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Turkey choosing between hijab and Europe

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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Marianna Belenkaya) - On August 20, Turkey will elect president. There is only one nominee for this position - spokesman for the Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party (JDP) and current Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul.

His election causes practically no doubts, even if he wins not in the first but in the last round on August 28.

For the first time in the history of the secular Turkish Republic, where religion is separated from the state, a man observing the laws of Shariah may become president. The choice, which Turkish MPs will make in the next few days will largely determine the future of not only Turkey but also the whole of Europe.

The problem is not whether Turkey will join the European Union, bringing in about 70 million Muslims to the European home. Those who are opposing this prospect fear a change in the demographic balance in Europe and a crisis of European, mostly Christian identity. But the number of Muslims is growing in Europe even without Turkey's "assistance." Moreover, the largely westernized secular Turks are not the only contributors to this process.

Islamization of Muslim countries with secular regimes, including Turkey, is more important than that. The number of residents turning to religion and the Islamic way of life has been growing fast there. It is enough to compare how many local women are wearing hijabs now compared to five or 10 years ago.

One of the most often discussed issues in pre-election Turkey is the headscarf worn by Gul's wife Hayrunisa. The appearance of a woman in a Muslim scarf in government offices, schools and universities was considered unthinkable in a secular republic established by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the early 1920s. What will Hayrunisa wear if her husband becomes president? Once she addressed the European Human Rights Court with the request to legalize headscarf in universities.

This discussion may seem unimportant, especially because Gul is swearing that he will defend the Ataturk-instilled Turkey's secular values. But for many Turks, a woman with a headscarf in the presidential palace is a much more important symbol than any of Gul's promises. They perceive it as an attempt to change the political system.

When last spring the JDP nominated Gul for the president for the first time, the army, which is considered to be the guarantor of a secular regime, expressed its discontent. The opposition leader - the Republican People's Party refused to take part in the voting and appealed against its results in court. Turkey's supreme judicial instance dismissed the elections as invalid for lack of quorum in parliament. Gul, the only nominee for the president's position, withdrew his candidacy and early elections followed on July 22. The JDP took 46.6% of the votes as against 34.4% before. Although it does not have two thirds of votes, required for the election of the president in the first round, it may get him through in the third round where a simple majority will do the job. It is no surprise that the army was silent after the elections, which demonstrated the JDP's influence, but there is no doubt that it will closely follow all Gul's actions and will be ready to intervene any moment, as it happened before.

For the time being, Gul is rejecting all criticism of his wife appearing in a hijab in his palace on the grounds that this is her constitutional right. "Turkey is a law-based country; its constitution guarantees the basic rights of people, including their right to dress as they wish," he told the press.

Let's emphasize that this Turkish discussion is a replica of what is going on in Europe. Let's recall that hijab and other religious paraphernalia have been outlawed in French educational establishments; the Dutch parliament is debating a ban on yashmak in public places.

This issue is topical not only for these countries but also for the entire Europe. The bone of contention is not hijab but the integration of cultures. Is it possible at all?

This is a search for compromise between human rights observance and preservation of identity of a state or group of states (EU); and sometimes security is at stake as in the case of yashmak. The task is to adopt new rules of coexistence between cultures. Dialogue between civilizations is smooth until it comes to concrete issues like wearing hijab. At this point, declarations of human rights and freedoms are being relegated to the background.

Much is said today about the experience of peaceful and fruitful cooperation between Europe and the Muslim world. But this experience was amassed by a different Europe and a different Muslim world. The rules were also different from today. What should be done now that the European face is rapidly changing its features? This question requires an answer because this is an irreversible process.

Probably, it will be partially answered by Abdullah Gul, a man who is devoted to Islamic values and the Shariah, but oriented to integration with Europe, in case of his election.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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