Hiren Ghala - Dublin, Ohio
I have been following events in Turkey for several years now and I enjoyed the opportunity to hear the views of western educated Turkish citizens. I was surprised to see that they had such a difference of opinion and I appreciated the reporter's effort to understand the logic of his interviewees. Turkey is at an interesting point in its history and I look forward to similar though provoking articles from the reporter in the future.

Excellent piece, very interesting..

Boston, MA
Excellent article. It's great to get a personal take on this part of the world, especially when the piece is so well-written.

Jeffrey Sanders - Brookline, Massachusetts
After spending four months studying in Prague and after visiting Istanbul for a short time, I believe that the recent election of Abdullah Gul is a large step in the wrong direction for the nation of Turkey. The entirety of Europe is constantly seeking to become more western and the western world holds an overwhelming negative connotation with conservative Islamics. If Gul hopes to win over the secular majority and help establish Turkey in the European Union, he has a lot of work ahead of him. The only way Gul may have a fighting chance is to practice what he has preached and uphold a democratic separation from traditional Islamic values, beginning with the freedom to wear headscarves. Though Gul would like his people to embrace their near-middle eastern heritage and culture, the wave of western secularism is far too strong for Gul to fight alone on his presidential perch.

Stephen Chan - Brighton, MA
Great article. I think it reminds all of us that what we are fighting for are open societies that promote choice and personal freedoms (whether that means to wear a headscarf or not). I think the American public (myself included) is vastly under-educated on the nuances of Islamic sects and personal freedoms. Hope we get to see more writing like this in the future.

Tom Ferrero - Bloomington, IN
I'm curious how neighboring middle eastern countries view this debate in Turkey -- particularly other young people in those countries.

I found this article to be a wonderful synopsis of Turkish life and culture. As an American, while visting my husband's place of birth...I noticed that for many Turks there is this strong and powerful need to be considered "westernized", yet still hold on to their roots. Ataturk is considered a hero and a role model... They believe he liberated them from the strict and traditional ways. [I found] that everyone [I met] believes this new leader will bring them backwards and ruin all the rights that were fought for by Ataturk. They believe that Turkey will become like Saudi Arabia and be strict. This realization scares them...I guess we will just have to wait to see what happens. This country of Turkey is beautiful, magical and amazing.... It was a very touching experience to be there. I recommend a visit by all.

How interesting to read about the struggles of a relatively young democracy and the symbolism of the headscarf inspiring such debate. The concerns about religion entering politics resonate world-wide.

Bear, DE
WOW, interesting story. I have many friends from Turkey and we discuss this issue all the time. It is nice to see the topic discussed with excellent research.

Analiza Quiroz - New York, NY
Really well written article. I appreciated the firsthand story from the Turkish people themselves. As far as the debate, I agree with Erol's perspective that people should be able to dress as they please. As long as the wife has the rights that the law/Ataturk intended, then the issue is not the headscarf but what Gul will actually do for the Turkish people and their relationship with other countries. It is sad that an election could amount to an item of clothing.

Karen Archer - Danville, CA
This is a wonderfully enlightening and well-written article.... I agree with Bishop Curry of Los Angeles that religion has a place in the public square. Freedom of religion does not mean freedom from it, as you say. It should not be banned or even protected by the government....In this time where religion has once again become more polarizing than unifying... church and state must CO-exist in a truly free society - all should be allowed to do what they want religiously. The boundary for this freedom would be: if what one wants is not fair to another or is not in the public interest to execute, than it should not be done. Relegating religion to a corner or a place in people's lives mostly means that one or another group will ultimately become oppressed, rail against their government and potentially become militant themselves so as to feel some sense of power and control. Religion always has a place at the table, just not at the head. Nobody gets to sit there.

Buenos Aires, Argentina
Great article!

Derek Nyberg - Minneapolis, MN
It will be interesting to see Turkey ten years from now and whether or not the challenges faced today for secularists and Islamists have remained or taken a new turn for the citizens of the country.