Sister Safa Merve Kavakci’s hijab battle dominated the political debate in Turkey about the functioning of democratic norms and secularism until it was buried by the August earthquake. While the secular Kemalist government got egg on its face for its poor handling of the rescue efforts, the hijab issue is still being debated.
Her suspension from parliament, which she has challenged in court, whose verdict is awaited, was regarded by the government as essential to arrest the growth of anti-secular trends in Turkish politics. While Sister Kavakci is determined to wear hijab in parliament, stating that this is her human and Islamic right, the Kemalist regime not only declared the wearing of hijab inside the Grand Turkish National Assembly (GTNA) as contrary to Kemalist principles but is determined to force her to uncover, regarding it as essential for the defence of the secularism of the Turkish Republic.
The controversy emerged following last April’s elections in which Merve Kavakci was elected to the unicameral, 550-member GTNA from Istanbul. The GTNA, as defined in all three constitutions, is the sole fount of political legitimacy in the Turkish Republic. Sister Kavakci is not new to politics; she enjoys great popularity in her own constituency as well as throughout the country because she has been active in Refah and Fazilat parties for many years as head of the Ladies’ Commission.
When asked about her entering the Assembly with hijab, Sister Kavakci replied that she had decided during the election campaign that she would do so if she won her seat. Her decision aroused the wrath of the Kemalists, who argued that, according to Turkey’s secular policies, in force since 1934 and defined in the Turkish Penal Code, a woman MP is ‘prohibited’ from entering the Parliament with hijab. The speaker of the assembly, however, used precedent rather than the law to ban the wearing of hijab. He argued that since 1934 a total of 147 female MPs had entered Parliament but none had worn hijab. In fact, a number of women who usually wore hijab in public entered the Assembly without it.
Merve Kavakci, despite all pressure from the government, entered parliament wearing hijab but was not allowed to take her oath. A few days later, the government used the pretext that she had become a US citizen without the prior ‘approval’ of the authorities, to suspend her parliamentary membership.
No specific rules exist in Turkey pertaining to dual citizenship and parliamentary membership. Sister Kavakci was suspended from parliament by an order of the president until the Constitutional Court decides her case. She accuses the government of interfering with her political, social and religious rights.
The Penal Code of Turkey, a mixture of Swiss civil code, Italian criminal code and German commercial code was framed in the 1930s to replace the old Ottoman legal system. The Turkish penal code, designed to promote secularism in Turkey, has been defended in all the three constitutions of Turkey, 1924, 1961, and 1982. Secularism is considered the most prominent element of the Turkish ‘revolutionary ideological perspective’, better known as Kemalism.
The six principles of Kemalism - republicanism, statism, secularism, nationalism, etatism, and populism - were incorporated in the 1924 Constitution. But Kemal, founder of the Turkish republic, did not seek to impose the reforms at once, fearing public resistance. Instead, the principles were adopted gradually during the 10-year period from 1926 to 1936. The Assembly then had only one political party, Kemal’s People’s Republican Party, which held an absolute majority.
The major amendments in the 1924 constitution to support secularism were: the banning of religious propaganda for political purposes (1926); ban on the teaching of Arabic and Persian in schools, and the removal of Islam as the state religion (1928); the ban of the adhan in Arabic (1933), which was lifted by Adnan Menderes’s government in 1950; a change in the Turkish alphabet from Arabic to Latin script (1928); ban on religious titles in 1934; replacement of Friday as weekly holiday, and so on. Article 2 of the 1921 constitution specified Islam as the official religion.
In the 1961 constitution, two principles - etatism and populism - were dropped. The present constitution of 1982 supports the principle of secularism. This needs the additional crutch of the Turkish penal code. An amendment must have the support of a two-thirds majority in parliament. Since 1961 no political party has enjoyed such support,, so secularism is remains entrenched in the constitution. However, its best guarantee comes from the military. The 1982 Constitution added a 15-member Constitutional Council which is empowered to review the constitutionality of laws considered contrary to secularism.
The Council can even ban a political party in power if it is found to be anti-secular; and office-holders can be disqualified from office if judged to have violated secularism. The Fazilat party is a successor to the Refah Party founded by Necmettin Erbakan in 1983, which assumed power in 1995 in coalition with Tansu Ciller’s Dogru Yol Party. Refah was banned in 1997 and a several members, including Erbakan, were banned from politics.
The party renamed itself Fazilat to continue in politics. The Merve Kavakci case is being used to reinforce Turkey’s secularism, and to ward off any challenge, however mild, to its dogma. No matter what the government says it is doing to promote democracy, the fact is that banning the wearing of hijab by an elected member of parliament has exposed the ugly face of politics in secular Turkey.
Muslimedia: September 16-30, 1999