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Turkey’s High Court Overturns Headscarf Rule

June 6, 2008


ISTANBUL — Turkey’s highest court dealt a stinging slap to the governing party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday, ruling that a legal change allowing women to attend universities wearing headscarves was unconstitutional.

The 9-to-2 decision by the Constitutional Court sets the stage for a final showdown between Turkey’s secular elite — its military, judiciary, and secular political party — and Mr. Erdogan, a Muslim with an Islamist past.

The ruling, which said the legal change violated the principle constitutional set in Turkey’s constitution that it is a secular state, was seen as largely political. The decision bodes ominously for Mr. Erdogan: The same court is considering a case that would ban him and 70 other members of his party from politics. A decision is expected later this summer.

For generations Turkey’s political system has been controlled by a powerful secular elite that has stepped in with coups and judicial decisions against elected governments. In the headscarf case, filed by the main secular political party after Parliament approved a constitutional amendment in February that allowed freedom of dress in education, the elite argued that allowing veiled women onto college campuses would eventually threaten Turkish secularism. Head scarves were banned from the campuses in the 1980’s.

Kemal Anadol, a deputy chairman of the secular party, Republican People’s Party, said the verdict was a triumph of justice and showed that secularism and democracy are “constitutional principles that can’t be separated from one other.”

Mr. Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party, or AKP, proposed the change, argues the case is a matter of individual rights. All Turks should be able to attend university no matter what they wear or believe, the argument goes.

But the way the party pushed it through Parliament — abruptly, with little public discussion — angered the secular old-guard and disappointed liberals, who support the changes but wanted them to come with others that would strengthen other rights, like free speech. Some said they seemed to be pursing only changes that would please their constituency, and not the broader range needed to join the European Union.

“AKP is lost in the spell of their own power,” said Mithat Sancar, a law professor in Ankara, Turkey’s capital. “When they want to listen to liberals, they do, but when they don’t, they comfortably ignore them.”

Despite Mr. Erdogan’s broad popularity — his party won 47 percent in an election last July — the threat of closure is serious. The authorities have closed more than 20 parties in the past. The head scarf amendment is considered to be the single most important irritant that set off the closure case, and is central to its argument that Mr. Erdogan and his allies are trying to dismantle secularism in Turkey, a charge they strongly dispute.

Many secular Turks are skeptical that Mr. Erdogan, whose past is in political Islam, will defend secularism in the future, even though he frequently reassures them that he will.

“There is still a group within the AKP that is remembered for their Islamic past,” said Ersin Kalaycioglu, a political science professor from Sabanci University. “Fears don’t need to be rational,” he said, arguing the party should not dismiss them.

But Dengir Firat, a senior member of Mr. Erdogan’s party, disagreed. ”You can’t limit someone’s liberties on the basis of people’s fears,” Mr. Firat said. 

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