The bridge between East and West is in the grip of one of its periodic bouts of introspection. Turkey’s impending decision to reverse its longstanding ban on women wearing Islamic headscarves in universities is causing major controversy. A large majority in the Turkish parliament voted on Wednesday to do so, and the final vote on Saturday is expected to see the constitution amended to ease the restrictions.
Turkey is built on the founding principle of secularism, and religion has always been kept out of public life. Turkey’s secular establishment is a powerful one, and the army has never been afraid to step in when necessary to ensure that radical Islamism is permitted to gain no foothold in the politics of the nation. (Indeed, it was after the military engineered the ouster of Necmettin Erbakan’s pro-Islamist government in the so-called “postmodern coup” of 1997 that the on-off headscarf ban was once again stringently enforced.) Moreover, there is considerable nervousness in polite Turkish society about the new president, Abdullah Gul, a former Islamist whose wife controversially wears the hijab and who is suspected of being less than sound on the secularism issue.
The ban on women wearing headscarves, which applies not just to university students but also to posts in government and public bodies, may seem like a storm in a teacup-but for Turks it is hugely symbolic. For proponents, it’s a simple issue of civil rights; some two thirds of all Turkish women cover their heads every year, and so thousands of women are effectively denied places in higher education because they choose (or are obliged) to dress in accordance with the dictates of their traditional Muslim background. In a recent poll, 60% of the Turkish public supported the government’s move to ease the ban, largely for this reason.
Opponents, though, view the headscarf as a symbol of political Islam and worry that easing the ban is the thin end of the wedge. They point to other Muslim countries where Islamic parties have advanced their goals with an incrementalism that belies their radicalism, and worry that their country will be dragged backwards just as they are straining for acceptance into the European club of democratic, pluralistic and, for the most part, post-religious nations.
Turkey is not the only “European” nation to wrestle with the issue of how to confront, or at least manage, the rising tide of political Islamism. In similarly secular France, the controversial ban on “religious symbols” in schools, for example, has been blamed for stoking tensions among the large Muslim minority at whom the law was squarely aimed.
In Britain, too, there is much hand-wringing about how far it’s acceptable to accommodate religious sensibilities. In an extraordinary interview on Thursday, the Archbishop of Canterbury declaimed that some form of Sharia law in Britain was now “inevitable”. “Nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that’s sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states – the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well,” Dr. Rowan Williams generously allowed, but “[the idea that] there’s one law for everybody and that’s all there is to be said… I think that’s a bit of a danger”. For an English vicar, that’s incendiary language, and they’re already calling for his head on Traitor’s Gate.
The debate in Western Europe, of course, is underpinned by darker undercurrents; of racism, yes, but also the fear of being seen as racist. In most European countries, the guiding public policy principle these past decades has been to reach an accommodation with minority religions and cultures on their terms rather than our own; the thrust of “multiculturalism” is to painstakingly ensure that no one culture or way of life is held up as dominant or even primus inter pares. (You will never hear a British politician describe the UK as a “Christian country”; it would probably be a resigning matter.)
Faced with the apparently novel realisation that there are some minority groups who are not interested in reaching an accommodation, but simply have a set of non-negotiable demands handed down by God, politicians and religious leaders alike are in a state of disarray which would be hilarious if it weren’t so deadly serious for all of us. The difference, of course, is that while the response of the Anglican Church is to call, pathetically, for the destruction of the basic principle of equality under the law, the move to lift the restrictions on headscarves in Turkish universities is in fact a powerful step towards making it a reality.
The creeping influence of political Islam is a real concern for all Turks, but I would have thought that the opening of higher education up to all women, regardless of how devout they are, is the last thing reactionary Islamists want. Treating religious citizens like pariahs is the quickest way to bring on a clash of civilisations; insisting on equal rights for all and equal access to the fruits of modernity is surely a much wiser course. Prosperity, education and emancipation may not be silver bullets for dealing with fundamentalism, but they are a pretty good start.
Mr. Eugenides is a Scottish blogger.