02:27 GMT +321 October 2017

    Will Muslim veil split secular Turkey?

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    MOSCOW. (Alexander Bakustin, RIA Novosti) - The Turkish parliament recently adopted a government bill lifting a decades-old ban on wearing the hijab - a headscarf used by Muslim women to cover their hair.

    This revolutionary change has already caused fierce disputes between different classes of Turkish society, and may eventually split it altogether.

    Today, Islam is gaining increasing influence in many areas of Turkish life. The ruling pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, received a majority vote at the parliamentary elections last summer; last August its founder Abdullah Gul was elected president; tarikats (religious orders) have become markedly more active; and Islamic values are again becoming important in the daily life of many Turks.

    So why is the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) so worried? The bill, drafted by two parliamentary parties - the AKP and the ultra-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), provides for amendments to the 10th and 42nd articles of the Constitution, which guarantee equality before the law and the right to receive higher education. The amendments are designed to ensure the right of female students to wear the headscarf in universities.

    These amendments may also create a precedent for extending the right to wear religion-based clothing, such as headscarves, from universities to primary and secondary schools. This would be a victory for religious circles. The Turkish state has been strictly secularized since Kemal Ataturk introduced the principle of or laicism in 1937. Many in Turkey are concerned that the ruling elite will bring back other religious-based clothing, leading to a reversal of Ataturk's much-lauded secularization and, eventually, Turkey's gradual Islamization.

    The AKP and MHP argue that the bill is limited to university education and will not apply to any other institutions of Turkish society.

    But Turkish academic circles do not agree. The inter-university council of rectors convened an extraordinary session in Ankara in late January. Its chairman, rector of the Antalya-based Mediterranean University Mustafa Akaydin, called the government's attempts to lift the ban on headscarves in universities a "turning point in Turkish history and the most serious attack on the principles of the founder of the Turkish Republic since November 10, 1938 [the date of Kemal Ataturk's death]." He observed that this was "only the beginning that is bound to undermine the republic's secular foundations and turn Turkey into a Sharia state."

    The ruling party's actions hint at a return to the pro-Islamic attitudes that were pronounced in Turkey in 1996-1998 under the government of Necmettin Erbakan. For a brief period, women were allowed to wear headscarves in state institutions; key politicians emphasized their contacts with the leaders of various tarikats, and foreign policy was largely reoriented to Muslim countries, such as Sudan and Libya.

    There is no doubt that Prime Minister Erdogan understands the political dangers of adopting such a bill. In 1998, the Constitutional Court banned the Welfare Party, of which Erdogan was a member, and in 2001 the Virtue Party. The current AKP grew out of these parties. Erdogan spent four months in prison on charges of Islamic propaganda. This is how the court punished public reading of verses by the Turkish thinker Zia Gekalp.

    The local media are writing that Abdurahman Yalcinkaya, the prosecutor general of the Court of Appeal, may start proceedings in the Constitutional Court seeking the disbandment of the ruling and nationalist parties for violating the state's circular foundations.

    The Milliyet newspaper notes that the Prosecutor's Office has already started collecting evidence of their anti-constitutional activities.

    But the current situation differs from that of 1998. Moderate Islamists have scored major successes in politics and the economy. They have reached a tripartite agreement with the United States and Iraq on the Kurdish issue - a thorn in the side of successive Turkish governments, GDP is growing steadily and living standards are improving.

    After the bill was approved by parliament, Prime Minister Erdogan told the press that "Turkish politicians have a big achievement to their credit - they have destroyed rigid secular prejudices."

    The ruling party believes that the bill will burnish Turkey's democratic credentials, hastening its accession to the European Union.

    But EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn has thrown that argument into doubt, calling the headscarf issue a Turkish domestic dispute of no interest to the EU. Europe, he pointed out, has made no contribution to its solution, and nor does it have any right to make any statements on this score.

    In Turkey, there is a mounting wave of protests against the approval of the new law. In the past weekend, about 200,000 people took to the streets. Members of public and youth organizations carried portraits of Ataturk and chanted that the new bill meant "yes" to the headscarf and "no" to laicism. Turkey, they cried, is a secular state, and it will remain so.

    The president received the new bill early this week. He has 15 days to decide whether to approve or reject it. If he approves the bill, it will become law. But there is another force in Turkish domestic policy. The final word in all dramatic disputes has always belonged to the army, the self-appointed guarantor of Turkey's secular character.

    For the time being, the General Staff have kept silent, but ten years ago the army's interference forced the Erbakan government into resignation; Erbakan was barred from political activity for a decade. In the next few weeks, we will know whether the AKP, MHP and Erdogan will suffer the same fate.

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

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