Monday, June 23, 2008

on the veil controversy in Turkey

Roger Cohen has an interesting op-ed today on the positive role that the high court in Turkey is now playing in reining in Islamism. After lauding Turkey for confounding all attempts by the elusive West at simplistically classifying it as "modern" or "Muslim", he then makes another valiant attempt to keep that specific binary alive:

The West should not be impatient, or complacent, in contemplating this fight [that is to say, between Islam and modernization/democracy/etc]. Hundreds of years, countless wars and myriad dead were required before church and state elaborated the legal architecture of their separation. Islam is the youngest of the world’s major religions. Its accommodation to modernity is a virulent work in progress.

Nowhere more so than in Turkey, a conservative country fast-forwarded to Westward-looking secularism in the 1920s by the founder-hero of the modern republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and now grappling with the place in that republic of an ascendant political Islam.


After instructing the West to sit back and watch the spectacle, he gives it an endorsement:


I like this fight. It has its crude, misleading labels — the “secular fascists” of the Kemalist establishment in one corner against the “Islamofascists” of the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) party in the other — but it is open and vigorous. The crisis of Islam could use a broader dose of Turkish give-and-take.

Interesting how the use of a religious issue that affects primarily young women's education as a political ploy to bring down an ascendant non-establishment party is characterized as "open and vigorous", and something that Cohen says he "likes". If women were being excluded from higher education in a flagrant violation of the Establishment Clause here, and people were upset, would Cohen call the debate "open and vigorous"? and would that characterization then justify the wrong being done to those women who would like to both observe their religion and attend university? And would he then use a word such as "like" to describe his feelings on the subject?

He then goes on to explain how he views the headscarf case:

My reaction to this is twofold. First, women of college age should be allowed to wear what they like in accordance with their personal convictions. In that sense the court’s ruling is unacceptable.

Second, the secular foundations of modern Turkey have been essential to creating this most permissive of Muslim societies; they should not be compromised without a fight, especially in a Middle Eastern environment where democracy is rare and Islamism potent. In this perspective, the court’s ruling is a salutary challenge to the AKP to keep proving its liberal credentials.

On balance, I side with the court. I’m confident that in the medium-term, Turkish women will win the right to wear headscarves wherever. I’m less confident that the creeping Islamization fostered by the AKP is accompanied by an unshakeable commitment to secular democracy, as Erdogan insists.

Let the party pay its dues, if necessary in repeated confrontations with the court. Turkey is a laboratory of a moderate Muslim democracy; do not rush the experiment. It’s easier to don a veil than remove it. Reversibility is not Islam’s forte.


Let the party pay its dues. Fine. But is it really the party who is paying its dues? What about the young women now faced with the choice of compromising a practice that they may consider a religious obligation in order to obtain an education? It isn't de-veiling that makes one modern, I am sure, and though I won't venture to say what it is that makes an individual modern I will say that education probably has more to do with it than whether you choose to wear a headscarf or not. But of course, to Cohen, this isn't an issue of religious observance. It is an issue of what young women are wearing.

I am confident that if the Islamists in Turkey enforced a ban wherein only women who wore the veil could attend university, Cohen would feel quite differently. But since it's Islam being contained here, he seems to consider it a necessary evil. Isn't it interesting how our perspectives change.

1 comment:

Naile Berna Kovuk said...

Sus, thank you so much for this article.. I almost want to email Cohen to thank for this article.. This is the first article I have ever read in the US media, or The Economist, which is not blatantly supporting AKP, or showing the seculars as nothing more than a wealthy elite. Thank you Cohen, thank you...