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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 6    Issue 3   01-15 July 2011

Professor A. R. Momin

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Part (AKP) scored a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections held on June 12, 2011, winning nearly 50% of the vote and 326 seats in the 550-member legislature. It is an amazing hat-trick for Erdogan and the AKP in that since 1946, when the multi-party system was introduced, no political party in Turkey has won three consecutive elections with an increased share of the vote in each term. The AKP got 5 million more votes than in the 2007 elections.

The 2011 elections and the victory of AKP are highly significant on at least four counts. First, the elections were free and fair, without any allegations of rigging or manipulation by the opposition parties. Second, the elections witnessed a massive turnout (87%) and participation of the electorate, including men and women, city-dwellers and villagers, the mainstream society and ethnic and religious minorities like the Kurds, Alewis, Christians and Jews. The election testifies to the strength of democracy in Turkey. Third, the election was fought not on sectarian issues but on the plank of development, welfare and constitutional reforms. The ruling party’s goal is to make Turkey one of the world’s top 10 economies by 2023, the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic. The election results provided a popular endorsement of the government’s nine-year record of strong, sustained economic growth, unprecedented stability and improved social services. The results also show that the ruling party has strong grassroots influence across the country. Fourth, Erdogan has not allowed himself and the ruling AK party to be swayed by the hubris of victory. Instead, he has struck a note of reconciliation and consensus on national issues of fundamental importance. In his victory speech, Erdogan said: “Nobody should have any doubt: whether you vote for us or not, all of your lifestyles and beliefs are a matter of honour for us.” He also said that he would seek a broad consensus with the opposition parties as well as NGOs for drafting a new constitution.

Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul with his wife on their way to the election booth

Erdogan has to attend to a whole set of pressing issues in the next four years, including drafting a new constitution, restructuring the institutions of the state, such as the judiciary, bureaucracy and the armed forces, urban renewal, resolving long-standing disputes with Greece and Armenia, accelerating the pace of negotiations for membership of the European Union, and redressing the grievances of the country’s ethnic minorities like the Kurds. Turkey and Armenia signed a historic deal in 2009 to reestablish diplomatic relations and to move towards opening the border between the two countries which has been closed since 1993. The government launched the Kurdish initiative in 2009 aimed at the recognition of the linguistic and cultural rights of the Kurdish minority.

The first priority of the new government is to replace the existing constitution, which was drafted by the military generals after the 1980 army coup, through a process of negotiation, reconciliation and dialogue with the opposition parties, NGOs, women’s groups, ethnic minorities and the intelligentsia. The existing constitution, which bears the unmistakable imprint of the Kemalist ideology, is evidently obsolete, suffers from a conspicuous deficit of democratic ethos and civil rights and espouses a flawed, doctrinaire conception of secularism. Needless to say, the constitution of a country should reflect and enshrine the cherished values, hopes and aspirations of its people.

The Turkish army and the courts consider themselves the guardians of the country’s political and social fabric. The generals, who are not accountable to anyone, have frequently intervened in national politics. Turkey witnessed military coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980. The military manoeuvred, with the connivance of the Constitutional Court, the removal of Necemettin Erbakan from premiership in 1997. Prime Minister Erdogan has substantially curtailed the unbridled powers of the army generals. Several military generals have been detained or questioned on charges of conspiracy against the government. In February 2010 more than forty high-ranking army officers, including former commanders of the Turkish navy and air force, four admirals and a general were arrested and formally charged with hatching a conspiracy to overthrow the democratically elected government. The plot involved planting bombs in mosques and having a Turkish Air Force jet shot down, which could then be used as justification for another military takeover. The courts have often connived at the arbitrary actions of the army generals. In March 2008, the Constitutional Court rejected, by a narrow margin, a petition by the chief prosecutor to ban the AKP and 71 of its officials, including President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Erdogan, for allegedly trying to establish an Islamic state.

Erdogan’s future plans include construction of a canal from the Black Sea to the Marma Sea by 2023, when the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic will be celebrated, a new city outside Istanbul (which is bursting at the seams with a population of between 15 and 17 million), a third airport, a third bridge over Bosphorus, and several new hospitals.

Though Turkey still considers membership of the European Union a coveted national goal, the enthusiasm for membership, especially among the Turkish people, is waning, thanks to the protracted and tortuous pace of negotiations, the unrelenting opposition from Germany, Austria, France and the Netherlands and, more importantly, Turkey’s rise as a self-confident nation with a robust economy.

