The Headscarf in Turkey

The Headscarf in Turkey

Walking the streets of Istanbul a few years ago, my wife, a devoted Muslim who does not wear a head scarf, remarked, “I feel totally comfortable here.” The Muslim women in our group who did wear headscarves said they felt entirely at ease as well. That flexibility is precisely why I think Turkey has a chance to be a model of a modern Muslim nation.

Turkey is beginning to reflect the diversity of expressions in Islam: women who wear headscarves and women who don’t; secularists who believe in God but care not a whit for Muslim practice, sufis who cultivate the whirling ritual of the Mevlevi order, and traditionalists who haven’t missed one of the five daily prayers since they were kids.

Now Turkey is deciding whether that cosmopolitan ethos is going to be the new law of the land. The ruling Justice and Development Party is backing a range of measures to further strengthen democracy and civil society in Turkey: defining “Turkishness” to include multiple ethnicities (a step towards recognizing the marginalized Kurdish minority), vesting power in the people not in the state, and, most controversially, lifting the ban on wearing head scarves in universities.

For decades the Generals and other members of the urban power elite in Turkey faithfully protected Ataturk’s religion of secularism in a country where many were devout Muslims and felt violated by such policies.

If you think ‘violated’ is too strong a word for Turkey’s anti-religious laws, consider these examples:
• A university rector forces a group of female students to remove their headscarves in front of him to obtain his signature on a document. They say they want to transfer out of the university. He says that they need his signature even for that. Weeping and feeling dishonored, they comply.
• A female graduate student who has completed her three-hundred page thesis is required to take off her headscarf for her oral exam. She says ‘No,’ citing not only religious reasons but also opposition to state coercion. University officials insist. She leaves the room. They mark her absent.

Eboo Patel is founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international nonprofit that promotes interfaith cooperation.

Imagine university officials in America preventing students wearing Christian crosses from taking classes, or requiring people to cut off their “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets to take exams.

Turkey’s headscarf ban is even worse than the above, because unlike wearing a cross or a religious bracelet, some Muslim women feel that wearing a headscarf is a religious requirement. A more apt analogy might be government officials forcibly preventing Christian students at American universities from going to church on Sunday.

In response to reasonable religious freedom requests from women who wear headscarves, Turkey’s anti-religious secularists seem to be borrowing sound bites from American Islamophobes. One secular member of Parliament said that allowing women to wear headscarves at universities “will ultimately bring us Hezbollah terror, Al Qaeda terror and fundamentalism.”

That’s like saying that Catholic students going to Mass on Ash Wednesday will lead to the IRA planting bombs on campus.

Turkey is a country we should all be rooting for as it balances its astounding internal diversity and its seemingly contradictory desires – to embrace both its European future and its Muslim past. Lifting the ban on headscarves in universities accomplishes both.

As much as I loved Istanbul, my favorite city in Turkey was Konya, where the sufi poet (and scholar of Islamic law) Rumi is buried. The Mayor of Konya read our group a piece of Rumi’s poetry that reflected the spirit of his city, and the highest hopes for his nation’s future.

Come, Come whoever you are, wanderer, worshiper,
lover of leaving. Our”s is not a caravan of despair.
Come even if you have broken your vows a
thousand times, Come, come yet again.

That spirit of openness is what my wife and I experienced in Turkey a few years ago. I committed to my hosts that I would return and bring friends – Christian and Jewish, covered and not – and they promised that all of us would feel warm and welcome.

I have no doubt we will.