By C. ONUR ANT, Associated Press Writer
ISTANBUL, Turkey – Turkey’s Islamic-leaning prime minister called Wednesday for lifting a ban on women wearing head scarves in universities, a shift in position that is certain to alarm secularists who fear the government is moving to foist a Muslim agenda on the nation. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s statement at a news conference that he wants a constitutional change to remove the ban comes just weeks after he scored a major political triumph: the election of his ally— a devout Muslim — as Turkey’s president.
The opposition had vehemently opposed Erdogan’s choice of Gul for the influential and highly symbolic post, saying it would open the way for the government to carry out an Islamic agenda.
Erdogan’s comments Wednesday will raise suspicions he is taking the first step in that direction, particularly because it was a tempest over the head scarf worn by Gul’s wife that galvanized opposition to the former foreign minister’s presidential bid.
Secularists were appalled that a first lady wearing a head scarf would enter the presidential palace occupied by Turkey’s founding father,, and they waged an unsuccessful four-month battle to block Gul’s election.
Turkey’s 70 million people are predominantly Muslim but many have secular lifestyles. The military sees itself as the guardian of the nation’s secular traditions, and has ousted four governments since 1960.
Gul and Erdogan have said they are not Islamic fundamentalists, citing their promotion of reforms to advance Turkey’s bid to join the. But they have also sought to improve ties with the Islamic world, including with hard-line nations like .
The head of Turkey’s Higher Education Board — a well-known secularist law scholar — condemned Erdogan’s move to lift the head scarf ban.
“It is our mission to remind the public that any constitutional regulation that would abolish restrictions on clothing is illegal,” Erdogan Tezic said.
But the prime minister insists that ending the head scarf ban would be merely a question of individual liberty. “We are talking about freedoms,” he said Wednesday.
Erdogan had been previously reluctant to openly state his intentions about the head scarf ban. When asked about the issue before general elections in July, he skirted it by simply affirming his loyalty to personal freedom.
However, soon after the elections, Erdogan’s Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party formed a group of legislators and scholars to write a new constitution to replace the current one, which was written during military rule following a coup in 1980.
A copy of the first draft published by Turkish media includes alternative wordings that would allow the Islamic head scarf to be worn on campuses.
“The right to higher education cannot be restricted because of what a girl wears. There is no such problem in Western societies but there is a problem in Turkey and I believe it is the first duty of those in politics to solve this problem,” Erdogan was quoted as saying by the Financial Times.
Turkey’s secular elite fears that lifting the head scarf ban will have a snowball effect — putting pressure on women to wear ever more conservative attire and opening new avenues for the government to impose Islam on public and private life.
A key factor in the new head scarf debate is how the military will react.
When Erdogan first proposed Gul for president in April, the military issued a statement that hinted at military intervention. The ensuing crisis forced Erdogan to call an early general election. The ruling party’s landslide victory resurrected Gul’s presidential bid and parliament voted him into the post on Aug. 28.