Professor A. R. Momin

In 1853 Tsar Nicholas I of Russia is said to have dubbed the Ottoman Empire as “the sick man of Europe” on account of its declining financial and political fortunes. Since its creation in 1923, the Republic of Turkey has struggled to come to grips with its formidable and intractable problems. The 1990s were an extremely worrisome period for the country. The country’s GDP grew by an annual rate of just 4% and inflation was running at an average of 75% a year. Foreign direct investment was running at less than $1 billion a year. For most of the post-War years, Turkey was plagued by erratic and sluggish economic growth, high inflation rates, financial instability and high unemployment rates. A severe financial crisis in 2000-01 drove Turkey to the brink of ruin. The national currency—lira—collapsed, most of the banks were on the verge of closure and public debt shot up from around 38% to 74% of the national income.

Since 2002, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan took over as Prime Minister, Turkey has witnessed as astonishing turn-around. Erdogan sought to tide over the economic crisis with the help of his highly competent finance minster, Kemal Dervis, who had earlier worked as an executive with the World Bank. At the suggestion of Dervis, Erdogan introduced a massive debt-restructuring programme in collaboration with the International Monetary Fund. The programme worked well, and in 2002-08 the GDP grew by an annual average of about 6%. Turkey was able to weather the storm created by the global financial crisis much better than other Western countries. In 2010 GDP growth rate was 8.9%. According to IMF estimates, Turkey will cross the $1 trillion mark in GDP, according to purchasing power parity, by the end of 2011. Inflation has been brought down to 6%. Foreign direct investment is now close to $20 billion. Foreign reserves reached $92,170 billion in March 2011. In 2002, per capita income was $3,500. Today it is $13,464. Exports have increased from $36 billion in 2002 to $114 billion in 2010. Turkey has a dynamic domestic economy which complements the export sector. Turkey’s total public debt is now an enviable 41% of GDP. The World Bank classifies Turkey as an upper-middle income country in terms of its per capita GDP.

The Bosporus Bridge, which connects the European and Asian parts of Istanbul, is 4,954 feet long and 128 feet wide.

The key sectors of the Turkish economy are banking, shipbuilding, construction, home appliances, electronics, textiles, oil refining, petrochemical products, processed and unprocessed food, mining, iron and steel and automotives. Turkish companies are involved in building airports, high-rise buildings and seawater desalination plants in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Libya. Turkey has a trade surplus with Iraq, with large sales of fridges, airconditioners, electric fans, food, cosmetics, chemicals, construction materials, electronics, vehicles and tyres. Through the establishment of the Levant Business Forum, set up in December 2010, Turkey has promoted the creation of a free trade zone involving Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.

Istanbul, Turkey’s financial and cultural capital

Turkey is now the world’s 16th largest economy. It is the world’s biggest exporter of cement and the world’s second-biggest jewellery exporter. Turkish companies are successfully competing in the European Union, Middle East, Africa and Central Asia. Turkey is Europe’s leading maker of televisions and DVD players. Its automotive industry is the 6th largest in Europe and the 15th largest in the world. Turkish automotive companies like TEMSA, Otokar and BMC are among the world’s top makers of vans and buses. Its ship-building industry ranks 4th in the world. Turkey’s Naksan Holding is the third-largest maker of plastic bags in Europe. Its customers include Germany’s Plus supermarket chain, the Paris-based Pierre Cardin fashion house and the furniture giant Ikea. Gazianep is a fast-growing industrial city about 1,150 kilometres southeast of Istanbul. Industrial production has doubled since 2005, and in 2008 it exported goods worth $3.9 billion. The Brookings Institution, a Wahington-based think-tank, ranks Istanbul at the top of its list of 30 most dynamic cities in the world.

Turkish companies, such as TEMSA, Otokar and BMC, are among the world’s top makers of luxury buses and vans.

Turkey is in negotiations with Azerbaijan over the construction of the Nabucco pipeline (also known as Turkey-Austria pipeline), which will supply natural gas to the European Union and the US. The pipeline is expected to be operational by 2017.

