Vol. 2,  Issue 3,  1-15 June 2007
About Us
Back Issues
Forthcoming Issues
Print Edition
Contact Us

Turkey at Crossroads

During the Ottoman era, society and state in Turkey were deeply rooted in Islamic values and traditions. Sufism had a strong and pervasive presence across the country. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1923, Turkey became the first secular state in the Muslim world. The establishment of the Turkish Republic was accompanied by sweeping changes in society. Madrasas, Sufi orders and shrines were closed down. The Swiss civil code replaced the Islamic Shariah. Turkish was substituted for Arabic as the liturgical language. Pilgrimage to Makka was stopped and the call to prayer (azan) in Arabic was prohibited. The wearing of the fez, a symbol of Turkish Muslim identity for centuries, was outlawed and replaced by the hat. The Persian script of Turkish language was changed to Latin. Kemal Ataturk thus made a radical break with Turkey’s Islamic heritage. During the presidency of Ismet Inonu (1938-50), the grand mosque of Erzrum was converted into a stable for the army.

However, the masses and the elite did not take kindly to Ataturk’s forced secularization and the abandonment of Turkey’s Islamic legacy. The resistance to the tyranny and totalitarianism of the government and the military junta found expression in clandestine social and religious movements and in the establishment of political parties. In the 1960s, the Milli Nizam Partisi (MNP), headed by Necmettin Erbakan, which aimed at the recovery and restoration of Turkey’s religious and cultural heritage, began to emerge as a formidable political force. The party was banned by the military junta in 1971 but regrouped as the Milli Selamet Partisi (MSP) in 1973. In the next general election the MSP became a partner in the coalition government. In 1980 the military seized power and again banned the MSP.

The popular disenchantment with the secular and Western-oriented policies of the ruling establishment kept on growing. This was reflected in the changing contour of elections to the Turkish parliament. In 1995 The Refah Party, headed by Erbakan, won the majority of seats in parliament. Erbakan became the first Islamic-mined prime minister of Turkey. However, the military, which is wedded to the Kemalist ideology, declared the Refah Pary unconstitutional, banned it from participating in elections, and removed Erbakan from the premiership.

The associates and followers of Erbakan set up a new party known as Justice and Development (AK) Party, which scored a landslide victory in the 2002 election. Turkey’s current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is progressive and forward-looking and, at the same time, deeply committed to Islamic values. His government has pushed reforms and has made Turkey’s membership of the European Union a priority agenda.

“This party (AK) has done more for the modernization of Turkey than all the secular parties in the previous years. They are willing to open up the system, to challenge the elite,” said Joost Lagendijk, a member of the European Parliament who heads a committee on Turkish issues.

The leaders in the vanguard of the movement for the reconstruction of Turkish state and polity are not the traditional ulama but university-educated professionals who are inspired by the Islamic ideology. Erbakan, for instance, is a highly qualified engineer with a doctorate from Germany’s Aachen Technische Hochsschule. He was formerly a professor at Istanbul Technical University. Abdullah Gul, who was prime minister in late 2002 and early 2003, has a doctorate in economics from Istanbul University. He has also studied in Britain and speaks fluent English.

Turkey stands at crossroads. On the one side, the powerful military junta and a section of the elite are fanatically committed to the secularist creed and are inimical to the restoration and revival of the country’s Islamic heritage. On the other, there is a deep yearning in the masses, students and the professional elite for Turkey’s return to its cherished Islamic values and traditions. I had observed this yearning during my visits to Istanbul in 1994 and later in 1998.

