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European Human Rights court upholds Turkish hijab ban

M.S. Ahmed

Since it agreed to start accession talks with Turkey in October, the European Union has been highly critical of Turkey's human-rights record, including its treatment of the Kurds, who are concentrated in the south east of the country. But, with the entry talks scheduled to last between ten and fifteen years, it is obvious that the EU does not really want Turkey as a member, although it values it as an economic and political ally – a role which is now enhanced by the West's declaration of the so-called ‘war on terrorism'. It is equally obvious that Brussels is not that interested in securing human rights for the Turkish people or enhanced political rights for the Kurds. If there is one ‘human right' – a highly dubious one in a Muslim country – that the EU is determined to uphold, it is the ‘right' of the secular political establishment to keep at bay the introduction of Islamic rule in a state that was once Islamic.

As far as human rights are concerned, little is more basic than the right of a Muslim girl to wear a headscarf in her own school or college – particularly since wearing a hijab does not mean covering up and hiding one's identity. But such a right is denied in secular Turkey, and the EU backs Ankara on this, as a recent decision by the European Court of Human Rights shows. On November 10, the court turned down the appeal by a Turkish medical student seeking to have the ban on wearing the headscarf in Turkish colleges overturned. According to Europe's highest human-rights court, the purpose of the restriction is "to preserve the secular character of educational institutions", adding that the ban met the "legitimate aims of protecting the rights and freedoms of others and maintaining public order."

The court made no attempt to conceal the fact that its decision was intended to side with the Turkish secularists against those fighting to have the ban on wearing the hijab lifted. "When examining the question of the Islamic headscarf in the Turkish context, there had to be borne in mind the impact which wearing such a symbol, which was presented or perceived as a compulsory religious duty, may have on those who chose not to wear it," it ruled. It went even further when it added that limitations on the right to wear a hijab could be "regarded as meeting a pressing social need."

In 1998 the vice-chancellor of Leyla Sahin's university declared that any students wearing beards and headscarves would be refused entry to classes. Her resort to the Turkish courts failed, so she appealed to Europe's top human rights court, which, not unexpectedly, also let her down by a huge majority : it reached its decision by 16 votes to one.

The decision is naturally not an isolated one, since it will affect not only other cases in Turkish courts but also attempts by European Muslims to introduce the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab. Some days after the court's ruling that Turkish law is consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights and with the protection of women's rights in general, a commission in the Netherlands ruled that a Muslim woman has the right not to wear the hijab. The woman in question, 32-year-old Samira Haddad, won her case against the Islamic College of Amsterdam, which insists that all Muslim women wear the hijab. The country's Equality Commission said that the college had discriminated illegally against her on the grounds of her religion.

But the dual ruling by the European Human Rights Court and the Netherlands' Equality Commission becomes absurd when applied to give a Muslim woman the right not to wear hijab, while denying another the right to wear it. The fact that the Islamic College of Amsterdam cannot compel Samira Haddad to wear hijab while the vice-chancellor of Leyla Salim's university can force her not to wear it, is more about secularism than about human rights. Small wonder that secular activists in Turkey and those campaigning for EU membership are celebrating both decisions, not least because this has come at a time of intense public debate about secular and Islamic issues in the country.

Secularists are particularly eager to exploit the decisions, and the European Commission's frequent criticism of Turkey's poor performance as far as human rights are concerned, to blame Islamic activists for the EU's obvious determination to withhold membership. But the commission – in a transparent attempt to help the secularists and to create the impression thatTurkey's Islamic faith has nothing to do with the issue of membership – makes the occasional vague announcement that Ankara is beginning to comply with some membership condition or other. In mid-October, for instance, Reuters quoted it as saying that it would declare Turkey a "functioning market" in November. Since having such an economy is one of the many conditions of membership, Reuters said this would be a boost for Turkey's hopes of joining the EU. But in November the commission issued strong statements on Ankara's human-rights failures and its treatment of ‘Kurdish separatists’.

The Turkish government's obsession with EU membership is certainly preventing it from addressing more pressing issues, such as the Kurdish question, its relations with other Muslim countries, the need to resist the virulent war on Islam (disguised as a "war on terrorism"), and the desirability of establishing close relations with the Muslim former members of the Soviet Union, such as Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. Turkey has closer religious, cultural and linguistic ties with the new states in the Caucasus than either the US or Russia has. Yet it is those two non-Muslim countries that are competing to establish close strategic and economic relations with them, leaving Turkey out.

There is an encouraging sign that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, is taking the Kurdish issue more seriously since the recent fatal bombing. Erdogan convened parliament to discuss the bombing, and also paid a rare visit to the southeast of the country. But he and other leaders need to do more to settle this issue, which must never be allowed to divide Turkey, a potentially powerful Muslim country that the enemies of Islam are keen to see split up.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 10

Shawwal 28, 14262005-12-01

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