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Turkey: Faith, fashion, and freedom - US News

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  • Zafar Khan
    Faith, fashion, and freedom http://www.usnews.com/usnews/issue/030630/usnews/30turkey.htm By Kevin Whitelaw ANKARA, TURKEY--Somehow, what should have been just
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 1, 2003
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      Faith, fashion, and freedom


      By Kevin Whitelaw
      ANKARA, TURKEY--Somehow, what should have been just
      another fashion show ignited a media circus. Nearly a
      dozen Turkish news crews prowled a hotel ballroom
      where some of Turkey's best-known models donned the
      latest Islamic women's fashions. With the country's
      rather liberal interpretation of Islam, the clothing
      and head scarves managed to be quite elegant and
      stylish (and expensive), while still covering the
      models nearly completely.

      The TV crews, however, were focused less on fashion
      trends than on political controversy. The show drew
      strong protests when the organizers first booked the
      official Ankara Palace State Guest House, where, as in
      most Turkish government buildings, Islamic head
      scarves are banned. Adding fuel to the fire was the
      involvement of the wives of several top government
      ministers, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP)
      has strong Islamic roots. In the end, the venue was
      changed and the wives distanced themselves from the
      show. "You can see these clothes on the street," the
      clothing label's co-owner Mustafa Celikten told the
      crowd. "I don't understand why it was a problem."

      His comment was perhaps a little disingenuous amid
      what was plainly a PR stunt. After all, the head-scarf
      debate is an old one here, and it remains a reliable
      gauge of the severity of Turkey's ongoing identity
      crisis. For the many devout Muslims living under
      Turkey's aggressively secular government, the head
      scarf is a symbol of religious freedom. For the urban
      Turks who call themselves "modern," it marks a
      potential retreat from Turkey's modernization and a
      subtle form of intimidation. Many Turkish elites were
      shocked by a recent newspaper poll showing that 64
      percent of Turkish women wear head scarves and that a
      majority of Turks also believe the head-scarf
      restrictions should be lifted.

      Suspicions. These days, the issue is heating up, in
      large part because of the seven tumultuous months of
      AKP rule, which included Turkey's ultimate refusal to
      allow U.S. troops to use Turkish bases for the
      invasion of Iraq. Turkey's military and media, as well
      as the rest of the establishment, have been watching
      suspiciously for any signals that the AKP is secretly
      pushing for an Islamic government here.

      Aside from the head-scarf issue, AKP has explored
      other reforms, such as allowing people to open houses
      of worship in any building. That idea has been dropped
      for now, but it would have permitted an unlimited
      number of mosques to open in apartment buildings.
      "They want to impose their way of life," fumes Onur
      Oymen, an opposition member of parliament. "It could
      open an uncontrolled move towards fundamentalism
      because people could not control the situation."

      In some ways, what's really going on is a small
      revolution in Turkey. Not only does the AKP have
      Islamic roots, but it also draws much of its
      leadership ranks and strength from Anatolia, Turkey's
      poorer and less educated heartland. "It might be the
      opening of a new era," says Fehmi Koru, a leading
      columnist for one of Istanbul's largest papers. "The
      masses will govern themselves, not the elites
      governing the masses."

      While publicly denying any Islamic agenda, the AKP has
      cleverly adopted the language of democracy and
      modernization, in part to deflect the establishment's
      suspicions. Most concretely, this has meant pushing
      hard for integration with the European Union, which is
      expected to require Turkey to loosen its restrictions
      on religious practices, such as the head-scarf ban.
      "We want to bring Turkey into the modern world,"
      explains AKP legislator Turhan Comez. The EU will also
      seek to reduce the role of the Turkish military, which
      has long regarded itself as the guardian of Turkey's

      The military, meanwhile, is finding itself in the
      unusual position of applying the brakes on the rush
      toward the West. It obviously wants to guard its own
      power, but it, along with much of the rest of the
      Turkish establishment, also fears AKP'S latent aims.
      "They haven't been able to convince people that their
      rhetoric reflects their true intentions," says Feride
      Acar, chairwoman of the political science department
      at Middle East Technical University in Ankara. "To
      argue for the head scarf as a sign of modernization
      and ignore other violations of women's rights doesn't
      make a very convincing argument."

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