Turkey’s Islamist-rooted ruling AK Party and a key opposition party agreed on Thursday to cooperate to lift a ban on the wearing of the Islamic headscarf in universities, a move sure to anger the secular elite.
The secular elite, who include army generals, judges and university rectors, view the ban as vital for the separation of state and religion.
“Agreement has been reached … the issue of the headscarf was evaluated in terms of rights and freedoms,” said a joint statement by the AK Party and the nationalist MHP. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan needs MHP support in parliament to amend Turkey’s constitution. Erdogan did not say when the proposal would be put to a vote in parliament.
The role of religion has been a polarising issue in mainly Muslim Turkey since the founding of the secular republic in 1923on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. The current headscarf ban in universities dates back to a court ruling in 1989.
The secularists accuse the popular centre-right, pro-business AK Party of plotting to boost the role of Islam in Turkey, a claim Erdogan and his party deny.
Erdogan, whose own wife and daughters wear the headscarf, insists wearing the garment is a matter of personal freedom in a country where two-thirds of women cover their heads.
Opinion polls show strong public support for lifting the headscarf ban. Many women opt not to go to university because they want to keep their heads covered. Others wear wigs. Thursday’s move could increase political tensions in Turkey, a candidate for European Union membership. Financial markets are closely watching the headscarf debate.
“The reaction of the secular elite to the changes in the constitution will be important for the markets,” said Ozgur Altug, an economist at Raymond James Securities.
Last year, the issue helped spark early parliamentary polls following mass secularist rallies and tough army warnings.
The powerful military, which views itself as the ultimate guarantor of Turkey’s secular order, has not yet commented but is unlikely to welcome the latest moves.
The army has ousted four democratically elected governments in the past 50 years, most recently in 1997 when with public support it drove out a cabinet it viewed as too Islamist.
Some secularists see the headscarf as a threat to the modernising pro-Western reforms of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the1920s and 1930s. They say any relaxation of the ban could turn Turkey into another Iran.
“We may no longer see female students with uncovered heads in a few years time. Turkey is turning to Sharia law, not to the EU but to the Middle East,” said Isa Esme, deputy head of the powerful secular body overseeing higher education.
The AK Party has come under strong pressure from grassroots supporters to act after winning re-election last July.
An increasingly wealthy but pious middle class is emerging in Turkey and it wants to practise its religion more freely.
The MHP, Turkey’s third largest party in parliament, has long backed relaxing the headscarf ban because, like the AK Party, it counts among its supporters many religiously conservative small businessmen and farmers.
Critics say the secular elite uses Islam as an excuse to keep control of key state institutions for its own benefit.
“The logic is one of fear: if you give (people) one thing, they will ask and eventually get more… if you allow the headscarf in universities today, they will declare a Shari state in 10 years,” Ibrahim Kalin, director of Turkish think-tank SETA, wrote in Zaman daily.