Monday, 25 October 2010

The AKP Promotes Headscarf at the Expense of Societal Cohesion

Published in Articles

By Halil M. Karaveli (vol. 3, no. 18 of the Turkey Analyst)

Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is seeking to promote a secularist-conservative reconciliation. However, instead of seizing on the opportunity to advance the cause of mutual understanding and societal cohesion, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has chosen to uphold the battle line against the secularists. The maximalist response of the AKP to the CHP’s headscarf overture does not inspire any confidence that the victorious Sunni conservatives are ever going to bother to try to accommodate the losing side in the battle over Turkey’s identity.

BACKGROUND: Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, the secularist and nationalist Republican People’s party (CHP), is trying to revive – so far without any success – the fortunes of the CHP. In a departure from the hard line secularism of his predecessor Deniz Baykal, Kılıçdaroğlu is making an attempt to reach out to the religious conservative majority of the country. Kılıçdaroğlu anticipates that Turkey is going to be, as he explained to the Turkey Analyst before his election as party leader, a much more conservative country in the future, with the implication that the CHP must adjust to conservatism if it is to stand a chance of ever returning to power. Indeed, after having asserted that secularism is something “that is of concern only for the more sophisticated people in our society” the future CHP leader told the Turkey Analyst that his party was henceforth going to address itself to the mosque congregations.

It was in that vein that Kılıçdaroğlu, during the recent campaign for the September 12 referendum on constitutional amendments, self-confidently declared that the CHP was going to “solve” the headscarf problem. With that statement, Kılıçdaroğlu saw to it that the issue of the Islamic headscarf once again became the focal point of the Turkish political debate. As he staked a claim on the headscarf issue, Kılıçdaroğlu was attempting to reach across the divide separating secularists and religious conservatives. However, the ensuing, heated debate that continues to rage on talk shows on Turkish television has, if anything, revealed how deeply fractured Turkey remains, and that neither conservatives nor secularists are prepared to accommodate the other side. The leader of the CHP cuts a lonely figure in the secularist camp and has in fact been rebuked by the secularists of his own party, while the ruling Justice and development party (AKP) has seized on his headscarf proposal as an opportunity to advance its conservative political agenda even further.

The problem that Kılıçdaroğlu was offering to help solve is the ban on the headscarf in the universities of Turkey. Female students wearing the Islamist symbol have since the end of the 1980s been prevented from attending university. In 2007, the ruling AKP and the far right opposition Nationalist Movement party (MHP) voted to make amendments to the constitution that would have nullified the ban on the headscarf on the campuses. Yet although the amendments were approved by a vast majority of 411 deputies in parliament, the secularist CHP took the matter to the Constitutional court, demanding that the amendment be repealed on the ground that it amounted to a breach of the constitution. The Constitutional court obliged, overruling the constitutional amendments. The fact that the leader of the CHP has come around to endorsing what was deemed unconstitutional by his own party only two years ago speaks of a major ideological reorientation away from the dogmatic interpretation of secularism that had prevailed in the past.

Indeed, the chief prosecutor of the High Appeals court, Abdurrahman Başkaya, who in 2008 had filed a closure case against the AKP, saw fit to issue a stern warning to the politicians that lifting of the ban on the headscarf in the universities violates the constitutionally stipulated secularism; he went on to remind that the legislative and executive branches are bound to abide by the rulings of the judiciary. The ultimatum of the chief prosecutor was directed as much to the leader of the secularist CHP as to the ruling AKP. As it were, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did not hesitate to serve the chief prosecutor with an ultimatum in response, inviting him to join politics if he had enough self confidence. The recently approved constitutional amendments have ensured that the AKP government no longer needs to fear the high judiciary. With the latest appointments of judges, the ideological balance in the Constitutional court, as well as in the High board of judges and prosecutors, is estimated to have tilted to the favor of the ruling party.

