Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Scarf Scrap: Turkey's Muslims and the Hijab Debate

From the Times of India

23 Dec 2007, 0113 hrs IST,
Mohammed Wajihuddin,TNN

Millions of Muslims from across the world circled the Kaba in Mecca last week in the footsteps of an ancient ritual. As the swarming white army of pilgrims closed around the clean-cut black stone, they declared aloud: " Labaik , Allah-huma-Labaik (Here, God, I am here)!"

Hundreds of miles away, near the Sufi poet Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi's tomb in Konya (Turkey), singer Ahmed Ozhan took the 2000-strong crowd on a virtual pilgrimage. Swinging to Ozhan's high-pitched devotional dirge, and accompanied by the plaintive sound of reed flutes, the audience repeatedly chanted "Labaik" a dozen times.

The crowd in Konya comprised collegians in tight jeans and skirts, parents with toddlers and groups of backpackers seeking solace in Sufi music. The scene defined Sufi Islam - inclusive, tolerant, appreciative of difference. This openness has also, in a way, characterised Turkey, a country squatting between Asia and Europe, which tossed the Caliphate aside in 1924 to choose a secular credo. A society which for the last eighty-odd years has abhorred the dogmatic interpretation of Islam even as it courageously embraced modernity.

But now, that fiercely secular republic is turning its face to Islamism. This fear received credence after the ban on headscarves in universities was lifted. The connotations have been endlessly debated in Istanbul, the country's cultural capital that snuggles by the Bosphorus.

After the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lifted the ban on headscarves in universities (a ban on wearing scarves in government offices continues), Istanbul's secular elite sensed an impending danger: had Islamism entered their homes? Last week, celebrated Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say triggered a storm when, in an interview to the German daily Suddeutsche Zeitung, he admitted, "The Islamists have won. We are 30 per cent while they are about 70 per cent. I am thinking about moving elsewhere."

As one of the ambassadors of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue 2008, Fazil Say echoed the fears of secular friends when he lamented: "All the ministers' wives wear the headscarf." Say may be exaggerating but the fact is that the wives of both President Abdullah Gul and AKP's boss, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wear headscarves. The secularists have feared the return of this piece of cloth ever since Erdogan's AKP was returned to power in the July election with a landslide victory. The main opposition, the Republican People's Party (CHP), founded by Turkey's great moderniser Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who abolished the Caliphate, won just 21 per cent of the vote.

Say is not the only famous Turk who fears that the impending wave of ultra-nationalism might weaken the secular fabric of Turkish society. Earlier, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, outraged at the killing of his friend, the Turkish-American journalist Hrant Dink in February this year, cried out: "I am furious at everyone and everything. I feel boundless shame."

But others in Istanbul dismiss these misgivings as unfounded. "The headscarf is just about freedom of choice. The government is not pandering to the Islamists," defends Erkam Tufan Aytav of the Journalists and Writers Foundation, a wing of the Movement of Volunteers. The Movement, an initiative started in the 1960s by scholar Fethullah Gulen, has dozens of educational and cultural branches in over 120 countries.

To back their argument, Aytav and his friends in the Movement cite examples from institutions (academic, television, business) where both scarved and non-scarved women work side by side. Yes, there are many scarves on the mosque-dotted streets of Istanbul but there are jeans and skirts and dreadlocks too. Just as the mellifluous azaans from the high minarets have not silenced the stirrings of the country's secular temperament the sartorial changes too, say optimists, will meld into rather than swamp lifestyles.

We found this catholicity at Camila Coskun, a school run by the Movement. Tucked away on one of the seven hills in Istanbul, the school houses over 100 children aged between seven and 16. Ayse Humeyra, a sixth-standard girl, is puzzled when asked if she will ever cover her head. "What's that?" asks the chubby-cheeked, bespectacled Ayse. Her classmate Elif Sena Soydan, slightly taller and more articulate, dreams of becoming a "rock star". A girl her age in any other Islamic society, say Saudi Arabia, would have invited severe reprimand from the custodians of faith for this "unIslamic" wish.

Mumbai's Islamic scholar Zeenat Shuakat Ali, who was part of our delegation, was elated at the moderate Islam practised in Turkey. "You must compare Turkey with Saudi Arabia. One glows in the benign influence of Sufism while the other staggers under the oppressive monarchy sanctioned by the clergy," says Ali, who sobbed openly at Rumi's decorated grave while saying her fateha (prayer in tribute).

Outside Istanbul's most famous landmark, the massive 17th-century Blue Mosque built by Ottoman king Sultan Ahmet, a tiny cafe serves delicious kebab and Turkish chai (black tea in small glasses). Two middle-aged men play chess at a corner table even as the young wife of the restaurateur takes the orders. Uninhibited by the stream of strangers, the jean-clad Muslim woman works hard, adding to the galloping economy of a country whose GDP has touched 7.6%. It is on the legs of women such as this that Turkey will hopefully stride into the European Union.

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