An indication of Turkey’s cultural dilemma can be seen in the controversy surrounding the Islamic headscarf. The wearing of headscarves is prohibited in government offices, educational institutions and in parliament. No female member of parliament covers her head in parliament. In 1999, Merve Kavakci, a computer scientist who was elected a member of the Turkish parliament, was prevented from taking oath and was subsequently stripped of her Turkish citizenship because she entered parliament with her headscarf. Earlier, her father, Yusuf, Ziya Kavakci, had to resign as dean of the Faculty of Islamic Studies at Ataturk University for supporting women’s right to wear the hijab. Her mother lost her teaching position at the same university for wearing the headscarf. The family had to migrate to the United States. Some of the women who wear the headscarf were deliberately let off the guest list for the Republic Day reception at the presidential palace in Ankara in 2006.

Turkish women who wear the headscarf complain that they are unfairly discriminated against for their religious belief. “I have been wearing my headscarf since I was 14. This is how I express myself. I do not aim to impose anything on others,” says Leila Shahin, who was expelled from medical school for refusing to remove her headscarf. Interestingly, the number of women covering their heads in public in Turkey is rapidly increasing. Traditional fashion shops say that business in headscarves has boomed in recent years. Turkey’s ruling AK party is against the existing ban on wearing headscarves in offices and schools.

In Turkey the president has wide powers. He has a veto on all laws and appoints some key figures within the establishment. The term of the incumbent Turkish president Ahmet Necdet comes to an end on May 16 this year. There was speculation that Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose Islamic commitment is an open secret, might stand for presidency, which caused considerable disquiet in the secular circles. On April 14 tens of thousands of pro-secularist Turks demonstrated at the Tandogan Square in Ankara, waving the national flag and shouting “We don’t want an imam as presidents” and “Turkey is secular and will remain secular.”

Turkey’s ruling A. K. Party nominated on April 25 Abdullah Gul, who has an Islamic background, as a presidential candidate. Gul, 56, belongs to a new breed among Turkey’s elite who are committed to Islam in their personal lives as well as in their political vision. They do not drink. They do not gamble. They pray and fast during the month of Ramadan. At the same time, they are modern and forward-looking. Gul’s wife wears the Islamic headscarf. He supports the headscarf but adds that “these are individual preferences and everybody should respect them.” Gul has been critical of American policies in the Middle East, saying that Washington’s support for Israel in its conflict with Lebanon in 2006 had caused a backlash in Turkey.

The main opposition party was against the candidacy of Abdullah Gul, saying that if the A. K. Party controls both parliament and presidency it may push an “Islamic agenda.” Turkey’s military junta also did not favour the candidacy of Gul. For electing the president, parliament requires a quorum of two-thirds of members—367 MPs. The ruling A. K. Party has a strength of 350 seats. The presidential election was held on April 27. The main opposition party boycotted the election. In the first round of voting, Gul narrowly failed to win. He secured 357 votes—just 10 short of the 367 required. Turkey’s constitutional court ruled that the vote was invalid. A deeply distressed prime minister said that it has been like “firing a bullet at democracy.”

After the vote, the army said that it was watching the election process with concern and would not shy away from defending secularism. It is note-worthy that the army—which is still very powerful—has carried out three coups in the last fifty years—in 1960, 1971 and 1980. In 1997 it intervened to force Erbakan from power.

Turkey has applied for membership of the European Union. Soon after the military said, after the first round of voting, that it would not shy away from intervening in the election process, the EU warned the military not to interfere in politics. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn pointed out that it was important that the military left democracy to the democratically elected government. “This is a clear test case whether the Turkish armed forces respect democratic secularization and democratic values. The timing is rather surprising and strange. It’s important that the military respects also the rules of the democratic game and its own role in that democratic game,” he added.

Turkey has always projected itself as a meeting point between the Islamic and Western worlds. It has applied for the membership of the European Union, which has become a highly contested affair. In 2004, when he was Vatican’s topmost theologian, Pope Benedict XVI created a stir by opposing Turkey’s bid to join the European Union because “as a Muslim country, it was in permanent contrast to Europe.” The Pope argued that Turkey belonged to a different cultural sphere, adding that its admission into the EU would be a grave error against the tide of history.