Turkey’s economy is growing three times faster than those of other European countries. When the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development published a report on the Turkish economy in September 2010, its secretary-general, Angel Gurria, said that Turkey would be OECD’s fastest-growing member in 2010 and likened its performance to that of emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil. Some economists suggest that over the next seven years Turkey’s growth will match or surpass that of any other big country except China and India. The Wall Street Journal says that the strength of the Turkish boom is sustainable. “The growth story can continue,” the journal says. The Economist, in its issue of October 21, 2010, described Turkey as ‘the China of Europe.’

Turkey’s growing economic clout has been accompanied by growing international and strategic recognition. It is a member of the Council of Europe, NATO, Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and G-20 major economies.

Turkey is in a position to draw large benefits from the phenomenon described as the “demographic dividend.” Demographic dividend refers to the correlation between accelerated economic growth and the rising share of working age people in the population. Turkey has a median age of 28.1 years (compared with 44.3 in Germany, 43.7 in Italy, 44.6 in Japan and 39.7 in France). Nearly 30% of Turkey’s population of 76 million are under 18 years. Roughly, 700,000 university graduates enter the job market every year. Turkey’s fertility has been falling over the past 30 years, thanks to rising educational levels and the growing participation of women in the labour force, and is now around the critical 2.1 replacement level. If the fertility rate continues to fall, Turkey’s population will start declining over the next few decades. Prime Minster Erdogan has urged Turkish women to have at least three children offset the trend.

Impressed and fascinated by the economic transformation of their homeland, thousands of Germans of Turkish descent, who—or their parents and grandparents—had migrated overseas in search of better prospects, are now returning to Turkey. The Germans of Turkish origin who are leaving Germany for their homeland now outnumber Turks who are migrating to Germany. In 2009, more than 40,000 Germans of Turkish descent returned to Turkey for good. Nese Stegmann, 43, is an orthopaedic surgeon of Turkish origin who lived in Hanover with her German husband for over two decades. She returned to Istanbul in 2009 and was carried away by the city’s vibrancy and cultural richness. She was offered a job in a private hospital, which she accepted. Today she earns more than she did in Hanover, and is much happier staying in her own country.

Professor A. R. Momin

As a vibrant, forward-looking democracy with a robust economy and political stability, Turkey can serve as a model for Muslim countries in many respects. According to the ranking of Freedom House (an American-based monitor of civil and political rights), almost two-thirds of the 192 countries around the world are now electoral democracies. But among the 47 countries with a Muslim majority, only one-fourth are electoral democracies, and none of the core Arabic-speaking countries falls into this category. Out of seven world regions, the Arab countries have the lowest freedom score. It is now widely recognized that authoritarian rule, corruption, suppression of human rights and civil liberties and institutionalized gender discrimination are corroding the social, political and moral fibre of Arab societies. The Arab Human Development Report 2009 noted that the preconditions for the flowering of freedom are conspicuously absent in the Arab countries, which engenders deep and widespread frustration and despair among the people. By and large, the transfer of political power through the ballot box is a rare phenomenon in the Arab world. In many Arab countries which have some semblance of democracy, elections are often manipulated. Media control and censorship are widespread in Arab countries. At the same time, there is a great yearning in the Arab region, as testified by the successful uprising in Tunisia and Egypt, for democratic freedom and participation.

Turkey’s record of human development is fairly impressive and surpasses that of most Muslim countries. Though the Turkish people deeply cherish Islamic values and traditions, they have eschewed religious extremism and fanaticism. One can witness an interesting coexistence and blend of tradition and modernity in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Konya and other Turkish cities, where women in jeans and stilettos as well as in headscarves can be seen walking shoulder to shoulder. Turkey, which straddles Europe and Asia, has served as a bridge between East and West and as Europe’s gateway to Asia for centuries. This strategic and cultural resource remains as valuable today as in the past. The ruling AK party is committed to gender equality and Prime Minister Erdogan has encouraged the involvement and participation of women in public life and in national politics. It is significant to note that the number of women in the 550-seat Turkish parliament has increased from 48 in 2007 to 78.

At the same time, Turkey is keen to avoid the excesses which have become extremely worrisome in many Western nations, such as public drunkenness and drug abuse. Though the consumption and sale of alcohol is not prohibited by law, there is a high tax on alcoholic drinks so as to make them unaffordable for many people. Alcohol advertising is banned from sports and other events which are attended by youth in large numbers.

Turkey is one of the most tourist-friendly countries in the world, which adds to its charm as a favourite holiday destination for hundreds of thousands of tourists from Europe, US, Australia and other countries. The Turkish people are generally courteous, hospitable and friendly towards foreigners and tourists.

