Tens of thousands of Turks waving the national flag took to the streets of the capital on Wednesday to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Turkey’s emergence as a secular republic, but the day’s festivities were overshadowed by bitter debate over the national law banning Islamic head scarves in public buildings and state-run schools.
The discord, pitting this predominantly Muslim nation’s shrinking but rigidly secular elite against a growing number of openly pious Turks, was fueled by President Ahmet Necdet Sezer’s refusal to invite wives of lawmakers and other top officials who cover their heads to his annual Republic Day reception. He is the first Turkish president to take this action.
Only a handful of lawmakers from the conservative ruling Justice and Development Party showed up for the event at the presidential palace in Ankara’s posh Cankaya neighborhood.
“What the president has done is disrespectful,” said Mehmet Elkatmis, who was among about 300 ruling party lawmakers who boycotted the bash. “Members of parliament represent the people.”
Religious sensitivity is especially high right now as millions of Muslims here keep daylight fasts for the holy month of Ramadan, which began Monday.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose wife, Emine, was kept off the guest list, ordered members of his Cabinet to show up at the party in a bid to ease tensions, and most did. “Even if our hearts are heavy, we will continue to serve,” Erdogan said. “Republic Day is not exclusively celebrated in Cankaya [the presidential palace] but across the nation.”
More than half of the Cabinet ministers, including Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, are married to women who cover their heads. Recent surveys show that more than 60% of Turkish women cover their heads in one form or another.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, which is soon to issue a report on the scarf issue, accused Sezer of undermining religious freedom and equal rights for Turkish women.
“I think what the president should have done is say, ‘I welcome the [Justice and Development Party’s] commitment to the equality of women, and on those terms I would be more than happy to allow women to come and to choose whatever dress they want, just as the men can choose whatever dress they want.’ ” Under Turkey’s Constitution, the president is meant to be a neutral figure.
With its parliamentary democracy and free market economy, Turkey prides itself on being one of the most Western- oriented and modern societies in the Islamic world. Turkish women enjoy rights not extended to women in other Muslim countries. Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern republic, allowed women to vote as early as 1934 and encouraged them to work and shed the veil.
Ataturk saw the veil as a symbol not only of sexual repression but also of Islamic militancy. Such thinking is shared today by Turkey’s generals, who view themselves as the custodians of Ataturk’s secular legacy, a role that is enshrined in the constitution, which they drew up after their third and last coup in 1980.
In 1997, the military forced the country’s first Islamist-led government to step down, and it remains suspicious of Erdogan, who began his career in an anti-Western, pro-Islamic group.