Austria has openly opposed Turkey’s entry into the EU. Germany, Greece, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Sweden and Spain are not at all enthusiastic about Turkey’s membership. France and Austria have pledged to hold referendums on the issue. With the right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy’s election as France’s president, the move is likely to be rejected by wide margins.

On May 6 the second round of presidential election was held and Tukey’s parliament failed for a second time to elect the ruling party’s candidate Abdullah Gul. Following the defeat, Gul withdrew his candidacy. The ruling party is now expected to focus attention on early parliamentary elections in July this year. It is also pushing for reforms in the procedure for the presidential election, saying that the president should be elected by the Turkish people, rather than by parliament On May 10 the Turkish parliament endorsed changes in the election procedure.

It seems certain that the tide is now turning. The days of the ascendancy of secular fanaticism and the army’s tyrannical hold on power are numbered. The democratic aspirations of the Turkish people and their keen desire to restore the country’s cherished legacy cannot be suppressed for too long. The Quran says: “Such days (of varying fortunes) We give to people by turns” (3: 140).

India’s Supreme Court on Freedom of Expression

On May 5, 2007 the Supreme Court of India ruled that no person can take undue advantage of the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression to indulge in ‘malicious criticism’ of other faiths. Upholding the government’s power to confiscate books which contain references that can spark violence, the Court observed that no person has the right to hurt the feelings of others on the premise that his/her right to freedom of speech should be unrestricted and unfettered. The Court observed: “It cannot be ignored that India is a country with vast disparities in language, culture and religion, and unwarranted and malicious criticism or interference in the faiths of others cannot be accepted.” The learned judges pointed out that there was no doubt that freedom of speech and expression was an important right and should be available to all. At the same time, while exercising the right, one should be careful not to hurt others’ feelings.

This sagacious and far-sighted ruling by the Supreme Court is in sharp contrast with the thoughtless and myopic view of freedom of expression prevalent in most Western countries. This is reflected in the unfettered freedom, without any kind of accountability or social responsibility, available to all and sundry to slander the religious beliefs of others. The most brazen example of this freedom was provided by the publication of the highly derogatory and sacrilegious cartoons of Prophet Muhammad by several newspapers in Europe in 2006.

The late Italian writer and journalist Oriana Fallaci famously described Muslims in Europe as “terrorists, thieves, rapists, ex-convicts, prostitutes, beggars, drug-dealers, dangerously ill.” Her pamphlets, which contain a stream of invective against Islam and Muslims, became bestsellers in French, German, Italian and other European languages.

A Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh made a film called Submission, which was aired on Dutch television in the summer of 2004. The film opens with a payer and then presents the stories of four Muslim women telling God abut the abuse (including incestuous rape) they had suffered at the hands of men. The film shows semi-nude images of women with verses from the Quran inscribed on their naked bodies. The film quite explicitly conveys the message that Islam has nothing positive to offer to women, that the abuse and humiliation of women by Muslim men is legitimized by the Quran. Understandably, the film created a great deal of anger and resentment among Muslims in the Netherlands. On November 2, 2004, a Dutch citizen of Moroccan descent, stabbed Theo van Gogh to death.

In September 2005, a Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 highly derogatory caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. In February 2006, several newspapers in 22 European countries republished some or all of the cartoons. The publication of these slanderous cartoons generated enormous anger and resentment among Muslims across the world and led to massive protests. Danish embassies in Iran, Beirut, Syria and Libya were attacked and vandalized.

In 2005, Nick Griffin, a leader of the far-right British National Party, had said in a speech that Islam was a vicious, wicked faith. He was tried for incitement to racial hatred, but on February 3, 2006 walked free at the end of the trial. In his defence, Griffin argued that he was attacking a religion (which, in the case of religions other than Christianity, is not an offence under British law), not a race.

