ANKARA (Reuters) — Eight years after a lawmaker was thrown out of Turkey’s parliament for wearing a Muslim-style headscarf, devout Turks are pinning hopes of more religious rights on their next president and his headscarf-wearing wife.
Turkey is mainly Muslim but has been officially secular since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the modern republic and threw religion out of public life.
Ataturk enacted a series of reforms in the 1920s and 30s to steer Turkey westward. Legislation by his secularist followers has pushed religion further from the public sphere.
Some of this may change when, as expected, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul wins a vote in parliament on Tuesday and becomes the country’s next head of state, making him the first former Islamist to hold that position.
Gul has stirred deep fears of Islamism among secularists, who see in his wife’s headscarf a provocative symbol of Islam entering the public arena once he is president.
They suspect Gul will help the ruling AK Party, reelected in July with a large majority in parliament, erode the division between religion and state, and that one day all women will be forced to cover up.
Gul, a respected diplomat who helped launch membership talks with the European Union in 2005, denies any such agenda.
But a less vociferous, if larger, group hopes that having the Gul family in the palace will allow devout Muslims to practise more freely and ease discrimination.
Gul’s suitability for the job has been discussed more in terms of his wife’s headgear than his qualifications.
But he is not the first man to see his career prospects threatened by his wife’s attire. A headscarf ban which stops many women going to university is well known, but less discussed is the filtering of devout men from state institutions.
“Some (prosecutor) friends don’t get married because if they do they think they will be judged by their wife’s headscarf,” said lawyer Emre Yurtulan, of rights group Mazlumder.
Students of religious schools meanwhile, see their grades marked down when they apply for university, putting them at a disadvantage to other students.
The secularist Higher Education Board works to keep the perceived Islamist threat out of universities, while the army — seeing itself as the secular republic’s ultimate defender — regularly expels officers deemed religious reactionaries.
One of them is Kemal Sahin, who was forced into early retirement as a major, stripped of his pension and other benefits, in a decision that cannot be appealed in court. Sahin — whose wife is a theology graduate, teaches religion and wears a headscarf — is hopeful about Gul’s presidency.
As president, Gul can make it easier for the Islamist-rooted AK Party to lift religious restrictions and he will oversee the appointment of senior officials, but many say the mere presence of his wife in the palace is an important symbol.
“This is a country that has ostracised women like myself for a very long time,” said Merve Kavakci, the former MP who was stripped of her citizenship after wearing a headscarf to parliament in 1999. She is a U.S. citizen and regained Turkish citizenship by marriage.
“I would only assume that having Mrs Gul there might be an inspiration for girls to push themselves into society further, at every level. This will definitely be an inspiration to … those who oppose this (headscarf) ban,” she told Reuters.
But secularists fear that any easing of restrictions by the AK Party government could lead to an erosion of the separation of mosque and state.
“They will change the constitution, they will allow headscarves, they will change some constitutional institutions,” said Deniz Som, columnist at secularist Cumhuriyet. “Then they will apply Islamic rules…because these people are Islamists.”
A survey in daily Milliyet showed 15 percent see a risk of sharia law and another 15 see a possible threat, fears expressed at the weekend by opposition leader Deniz Baykal who said Turkey is losing its secular identity.
But another poll, by the International Republican Institute, showed 65 percent of Turks were “not at all disturbed” by the wife of a minister wearing a headscarf. A TESEV think tank study shows 60 percent of women cover their heads.
“A lot of people will see this as a process of normalisation,” said Ibrahim Kalin of generally pro-government think tank SETA. “A taboo will be overcome … and it will probably lead to a healthier debate about some of these issues.”
Analysts see Gul’s presidency as a turning point: Gul and his family reflect a growing class of ordinary, more conservative Turks and they have strong popular backing.
The rise of the AK Party to power and Gul to the presidency also overturn the secular elite’s control of key institution.
“Gul’s presidency will signal the peak of a long march of the periphery to the centre,” said columnist Mustafa Akyol. “It’s a way of saying to devout Muslims the state belongs to you. Your people can also rise up the ladder.”
Devout Muslim voters want more than just symbols: they want legislation and Gul will have a role there too as new laws must be approved by him.
But while the AK Party has pledged to rewrite the constitution and may seek to allow headscarves at universities, Gul — who will quit the party — will have to tread carefully after his candidacy alone caused months of political turmoil.