Many news outlets carried stories in mid-July of the Turkish government’s condemnation of a ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) upholding a ban on in certain circumstances, in which an employer wishes to convey a “neutral image.” In doing so, it is weighing into the culture wars over that Europeans will all be well aware of. Many European countries, in particular France, have seen high-profile clashes over the issue of in state institutions.
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Many readers would see’s condemnation as a simple case of an Islamist regime railing against Western suppression of . Indeed, the government’s statement was full of accusations of Islamophobia in Europe. Yet such statements, coming out of , are not as simple as that.
Those same readers might be surprised to discover thatitself had banned in state institutions until very recently. This might make a governmental condemnation of a ban in Europe seem nonsensical. The reality helps to give context to the Turkish reaction.
Wear Western Hats
Condemnations ofbans might ordinarily be expected to emanate from regimes such as the Iranian theocracy or the Saudi conservative monarchy. Coming out of the secular republic of , they might appear more curious, if it wasn’t for President ’s global image as a religious conservative.
His government’s sensitivity tobans is very personal indeed. In 2006, his own and other politicians’ wives were not invited to an official event by the then-Turkish president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, due to their wearing of . In 2007, there was an attempt by the military — a traditional guardian of ’s ruling secular elite — to deny the presidency to Abdullah Gul of the ruling ( ) because his wife wore a .
Such attitudes, which might appear highly intolerant in countries such as the United Kingdom, make more sense in places like France where the separation of church and state is a foundation of the republic. When modernwas created in 1920, France became the model for how to build a modern state. A key element in the imitation of the French was the desire of ’s first military rulers to suppress .
The, of which was the successor state, was an empire. Indeed, it was ruled by a caliph, the equivalent of the pope in Rome. The caliph was the leader of the world. Turning into a modern secular republic was akin to removing the pope from the Vatican and banning the wearing of the Christian cross in Catholic Europe. Needless to say, it has created cultural fault lines in that persist to this day.
To drive home his cultural revolution in the 1920s and 1930s, modern’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, instituted a ban on the fez — that most famously Turkish of hats — and the turban. He insisted on men wearing the Western brimmed hat, traditionally rejected since it doesn’t allow the wearer to bow their head to the floor in prayer whilst wearing it.
The veil andwere also discouraged, though the state’s ability to enforce changes in female clothing was slower to be realized than with men’s. The persistence of female cultural clothing as opposed to male could be the subject of an entire essay of its own.
Alongside many other measures, such as the banning of the Sufibrotherhoods, the closure of mosques, a ban on the call to prayer in Arabic and the removal of the Arabic script, the Turkish authorities attempted to forcibly Westernize Turks.
The Illiberal 1980s
Yet it was not until the military coup d’état of 1980 thatfinally outlawed the officially. It was then that it was banned across all state institutions, including schools, universities, the judiciary, the police and the military. In effect, this meant that girls from religious backgrounds had to choose either to remove their or not get an education. Only with the rise of the to power in the 2000s did official attitudes begin to shift.
In 2010, Turkish universities finally admitted women who wore. This was followed a few years later by state bureaucratic institutions, except the judiciary, military and police. In 2016, policewomen were allowed to wear beneath their caps, and finally in 2017, the military was the last institution to lift the ban.
This is the backdrop against which the Turkish government condemns aban — in certain circumstances — decreed by the ECJ. It is a backdrop in which the religiously conservative in read a narrative of European coercion running back to the founding of the modern state and even earlier.
The ideas that inspired the military officers who won the Turkish War of Independence — the war with Allied powers that followed the conclusion of the First World War — were imported from Western Europe. Having carved out an almost entirely religiously homogenousstate, they set out to utterly secularize it.
The banning of theis therefore seen by religiously conservative Turks as an idea imported from Europe and, in some sense, an idea dictated to by secularized Christian nations. Given the last century of experience in , it is clear how this view is generated.
Ultimately, the question is one of whether people who like the use ofshould tolerate those who don’t wear them, and whether those who dislike the use of should tolerate those who do wear them. Examples of intolerance abound on either side. A lack of understanding will bring no peace to or to countries across Europe and the world.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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