Veiled Secularism; Turkey's Identity Troubles

Article excerpt


ANKARA, Turkey. - The first spring after opening the European Union accession talks came with a surfacing identity crisis in Turkey. The standard question of whether Turks are compatible with the European Union no longer dominates the debate over Turkey's future. Now it's Turks vs. Turks.

The "nation state" is at stake, and a future Turkish civil war is possible. The unrest could incite religious fighting among Muslim Turks, and could impact European countries with Muslim populations.

Since the Islamists came into power, those who don't support them have suspected they would try to move the country away from its secular principles. The increasing number of women wearing veils has raised questions about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's intentions for the country's future. But last Wednesday, when a gunman stormed into Turkey's top administrative court shouting "I am a soldier of Allah" before killing one judge and seriously injuring four others, it created a new political divide between traditionally secular Muslims and fundamentalist Muslims.

Secular Muslim Turks rallied in the streets of Ankara in numbers the city had never before experienced. Ordinary people gathered in front of the courthouse, and an estimated 100,000 people visited the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern-day Turkey. During the funeral the next day, thousands shouted, "The prime minister is the murderer" and chanted "Turkey is secular, and will remain secular." Even women in headscarves chanted.

Tragically, Turkey is still confused over the headscarf issue. Alpaslan Aslan, the 29-year-old gunman, is a registered lawyer with the Istanbul Bar Association. He said he targeted those judges because they ruled in favor of a ban on Islamic headscarves in government institutions and universities. Mr. Erdogan urged people not to jump to conclusions until Aslan's identity and connections are revealed. But Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer said the attack "targets the Republic particularly its unchangeable principles of democracy and secularism."

Sumru Cortoglu, the head of the court the gunman stormed, said the attack was a result of "encouraging and careless remarks by state authorities" over the headscarf decision. "They will soon interfere in the sacredness of our homes, too," Mr. Erdogan said after the ruling, even though he knew full well that at no point in Turkey's history did the courts ever interfere in civilian life.

In this country, where almost 98 percent of the population is Muslim, Mr. Erdogan raised as an "Islamist politician" and promised the veiled women he would lift the headscarf ban. …