Sultan Ahmad Mosque, Istanbul

Beyond the Legacy of Kemalism

Under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk, the founder and first president of the Turkish Republic, Turkey sought to make a radical break with the Islamic and cultural legacy of the Ottoman Empire and launched a state-sponsored project of modernization, Westernization and secularization. The project was inspired by what came to be known as Kemalism. The ideology of Kemalism was enunciated in terms of six core principles, which were set out in the ruling Republican People’s Party Statutes of 1935. These principles, which constitute the official ideology of the Turkish state and are written into the constitution, are Republicanism, Nationalism, Populism, Statism, Secularism and Revolutionism. All social, religious, cultural and educational institutions were placed under the control and regulation of the government and all powers were concentrated in the hands of a centralized, Jacobian state, at the expense of local governments, NGOs, minorities and people’s rights.

The ruling elite introduced a wide range of sweeping changes in Turkish society, with a view to make it a mirror-image of Western societies. The Islamic calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar and Islamic family laws were substituted by the Swiss Code. Turkish replaced Arabic as the liturgical language and calling the faithful to prayer (azan) was outlawed. The Quran was to be read not in Arabic but in its Turkish translation. Sufi orders were banned and madrasas and Sufi hospices and shrines were closed down. Sunday replaced Friday as the weekly public holiday. The Arabic script of the Turkish language was changed to Latin. The wearing of the traditional Turkish cap—fez—was prohibited and women were encouraged to discard their headscarves and veils. The wearing of the headscarf was prohibited in all public institutions, including schools, universities, government offices and public hospitals. The ruling regime sought to nationalize and manipulate religion in order to make it subservient to the state ideology. Interestingly, the first state-run industry during the reign of Ataurk was a brewery.

The Kemalist ideology had a calamitous and insidious effect on Turkish polity, economy, society and culture. Under its influence, the state acquired absolute and tyrannical powers. The Turkish army, which considers itself the guardian of the state ideology, is not accountable to anyone. Kemalism was used as a pretext for repeated military interventions and takeovers from the 1960s onwards. The Kemalist ideology created a cleavage between the Westernised ruling elite and the masses. Laicism or secularism became an official instrument for the control and manipulation of religion and for the suppression of people’s religious and cultural rights.

However, the Kemalist ideology never enjoyed an unchallenged sway, especially in the countryside. From time to time there were strong and sometimes violent reactions against the government’s policies, especially from the Sufis of the Naqshbandiya order.

The rising popularity of Prime Minister Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul and the landslide victory of the AK party in the June 12 elections provide strong indications of people’s growing disenchantment with the Kemalist ideology, the constitution and the authoritarian and tyrannical attitude of the army generals and the courts. A democratic polity cannot be held to ransom by a band of conceited and crazed generals and equally crazed judges in the name of a doctrine that has become obsolete and is out of sync with Turkish society.

In a nationwide referendum held on September 12, 2010, a substantial majority of Turkish citizens (58%) said yes to a package of highly significant amendments in the constitution, proposed by the ruling AK party and approved by the Turkish Grand Assembly. The proposed amendments include expanding the sphere of individual rights and civil liberties, gender equality, curtailing the powers of the army and judiciary, collective bargaining for employees, and positive discrimination for children, women and the disabled. The amendments give the Turkish president and parliament greater say over the appointment of senior judges and prosecutors and over the functioning of the Constitutional Court. Following the 1980 military coup, led by General Kenan Evren, the civilian government was dislodged, over half a million people were arrested and tortured, and 51 executed. According to the proposed amendments, civilian courts will have the power to prosecute military personnel for crimes against the state. The result of the referendum paved the way for the prosecution of the generals who masterminded the 1980 coup and would act as a deterrent against potential military coups in the future. Mr Erdogan called the referendum “a key to open the door for a new constitution.”

Turkey represents an interesting blend of tradition and modernity

Minority Rights

Though Turkey’s population is overwhelmingly Muslim, there are significant Christian and Jewish minorities, which have been living in the country for centuries. Christianity has a long history in Anatolia, which is the birth place of many Christian Apostles and saints. Before the Muslim conquest, Istanbul--earlier known as Constantinople--was the centre of Orthodox Christianity. For a thousand years, the Haga Sophia was the largest church in the world. The Christian communities in Turkey include Armenian Orthodox (45,000), Syriac Orthodox (17,000), Chaldean Catholics (8,000) and Greek Orthodox (4,000). There are 236 active churches in the country.

The spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Church, Patriarch Bartholomew I, conducted the Divine Liturgy at the Byzantine-era Somela monastery in northeast Turkey in 2010. More than 1,500 pilgrims attended the rare service at the monastery, which was held after 87 years.

Thousands of Sephardic Jews, who were driven out of Spain in 1495, along with Muslims, found refuge in the Ottoman territories, where they were treated with honour. Their religious and cultural identities were protected by the empire. There are at present 26,000 Jews in Turkey, most of them descendants of Sephardic Jews. There are 16 functioning synagogues and a few kosher restaurants.


Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Minaret Research Network

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been elected Turkey’s prime minister for the third consecutive term in the parliamentary elections held on June 12, 2011, was born on February 26, 1954 in the city of Rize on the Black Sea Coast. Erdogan was 13 when his father, who was employed in the Turkish Coast Guard, decided to move to Istanbul with his wife and five children in search of better prospects. Young Recep grew up in the district of Kasimpasa on the Golden Horn. He was admitted to one of the Imam-Hatip schools in the city.

When Kemal Ataturk established Turkey as a secular democracy in 1924, he ordered the closure of madrasas and Sufi hospices. After the 1950 elections the Turkish government partially lifted the restrictions on the traditional educational institutions. A significant innovation was the establishment of what came to be known as Imam-Hatip schools, which offered instruction in modern subjects as well as in Islamic disciplines. The original objective of these schools was to train Imams, who led prayers in mosques and whose salaries were paid by the state. About 40% of the syllabus in these schools is devoted to Islamic studies and the rest to modern subjects. After completing their studies in these schools, pupils could take admission in colleges and universities for higher or professional courses. In the Sixties and Seventies Imam-Hatip schools became highly popular in the country. It is significant to note that around one-third of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s MPs attended Imam-Hatip schools in their younger days. The popularity of these schools has declined in recent years. Today there are about 450 Imam-Hatip schools with 120,000 pupils. Some of these schools cater exclusively to girls.

Turkish girls attend a class at the Kazim Karabekir Girls’ Imam-Hatip School in Istanbul (Reuters/Murad Sezer)

As a teenager Erdogan sold lemonade and sesame buns on the streets to earn some extra money. He graduated from Marmara University’s Faculty of Economics and Commerce in 1981. Since his university days he has taken a keen interest in social activism and politics. A meeting with Necmettin Erbakan, an engineer and professor who later became Turkey’s prime minister, left a profound influence on his thinking on politics and social reconstruction. He joined Erbakan’s Welfare Party after the military coup in 1980.

Necmettin Erbakan, who served as Turkey’s prime minister for a year from 1996 to 1997

Erbakan was a visionary who was deeply committed to democracy and the restoration of Turkey’s cherished religious and cultural legacy. He led the Welfare Party to unexpected success in the 1995 parliamentary elections, when it emerged as the single largest party in the Turkish parliament. He led a coalition government and was elected as prime minister in June 1996. After a year in office, he was forced to step down by the country’s powerful army, which accused him of harbouring and promoting a secret agenda of Islamic fundamentalism. The Welfare Party was banned in 1998 by the Constitutional Court, ostensibly for subverting the constitutional principles. In 2002 Erbakan was jailed for two years and four months on the same charges. He passed away on February 27, 2011.

Erdogan was elected as the mayor of Istanbul in 1994 and served in that capacity till 1998. As mayor he earned a reputation as an honest, conscientious and efficient administrator. Istanbul became a more liveable, cleaner, greener and culturally vibrant city during Erdogan’s brief mayoral stint.

Erdogan’s family background, upbringing and early education at Imam-Hatip school inculcated in him a deep respect and commitment to Islamic values. This is reflected in his personality and lifestyle. He is a teetotaler and observes the fast during Ramadan. His wife, Emine, whom he met at Marmara University, wears the headscarf. In 1997 Erdogan recited a poem written by one of Turkey’s foremost poets, Ziya Gokalp, at a public function. One of the couplets in the poem ran as follows: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.” He was charged with inciting religious hatred by the Turkish authorities, forced to give up his mayoral position and sentenced to ten months in jail, but was freed after four.