In September 2006, a French high school teacher Robert Redeker wrote a virulent article in a leading newspaper Le Figaro on “Islamic Threat to the Free World.” He wrote in the article that (Prophet) Muhammad was a “merciless warlord, a plunderer, a Jew-massacrer, and polygamous man.” He described the Quran a book of “unparalleled violence, insidiously shaping the mindset of all Muslims.” The publication of this article led to the ban on the newspaper in Tunisia and Egypt. The author received death threats, forcing him to quit his job and shift residence.

The Western media have sought to justify such anti-Islamic outbursts in the name of freedom of expression. This is a specious, hypocritical and myopic argument which can be faulted on at least three counts. First, to treat freedom of expression as an absolute right, regardless of its implications and consequences for the wider society, is absurd. No country allows complete freedom of expression. It is restricted by prohibitions against defamation, libel, blasphemy, obscenity, national security, incitement to hatred, and judicial and parliamentary privilege.

Most if not all European countries have placed restrictions on freedom of expression through legislation. Thus, in Denmark and Britain (which have established churches), there is an anti-blasphemy law in respect of Christianity (which, ironically, does not apply to other religions).

Eleven European countries, including Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Poland, have laws which make the public denial of the Holocaust a punishable offence. The world’s best-known Holocaust-denier Ernst Zundel, who was deported from Canada in 2005, faces 14 charges in Germany. British historian David Irving, author of 30 books on World War II, was jailed for three years by an Austrian court in 2006 for denying the Holocaust and the existence of gas chambers in Auschwitz in a speech he had given in Austria in 1989. Irving has been debarred from setting foot in Germany, Austria, Italy and Canada because of his views.

Second, the right to freedom of expression needs to be tempered with social responsibility and sensitivity towards the beliefs and sentiments of others. An unbridled right to freedom of expression, especially in a multiethnic society, is fraught with socially disruptive consequences. Third, unchecked outbursts against Islam and Muslims are likely to increase the alienation and disaffection of the community, exacerbate the tension between Muslims and the Western world, and lead to a further radicalization of Muslim youth.

Restoring Virginity?

According to a Reuters report (May 1, 2007), young Muslim women of North African descent in France are increasingly going for hymenoplasty or hymen restoration surgery. Hymenoplasty is a surgical procedure designed to restore and reconstruct a ruptured hymen. The tearing of the hymen—named after Hymen, the Greek god of marriage—is typically caused by a woman’s first experience of sexual intercourse. However, in rare cases, the hymen may accidentally rupture during sports like cycling, horseback riding or gymnastics.

Hymen restoration surgery pulls the tissue back together to restore a “virgin-like” condition. The surgery takes about one or two hours and costs between 1500 and 3000 euros ($2000-4000). The Reuters report says that the demand for hymenoplasty in France has been rising for the past three or four years. Some of the patients are reported to have said that most women who undergo hymen restoration surgery do so out of respect for their culture and family traditions.

Since ancient times, the vaginal membrane has been regarded as a crucial marker of virginity. In Muslim societies as well as in other traditional cultures, the dilation of the hymen of an unmarried woman is perceived as a proof of having indulged in premarital or illicit sex.

Three distinct aspects of this trend in the context of Muslim women in France are note-worthy. First, it betrays the deep influence on young Muslim women of the prevailing cultural environment in the country which regards premarital or extramarital sex with approval. Second, it reflects the dilemma young Muslim women in France—as elsewhere in Europe—face. While they are a part of the cultural mainstream in respect of food habits, fashions, entertainment and sexual freedom, the cultural values and traditions of their parents and the wider Muslim community greatly emphasize modesty, chastity and virginity and look askance at premarital or illicit sex.

Third, the trend is indicative of the growing sense of cultural and religious identity in France’s five million-strong Muslim community (who constitute nearly seven percent of the country’s population). This sense of identity has been strengthened since 2004 when France banned the wearing of the Islamic headscarf in public-funded schools. An indication of this revival or reaffirmation of Islamic identity can be seen in the growing tendency among Muslims in France to send their wards to Islamic schools. The first Islamic school in France was started in 2001, the second in 2003 and the third in March 2007. The latter, named after the 9th century Arab philosopher Al-Kindi, has been set up with a donation of 400,000 euros from the local Muslim community. Here Muslim girls will have the freedom to wear the headscarf without let or hindrance and will also be provided an opportunity to learn abut their faith.

