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Islamic Justice and Development Party Raises Fear Among Pro-Western Turks

In Turkey, the rise to power of the Islamic Justice and Development Party in the November 3 elections has sparked fears among some Turks that the new government will steer the country away from its secular and pro-Western path. And for many the real test of whether the Justice and Development Party remains committed to secularism lies in whether it eases the ban on the Islamic style headscarves at state-run institutions and universities.

The issue of the Islamic headscarf remains deeply divisive in this predominantly Muslim but officially secular nation of 70 million.

Debate goes as far back as the early 1920s when the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, encouraged Turkish women to cast off their veils as part of his revolutionary drive to westernize his war-shattered nation. Today many pro-secular Turks see the headscarf as a political symbol, one that expresses the desire for Islamic rule. That is why headscarves are prohibited in government offices and universities.

The ban enjoys the tacit support of Turkey's highly influential armed forces, which view themselves as the custodians of Ataturk's pro-secular legacy.

Two overtly pro-Islamic parties were outlawed by Turkey's constitutional court in recent years for defending women's right to cover their heads in keeping with the Islamic faith. Many of the Justice and Development Party's founding members, including party chairman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, cut their political teeth in those parties. Two-thirds of all ministers in the new cabinet are married to women who cover their heads.

Today Mr. Erdogan said neither he nor the government formed last month by his party has a religious agenda.

"The controversy over the headscarf is not of primary importance for his government," Mr. Erdogan added.

Such comments are sure to undermine Mr. Erdogan's popularity, according Yilmaz Ensaroglu, who heads a prominent Islamic-leaning rights group called Mazlumder. Mr. Ensaroglu argued that the ban on headscarves constitutes a serious human rights violation.

Not only that, he added, the prohibition discriminates against women.

Mr. Ensaroglu said such discrimination stems from the fact that only women who are perceived to be anti-secular are punished because of their dress. Men, on the other hand, he points out, do not face such discrimination regardless of what their political or religious beliefs may be.

According to Mr. Ensaroglu, thousands of young women are deprived of a university education because they refuse to take off their headscarves.

Kemal Kirisci, a professor of political science at Istanbul's Bosphorus university, said women who dress western style can also face pressure from their religiously conservative peers.

"I was living back in the 1990s when you could see and you could tell from first hand evidence how the issue of garments and the way you're dressed was politicized to the extent of violating a human being's and individual's civil rights in respect to how they would wish to be dressed," he said. "I distinctly remember one young girl saying that her older sisters had beaten her because she had turned up one evening at the flat where she was staying with jeans."

Like many fellow academics, Mr. Kirisci believes the headscarf issue can only be resolved over time and by being kept out of the realm of politics. As such, Justice and Development Party leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he said, is handling the issue well by keeping it off his government's agenda.