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Spinning a revolution in the Ottoman Turkey

27 March 2008

I WONDER where spin gets its start. Spin is news that is slanted with objectionable adjectives that capture your attention. ‘Weapons of mass destruction’ is a set of such kind of adjectives. While spin is not exactly lying, it often uses popular fallacies and misinformation.

For example, wearing hijab is oppressive and Turkey is a secular democracy that is threatened by Islamists. Ideas like these are spun without real knowledge or mostly out of context. The saddest part is that we find ourselves believing them and/or reacting to them. The best example of this is the recent events in Turkey.

These days, Turkey is the new headquarters of spin. Since the dawn of Kamalist Turkey, Turkish secularists have been on the look out for the Islamists — those who observe the rules of Islam. In Western leaning media, Islamist is code for Muslim fundamentalist, terrorist, or potential terrorist.

The Turkish secular fundamentalists shouted that hijab threatened the very nation and it was listed as political symbol. The premise was/is that women who wore hijab were trying to enforce Sharia law on secular Turkey.

The 1990’s saw the rise of religious leaning political parties. One particular party — the Fazilat Partisi (Virtue Party) was the one that had the secular-fundamentalists terrified. Media outlets such as the Economist and Time Magazine, the Washington Post, and the New York Times reported a coming of an Islamic revolution in Turkey.

At the center there were two important figures, Merve Kavakci and the now prime minister of Turkey, Recip Tayyip Erdogan, both former members of the Fazilet Partisi. In 1999, Erdogan, the beloved former Mayor of Istanbul, got ten months in prison for “inciting hatred.” after reading a poem during a public speech. The audience loved it, but the secular government and the military didn’t.

Also, in 1999, Merve Kavakci, was elected to the Turkish parliament, but was kicked out of the building and was stripped of her Turkish citizenship when she entered it wearing a hijab. Since then, she has been an advocate for this right.

In this tug of war between secularists (who, by the way claim that to be Muslims too) and other Muslims (what is now being spun as Islamists), the Turkish government suddenly decided to enforce the hijab ban.

It was a sad time. I witnessed how the entire population of Marmara University was transformed in a day. From the minibus window on my way to work, I saw a diverse co-ed university campus turn into a nearly all-male school. The surrounding environs were swarming with police — to keep the hijabis out. There weren’t many. Most hijabis just didn’t go to school, some as young as 10 years old.

Anyone wearing a hijab could not enter any government building. Emergencies made no difference at all. Seriously ill (or in labour) turbanlu women were turned away from hospital emergency rooms simply because their heads were covered.

Is this democracy and its freedoms?

Ironically, Turkey is often held up as the only democracy in the Muslim world, but when it threw democracy in the trash, who in the West spoke out? Even US and UN programmes, which are scurrying around the world to “educate” girls in the Muslim world, skipped over Turkey.

In this age of extremes, on the other side of the Middle East, Gulf women are almost pushed out of the house to go to school and work; their children are left with maids at home. And these days, hijab in the workplace or the street, is becoming rare.

I guess, I would agree that wearing hijab is oppressive, if you can’t go to school or work. As one sister said, “Hatha al harb lilhijab, this is a war for hijab.”

Yet, despite these troubles hijab advocates persevere and seek Allah’s aid. They don’t lash out, but they are patient even thought their lives are so difficult. They are the real mujahids. Nine years later, their perseverance has wrought change. Recently, I saw a drastic increase of Islamic culture, books, more women wearing headscarves, and new waqfs teaching Quran and sunnah.

Who would have thought that he would be back? Undaunted, Erdogan ran for the office of prime minister and won. Five years later he was re-elected on the promise to reverse the hijab ban. So far, he has kept that promise despite the uproar coming from some circles.

Finally, Erdogan got through to the Turkish parliament, despite the ranting of the Peoples Republican Party leader (CHP), Deniz Baykal, who stood before the Turkish parliament, proclaiming, “The hijab is not Turkish dress, it’s Arab clothes.” But hijab is everywhere. “Turkish women had the right to be educated.” Erdogan hit back.

In the 1800’s, the US government sent Christian missionaries to ‘civilise’ the Native American population. These missionaries’ vision was as simple as it was profound. “If you get the girls, you’ve got the race.”

The ban on hijab was also a banishment of women from the public sphere. Soon we shall see the results. Perhaps it’s time for Muslims to start creating some spin of their own, because, when they get our girls, they have got rest of us as well.

Maryam Ismail is a Dubai-based writer

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