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Turkish youth win hijab battle

Iqbal Siddiqui

The banning of Refah, Turkey’s ‘Islamic’ political party, was formalized on February 22, when the Constitutional Court’s full verdict was published. The verdict confirmed that Refah had been banned for policies and actions likely to ‘subvert secularism’ during its 18 months in office from December 1995 to June last year.

The verdict’s publication, 37 days after it was initially announced on January 16, was immediately followed by a crackdown on the wearing of hijab (headscarf) and beards in universities, but in this case the regime was forced into a humiliating climbdown by Muslim students determined not to be browbeaten by the government.

The political ban on Refah leader Necmettin Erbakan and four other senior Refah members was also confirmed by the publication of the verdict. However, the risk of Erbakan being jailed receded on March 4, when prosecutors dropped the most serious charge against him, that of sedition and inciting religious hatred, on the grounds that the Parliamentary immunity he previously enjoyed could not be retrospectively withdrawn. As this decision was announced by the same prosecutors who had earlier instituted the charge, it was clearly taken for political rather then legal reasons.

However, this latter should not be seen as a sign of conciliation on the government’s part. Hasan Huseyin Ceylan, another of the banned MPs, was charged on February 24 with insulting the armed forces in a speech he made last year, and faces up to two-and-a-half years in jail. Tayyib Erdogan, the popular Refah mayor of Istanbul, who has been seen as a possible successor to Erbakan, was charged on February 12 with inciting religious hatred based on religious differences. Probably only Erbakan’s seniority and a government fear of making him into a political martyr saved him, although three lesser charges against him still stand.

The government’s willingness to use the law against the Islamic movement was demonstrated on March 5, when Aydin Koral, a writer for the Islamic magazine Selam, was jailed for two years for writing an article criticising Turkey’s military for taking part in joint manoeuvres with the US and Israel in January. Koral follows Selam editor Mehmet Sirin, who was jailed in December.

The formalization of party’s banning opened the way for Refah members to implement the strategy they had agreed during the 37-day delay after the verdict was announced on January 16. A new political party, Fazilat (Virtue) had already been formed outside the Parliament, and virtually all 147 former Refah MPs joined it within a few days of Refah’s banning.

With former Erbakan aide Recai Kutan as leader of its Parliamentary group, Fazilat now succeeds Refah as the largest single Party in Parliament and the main opposition Party. However, Kutan and party chairman Ismail Alptekin are taking great pains to emphasize that Fusillade is not simply another version of Refah, as State prosecutors have repeatedly stated that they will shut down any other party which tries to follow Refah’s Islamic line. Refah, itself, meanwhile, is said to be planning a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights.

While Turkey’s ‘Islamic’ politicians were pussy-footying around the law, young Turks were facing the government down on the issue of hijab. The issue - which had been simmering since the beginning of this academic year - blew up again on February 24, when authorities at Istanbul University, Turkey’s largest, instructed police to refuse entry to female students wearing hijab and men with beards. While the crackdown was supposedly ordered by the University president, it quickly became apparent that it was part of a general crackdown on Islam behaviour ordered by the government.

Thousands of students gathered in an impromptu demonstration outside Istanbul University the same day, and many more on subsequent days. This led to spontaneous demonstrations by

students, school children and others in several towns, culminating in a mass demonstration by some 10-15,000 young people outside Istanbul University on Friday February 27. The marchers were cheered through the streets by local residents, before going to the historic 16th century Beyazit Mosque for Juma’. Over 2,000 people had to pray on the street outside the mosque as there were too many to accommodate inside.

Despite the mass protests, the government tried desperately to enforce its ban and even to claim the moral high ground on the issue. Deputy prime minister Bulent Ecevit set new standards in hypocrisy by complaining of ‘grown men are exploiting young girls’ headscarves for political gain...’, conveniently ignoring the fact that it was his government trying to force the girls to expose themselves against their will.

Faced with the unexpected level of popular protest, however, the government did ultimately back down on March 2, when prime minister Mesut Yilmaz announced after a cabinet meeting - and even as fresh protests were taking place again - that ‘girls must neither be forced to cover or uncover their heads... we must respect the traditions and customs of all students.’

Even this political decision, however, seems to have been against the will of the military. The National Security Council had insisted that there must be no compromise on this issue, and Yilmaz’s already shaky hold on power has probably been further weakened.

It is also interesting to note the western governments’ reactions. The European Union has been privately demanding that Turkey suppress the Islamic movement, while publicly criticising it for ‘undemocratic’ behaviour in seeking to ban Refah, and using this as a pretext to keep Turkey out of their exclusive white, Christian club. Once the dirty deed was completed, however, the EU rewarded Yilmaz on March 4 by holding out the carrot of EU membership once more, this time in the guise of an offer of ‘virtual membership’ which would include a strengthened customs union, virtual free trade in certain sectors including services and farm produce, and participation in EU programmes.

The catch: the deal is conditional on Turkey’s acquiescence to EU plans to open membership negotiations with Cyprus, which would mean an end to Turkey’s support for the Turkish Cypriots. This is almost certainly a condition deliberately designed to ensure that Turkey cannot accept it, while allowing the EU to claim that they offered Turkey closer links but it was Turkey which rejected the offer. Yilmaz, like all Turkey’s secularists, remains in the unenviable position of trying to do everything possible to please a friend who simply doesn’t want him.

In such circumstances, it is particularly unfortunate that some Refah leaders - who criticised the secularists’ Europhilia and claim to favour closer links to other Muslim countries rather than membership of the EU - should still be looking to the European Court of Human Rights in the hope of reversing the banning of their Party.

For Turkey’s Islamic movement, however, the key point is rather different. The contrast between the direct and effective action taken by Turkey’s youth and the example of the country’s political ‘Islamic leadership’ could hardy be greater. The question is whether any leader has the vision and courage to act on the obvious conclusions.

Muslimedia: March 16-31, 1998

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 2

Safar 21, 14191998-03-16

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