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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