The increasing demand for hymen restoration surgery is not confined to Muslim women alone. It is becoming increasingly popular in Latin America as well as in Britain and the US, especially among women from conservative Christian families where virginity is highly valued. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons says that vaginal surgery, including hymenoplasty, is one of the industry’s fastest-growing segments. In the US, some women are going for hymen restoration surgery for cosmetic and libidinous purposes. Gynaecologists in many American cities are marketing hymen restoration surgery in magazines, local newspapers and online.

Thomas G. Stovall, president of the Society for Gynaecologic Surgeons in the US says that “hymen repair is a totally bogus procedure. In general, surgery marketed to improve one’s sex life rarely works. As for hymen replacement, most importantly, it doesn’t make you a virgin again.”

The issue of the permissibility of hymenoplasty from the perspective of Islamic Shariah was discussed for the first time at a meeting of the Islamic Organization of Medical Sciences in Kuwait in 1987. At this meeting, an Egyptian medical doctor, Kamal Fahmi, made a presentation in which he described several medical situations in which doctors might be asked to perform a hymenoplasty operation. Theo other presentations were made by Muhammad Naim Yasin, dean of the Shariah Faculty at the University of Kuwait, and Izz al-Din Tamimi, the Mufti of Jordan. While Yasin argued in favour of the permissibility of hymenoplasty, Tamimi argued against it. Both, however, recognized that hymen dilation could be caused by factors other than illicit sexual intercourse.

Tamimi opined that hymen reconstruction amounts to a potential fraud against the future husband of the woman. He argued that according legitimacy to hymen restoration surgery would result in the dilution of societal sanctions against premarital sex, which in turn would encourage waywardness. He concluded by saying that though hymenoplasty is not without certain benefits, its negative consequences and implications far outweigh these benefits. Therefore, in his opinion, hymen restoration surgery is not permissible.

Yasin, on the other hand, pointed out that the Islamic Shariah accepts only two kinds of proof in respect of illicit sex: confession by the accused, or the testimony of four eye-witnesses. The Shariah prescribes harsh punishments for false accusations of illegitimate sex. He argued that to conclude from a dilated hymen that a woman has indulged in illicit sex is against the regulations and spirit of the Shariah. He dwelt at some length on the positive and negative consequences of hymen reconstruction surgery in different situations and suggested that it may be permissible in cases where the woman did not indulge in illicit sex or had erred just once.

Yasin’s paper was severely criticized at the meeting. The final recommendation issued at the end of the meeting stated that any alteration of the human body aiming at deceit should be forbidden.

This broad recommendation is undoubtedly in keeping with the principles and guidelines laid down by the Islamic Shariah. However, the Shariah also admits of exceptions to the general rule in extraordinary situations. One often hears of physical violence and rape against innocent girls and women, which not only causes unspeakable agony and distress to the victims but also puts their marriage prospects in jeopardy. During the civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s, tens of thousands of innocent Muslim women were brutally raped by the Serbs. Documents submitted by the wartime Bosnian government in 1993 put the number of rape victims at 20,000 to 50,000. A committee of the European Union estimated the number of rape victims in Bosnia at 20,000.

Is it permissible to make an allowance for hymen restoration surgery, as an exceptional case, for victims of physical violence and rape, or in the case of an accident involving injury or rupture of the hymen?

The Challenges of Globalization and the Muslim World
Inter-Cultural Dialogue in a Globalizing World
Pope Benedict is apologising
Home About Us Announcement Forthcoming Features Feed Back Contact Us
Copyright © 2007 All rights reserved.