Meanwhile, the ban on the headscarf has in practice ceased to be upheld in the universities. The Higher Education Board (YÖK), which supervises the state universities, recently instructed teachers and principals not to expel students who attend classes wearing the headscarf. In fact, there is no law that prohibits the Islamic headscarf, only administrative directives, but they have in turn been justified by the constitutional statute of secularism. With the matter of the headscarf in the universities now to all intents and purposes settled to the satisfaction of the religious conservatives, the discussion has quickly moved on to whether or not the ban is eventually also going to be lifted in the high and elementary schools, as well as in the other parts of the public sphere, in government offices, in the courts and ultimately in the parliament.

The opposition CHP exhorts the ruling AKP to guarantee that the headscarf is not going to be introduced in the rest of the school system and in public offices. However, the representatives of the AKP have declined to offer any such guarantees; they have only gone as far as denying that they harbor any plans to introduce the headscarf at the elementary school level. Yet those answers have failed to satisfy the CHP representatives who note that the absence of plans in the present does not in itself preclude steps being taken in that direction in the future. Indeed, one of the deputy chairmen of the AKP tellingly stated that “we cannot know what will happen ten years from now”. It is precisely such ambiguity about the future, inviting speculation about an impending Islamization, that stokes the fears of the seculars.

"Don't Touch My Headscarf..."

IMPLICATIONS: Prime Minister Erdoğan is doing little to allay the fears of the seculars, on the contrary choosing to arraign them. Thus, Erdoğan accused the women who do not cover themselves of having failed to empathize with the women who wear the headscarf; meanwhile the latter, Erdoğan claimed, for their part defend the formers’ right not to wear the headscarf. The way the prime minister lumped together all uncovered women reveals his own prejudices and speaks of his tendency to treat the non-conservative other as an enemy by definition. In fact, as it happens, uncovered liberals such as the prominent novelist Elif Şafak, have been in the forefront of the struggle that has been waged against authoritarian secularism, in defense of the rights of pious women. Conversely, however, many secular women would contest the assertion that the religious conservatives have gone to great lengths in defending the way of life of the non-religious.

The truth of the matter is that freedom is not universally embraced by either side; seculars and religious conservatives generally tend to view each other with suspicion and hostility. The seculars fear that the conservatives are going to impose their way of life on society as a whole; the latter on the other hand, retort, not without justification, that it is their choices of lifestyle that has not been respected. The seculars fear the future as the religious conservatives set out to correct the injustices of the past. Turkey will have explore a path that accommodates both sides, and the responsibility for reconciling secularism and conservatism weighs most heavily on the Sunni conservatives who are in charge of the country.

The AKP is now, for the first time since it came to power in 2002, unthreatened. The military and the high judiciary no longer present any threats to the ruling party. As long as it faced the destructive opposition of the old, authoritarian Kemalist state establishment, the AKP enjoyed the luxury of being perceived as the liberal alternative by default. Those days are now over. A new era has begun with the popular approval of the constitutional amendments in the September 12 referendum. The AKP can no longer blame the persistence of an illiberal system or the resistance and dogmatism of the Kemalist obstructionists.

CONCLUSIONS:  The leader of the once programmatically secularist CHP has made what amounts to a first, significant attempt to promote secularist-conservative reconciliation by endorsing the freedom to wear the headscarf in the universities. Prime Minister Erdoğan has responded by accusing the seculars of not caring for the plight of the covered women. Instead of seizing on the opportunity to advance the cause of mutual understanding and societal cohesion, Erdoğan has chosen to uphold the battle line against the secularist enemy, disregarding the change of attitude that Kılıçdaroğlu represents. The AKP probably, and for good reason, calculates that keeping the fight over the headscarf alive will continue to work to its electoral benefit. That is nevertheless a tactic that is sure to further exacerbate societal tensions.

The maximalist response of the AKP to the CHP’s headscarf overture does not bode well for the future. It does not inspire any confidence that the victorious Sunni conservatives are even going to bother to try to accommodate the losing side in the battle over Turkey’s identity. The seculars may indeed have to reconsider their insistence that the general ban on the headscarf in the public sphere, except in the universities, is kept in place. But the maximalist stance of the conservatives will not encourage any further moderation of the secularist position.

Halil M. Karaveli is Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst and a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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