One look into those lively eyes should convince you that this is no typical Middle Eastern leader. This is Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk”–father of the Turks, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, whose remarkable legacy, Kemalism, is the only modern secular national ideology holding its own in the Middle East.
In a heartening display of Turkish secularism that bodes well for the future of that country as many as 100,000 Kemalists rallied today in Ankara . The rally was held to protest a government decision to lift an Islamic headscarf ban at universities, most of which are public institutions.
The protest was sparked by a recent government initiative to allow the return of religious garb in the country’s centers of higher learning, a project being pushed by Turkey’s current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has strong Islamist sympathies.
To date, based on Turkey’s strict policy of separation of church and state (a Kemalist program), Islamic headscarfs, among the most recognizable symbols of religious submission in the world, have been inadmissible in the country’s universities, and with good reason. In a rights-respecting culture, an individual’s choice of head-dress would surely be unrestricted. The issue would fall under the heading of freedom of religion. But in a country where some segment of the population has had to fight every day to protect itself from Islamist religious oppression for over 80 years, and where the military unseated the government most recently in the “post-modern coup” of 1997, in order to protect secularism, the ban is justified. Public universities at the very least must be sanctuaries from Islam, which otherwise permeates the culture, and which–in its traditional or fundamentalist implementation–would definitely violate women’s rights.
At least the countries intellectual leaders, the deans of various universities, voiced unequivocal support for the ban before a parliamentary commission. “Turkey is secular and will remain secular,” shouted some of them at the end of their meeting, as the International Herald and Tribune reports. (How many deans of American universities, I wonder, would be so passionately committed to such a thoroughly Western ideal?)
Unfortunately, that the current government, which was democratically elected, has widespread support to pursue this agenda is the worrisome thing. It means that the contest between Kemalism and Islamism in Turkey is far from over, and that more military coups may be needed to defend secularism.