ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has accused opponents of the Islamic-style headscarf for women of trying to sow division in secular but predominantly Muslim Turkey.
Turkey’s Islamist-rooted government has come under intense pressure from secular opponents, including army generals, over its plan to lift a decades-old ban on women students wearing the headscarf at university.
“I have a few words for those who claim that secularism will be destroyed, Turkey will become a state of religion, the basic values of the Republic will be demolished, and people who do not wear headscarves will be under pressure,” Erdogan was quoted as saying in a speech in Istanbul late on Saturday.
“Aren’t you the ones dividing the society by blaming everybody who does not think or dress like you for being the enemy of secularism or the regime,” Erdogan said, according to the state news agency Anatolian.
More than 120,000 secular Turks held rallies in the capital Ankara and other cities on Saturday against the headscarf reform, which they say would usher in a stricter form of Islam in Turkey.
The powerful secular establishment, which includes generals, judges and university rectors, sees the headscarf as a symbol of radical Islam and believes lifting the ban would undermine the separation of state and religion, one of the founding principles of the modern Turkish republic.
The republic was founded as a secular state by Kemal Ataturk in 1923 from the wreckage of the Islam-based Ottoman Empire.
As recently as 1997 a group of army generals, acting with public support, ousted a government they deemed too Islamist.
“Ataturk gave us democracy. We do not want to turn back the clock and become like our Arab neighbors who are still developing nations,” said Can Atessal, an international relations student at Ankara’s Bilkent University.
Financial markets are watching the debate nervously.
The reform is the most daring move by the ruling AK Party, which traces its roots to a banned Islamic movement, to ease restrictions on Islam since it first came to power in 2002.
Secular rallies last year against the AK Party’s choice of former Islamist Abdullah Gul as president sparked early parliamentary polls. The AK Party, centre-right and pro-business but denying it has an Islamist agenda, was re-elected easily.
Parliament is set to approve this week the constitutional amendment on headscarves, sponsored by the AK Party and the opposition Nationalist Movement Party — both supported by pious Muslims, an increasingly vocal and prosperous group of voters.
The main opposition Republican People’s Party, which has close ties to the army, has vowed to appeal to the highest court if the AK Party-controlled chamber approves the reform.
“No matter how the Constitutional Court decides, it is apparent that an atmosphere of conflict will emerge at university and in society,” Fikret Bila, a leading Turkish commentator, wrote in the liberal daily Milliyet on Sunday.
Erdogan, a pious Muslim whose wife and daughters wear the headscarf, said the constitutional amendment related solely to freedom of clothing at higher education institutions. He said it was a matter of religious and personal freedoms.
The ban would remain for teachers and civil servants.
Last week Turkish university rectors issued a statement warning that allowing students to wear the Muslim headscarf in higher education institutes would provoke campus chaos and street violence and end up destroying the secular state.
Secularist professors have also threatened not to allow women into class if they wore the headscarf. Thousands of students have been expelled over the years for trying to wear the headscarf at university and observant Muslim women have long campaigned for the right to wear it on campus.