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Turkey’s Flirtation With Stricter Islamic Practices Finds Resistance



Max Lindenman - published on 01/12/15

While government debates the wearing of the hijab, young people remain decidedly secular
Yonca did not want to guide me through the Blue Mosque.  She’d taken proprietorial pride in showing me the Viking graffiti chiseled into the marble of the Hagia Sophia, the enormous stone cats guarding the Topkapı Museum and the Gorgon heads supporting the pillars in the Basilica Cistern.  But whenever I mentioned wanting to take in the last of Sultanahmet’s great landmarks, she made excuses.  It was getting late.  It would soon be time for late-afternoon prayers.  Wouldn’t I rather eat some nice meatballs?  
No, I told her.  I did not want to eat any nice meatballs.  I wanted to hit the circuit and see the Blue Mosque.  Because Yonca, though a Catholic catechumen, is Turkish, and because Turks pride themselves above all else on their hospitality, she let out a sigh like a white flag.  When we reached the entrance, she accepted a loaner hijab but draped it loosely over the very back of her occiput.   After I’d snapped a dozen photos, I turned around and found her standing at the exit, by a table on which stood a scale model of the building.  She had shed her hijab altogether and was twirling it in the manner of a burlesque stripper of Sally Rand’s generation.  

As I rushed over, prepared to mansplain the virtue of do-as-the-Romans, she pointed at the model and stage-whispered: “WHAT IS THIS, A MOSQUE FOR ANTS?  IT WOULD HAVE TO BE…TWO TIMES THIS BIG?”  She was doing Ben Stiller in Zoolander; her scowl was dead-on.  I should have laughed – later on, I did laugh.  But at the time, all I could do was hope our heads wouldn’t end up in the same secret chamber as Vlad the Impaler’s.

Yonca’s coup of guerrilla theater, and her disgust for all things Islamic, was my practical introduction to the headscarf and its importance in Turkish politics, which can’t be overstated.  Though the new republic, determined to be secular in the post-1905 French style, did not outlaw the hijab outright, it did succeed in stigmatizing it enough to bar covered women effectively from working in the public sector.  In 1981, following a military coup, the National Security Council banned headscarves for university students.   Ever since, nervous secularists have viewed covered heads as early warning signs of an Islamist takeover.  

Religious women fought the ban, framing their cause in terms of personal choice and individual rights.  For many decades, Turkey was a topsy-turvy world in which the admirers of liberal Western traditions ruled with a mailed fist over pious Muslims who – by their own account — just wanted to do their thing.  Now, with the Islamist Justice and Development or AK Party in power for over a decade, Islamic dress is finally getting its day.  In 2011, the government began permitting university students to wear headscarves.  Two years later, it lifted the ban for civil servants.  This past September, it amended a law to permit girls as young as 10 to cover their heads in the classroom.  

This raises the question of whether the pendulum will ever stop – whether people like Yonca will soon feel pressure to adopt Islamic norms even when they’re not being dragged against their better judgment into mosques.  Fully 69% of Turks who participated in a recent University of Michigan study preferred that women cover their hair to some degree – a percentage almost exactly equal the percentage of women who, various studies report, actually do cover their hair.  From the Western point of view, marginalizing such a large minority for so long seems draconian.  But giving that majority its will would still leave an enormous number of unhappy outliers.    

This past July, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç set his sights higher – or rather, a few inches lower — declaring for the record that women shouldn’t laugh loudly in public.  In defiance, women around the world posted “laughing selfies.”  The gesture lent itself to a few lines of good copy, but did nothing to prevent Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Arınç’s AK Party compatriot, from winning that summer’s presidential elections handily.

If the AK Party is pulling Turkey away from an official — and officious — secularism, the federal government, along the governments of various states, seems to be pulling the US toward one.  No sooner did the Supreme Court rule that for-profit organizations can object on religious grounds to providing their employees with contraceptive coverage than an executive order barred federal contractors from discriminating against gays or transgendered people.  To boot, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled that Masterpiece Cake Shop owner Jack Philips had violated the civil rights of a gay couple by refusing to bake a cake for their wedding.

It is tempting, then, to view Turkey’s political landscape as a nightmare, bizarro version of America’s – or a ghost of dilemmas yet to come.  In 2012, Patrick Deneen pronounced doom on American liberalism.  By making its goal the protection of the individual will from all restraining forces, it effectively creates an authoritarian state that puts all of civil society in handcuffs.    The following year, Michael Baxter wrote that John Courtney Murray had been wrong – as long as Catholics voters remained split between two parties, they couldn’t ensure victory for Natural Law.  It is becoming conventional wisdom that something — either the liberal, democratic American polity or the Catholic relationship to it – needs a drastic overhaul. 

As a bracing alternative, Vladimir Putin has already found his cheering section.  After the Russian president attacked “the destruction of traditional values from above” in his 2013 state of the nation address, Pat Buchanan praised his vision of the future: “as one in which conservatives, traditionalists and nationalists of all continents and countries stand up against the cultural and ideological imperialism of what he sees as a decadent west.”  When Christians get seriously to work on a “post-liberal polity,” Putin’s authoritarian style will definitely get a seat at the table.

While they’re at it, they might as well invite Erdoğan.  Paynim or not, he’s taken up the cause of religious freedom against a hostile judiciary and won – though he had to serve a few months in jail on his way to victory.  He’s used the presidency as a bully pulpit to denounce abortion as murder, and even has exhorted Turkish families to have at least three children apiece.  He’s appointed himself Sunni Islam’s protector and mouthpiece – Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal recently attended an AK Party regional caucus. 

Of course, it’s crucial not to overstate the similarities between Turkey’s situation and America’s.  The Turkish Republic once put a man to death for refusing to wear a Western-style hat.  It never countenanced the growth of anything comparable to homeschooling or the Franciscan University of Steubenville.  At any point in the republic’s history, gays emerging from the closet would have gotten a chilly reception.  Among American Christians, there is no act of public witness comparable to wearing hijab in that it is practiced by an absolute majority and could be prohibited or, on the flip side, compelled.

But it’s still fascinating to observe a country where the powers that be are striving to bring about, in Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s favorite word, a restoration.  Hijab-counting requires no mastery of Turkish, so it’s my way of conducting a very unscientific poll of who’s on board.  I admit it – I remain a liberal at heart.  My sympathies have always been with Yonca and everyone who shares her horror of being made to cover herself against her will.  (After being rebuked by campus security for running without a shirt, I felt my sympathy turn to empathy.)     

On the street, I see girls in hijab walking arm-in-arm with friends who let their hair blow free.  Norman Rockwell couldn’t have painted a more touching allegory of mutual tolerance.  But friends have warned me that some of the girls are draping themselves to please their parents, who are dependent in some way on the AK Party for their livings.  Some advertise this reluctance by setting off their hijabs with tight jeans and – in one memorable case – cleavage like the Royal Gorge.    

The director of the first foreign languages 
kurs where I taught confided that some female students saw the place as a modesty-free zone, where they could drop their hijabs and meet up with their boyfriends.  Naturally, this function did not endear the school to their parents.  But maybe that’s a reliable sign that a society is headed back toward tradition – enrolling in a self-improvement class is the most fun a young adult can hope to have.

Max Lindenman
writes from Turkey.

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