Erdogan with his wife Emine

Erdogan founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP) on August 14, 2001, which drew ideological and political inspiration from Erbakan’s Welfare Party. In the 2002 parliamentary elections, Erdogan led the party to an amazing victory, winning two-thirds of the vote.

Erdogan has a charismatic personality and is widely seen as sincere and incorruptible. Since he has risen from the ranks of the common people, he knows and understands their problems and difficulties. He has given a sense of self-confidence and self-assurance to the Turkish people, in the cities as well as in the Anatolian countryside. He has played a central role in creating and sustaining a robust economy, in ensuring political stability and in making people’s well-being and welfare the main plank of his policies. He has successfully clipped the wings of conceited and authoritarian army generals and has broken the nexus between military officers and business tycoons.

Erdogan has made sustained efforts to reach out to the wider Muslim world and to forge networks of economic, political and cultural cooperation with Turkey’s neighbours, including the European Union and the Middle East. He has courageously criticized Israel for its inhuman and barbaric treatment of the Palestinians and has described the Jewish state as “the main threat to regional peace.” He accused Israel of “state terrorism” in the June 2010 flotilla raid off Gaza. He burst out at the Israeli president Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum meet at Davos, Switzerland on January 31, 2009 over the reign of repression unleashed by the Israeli authorities in Gaza and the West Bank. It is an open secret that Israel has developed nuclear capability and is in possession of more than 150 nuclear warheads, as testified by the former US president, Jimmy Carter. Erdogan has called for Israel’s nuclear facilities to be brought under the inspection of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Erdogan walking out of the World Economic Forum meet in January 2009

Western media routinely dub Erdogan and the ruling AK Party as Islamist or mildly Islamist. The term Islamism, like Islamic fundamentalism, is highly controversial and pejorative and reflects a deeply entrenched bias against Turkey in particular and Islam in general. It is instructive to note, in comparison, that the ideology of Christian democracy, which seeks to apply Christian principles to political policy, continues to inspire and influence political parties across large parts of Europe, including Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Finland, Italy, France, Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Luxembourg, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Malta. Angel Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, is chairwoman of the ruling Christian Democratic Union. Yet, no European newspaper dubs Merkel as a “Christian Democrat,” though, occasionally, her ruling coalition is described as “centre-right.”

Minaret Research Network

The headscarf has been a controversial issue in Turkey since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Ataturk regarded headscarves as an obstacle to progress and enlightenment. The Turkish constitution prohibits women from wearing the headscarf in public places, including schools, universities, offices, courts and public hospitals. In 1997 the wearing of headscarves was banned in all universities. Students who were used to wearing the hijab had to remove it before entering the university. Turkey’s Administrative Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that a teacher who wore the headscarf outside of her work place was not eligible for promotion.

No female member of parliament can cover her head in parliament. In 1999, Merve Kavakci, a Harvard-educated computer scientist, was elected a member of the Turkish parliament. She was prevented from taking oath because she wore a headscarf. The then prime minster, Bulent Ecevit, accused her of violating the tenet of secularism, and the Turkish president, Suleyman Demirel, called her an agent provocateur. Some years ago, 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. In 2008 Prime Minister Erdogan’s wife was not allowed to visit a friend in a military hospital because she was wearing the headscarf.

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. It is significant to note that despite the tirade of the ruling establishment and the secular elite against headscarves, more than two-thirds of women in Turkey cover their heads.

In the 2007 election campaign, Prime Minister Erdogan promised to lift the ban on headscarves if the AK party came to power. On February 9, 2008 Turkey’s parliament voted in favour of overturning the ban on Islamic headscarves in universities. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan argued that changing the relevant clause in the Turkish constitution was necessary in order to ensure that all women had equal access to higher education without any discrimination. However, on June 5, 2008 Turkey’s Constitutional Court struck down the amendment, saying that it ran contrary to the fundamental principles of the constitution.

The issue of the headscarf presents a paradoxical situation in Turkey. While the vast majority of people are in favour of lifting the ban on the wearing of headscarves in public places, the army, courts and the secular elite are ardent supporters of the ban. Interestingly, the number of women covering their heads in public in Turkey is increasing. Traditional fashion shops say that business in headscarves has boomed in recent years. When the British Queen visited Ankara in May 2008, she was hosted at dinner by Hayrunnisa Gul, the headscarved wife of President Abdullah Gul.

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