To be free, to let the citizens of a country decide exactly how they wish to act seems very ideal and, to an extent, very comfortable. Once we take a step towards realism, however, we will realize that such drastic liberties could lead to chaos and segregation within a country. Democratic idealism is taking a toll on Turkey and on its current discussion about permitting women who wear the turban to attend universities. At this point in time I feel obligated to express my personal standpoint on liberalism and democracy. I am no conservative (although I have nothing against those who are), nor am I racist or a contributor to the prevalent discriminations throughout the world. I believe in personal liberties up to the point where they impede on another’s. I am aware that Columbia students are skeptical about my views on lifting the ban, but I believe they will have a better grasp of my reasoning once they hear my arguments.
Let me explain why I believe that allowing turbans into the university environment will have detrimental affects on Turkey’s secularist nature. My argument depends crucially on understanding contemporary Turkish culture, so I must begin by presenting a succinct history of where Turkey came from and how.
Turkey declared its independence in 1923. Under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s leadership, Turkey began to evolve into a secular state, and cut loose any ties it had with a religious and imperial past. This included shutting down Islamic courts, banishing religious education, removing the caliphate from power, basing law on a European model, and declaring the official language of Turkey to be Turkish, so as to free it from its Arabic and Persian roots. In July 2007, Sabrina Tavernise wrote in the New York Times “... the struggle in Turkey is between politicians from that traditional, pious middle class and the elite bureaucracy that has steered the state since its beginnings ...”
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which proposed lifting the ban, is in its second term in power after earning a staggering 47 percent of support. In their first term, they displayed efficiency; the economy grew and people in general were content. To some, voting for AKP was viewed as a question of loyalty to Islam and for others it was a matter of maintaining the prosperous economy.
So what’s the problem? After all, Turkey has a lot of experience with democratic leaders, and the AKP was democratically elected. However, AKP is the first party to claim that lifting the ban on head scarves is for the sake of democracy. But how committed to democracy is the AKP? If Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is so anxious to help our democracy then why is he suing journalist Perihan Magden for her criticism of him? Isn’t “freedom of press” one of the most crucial determinants of democracy? If he’s for “freedom of expression” by allowing the turban, wouldn’t it be only logical of him to be all for “freedom of expression” through the media?
The reasons behind this perseverance to change the constitution should be deciphered. The motivations are not democratic but the exact opposite. The Republican People Party’s (CHP) leader Deniz Baykal also claims that AKP’s motivation is not in the name of democracy: “Every year 1 million 200 thousand students are denied university education and no one takes up this issue, but when those wearing the turban are denied university education AKP protests and questions.”
Secondly, differences between cultures and governments are vital. Governments like Canada’s and Great Britain’s may fund religious schools, and governments like Germany’s may have the priests on their payroll, but this does not mean that such methods are applicable in every state. If the USA were to follow such methods it would face political upheaval. Each country has specific histories and trends and not all policies work with all of them.
Digging a little deeper conjures up new questions that worry the secularists; what comes after lifting the ban? The National Civil Society Institution (USTKB) released a statement that listed the repercussions of such an action. They said that those who now enter universities wearing the turban would not be denied careers in public service for it would be against human rights. Those who aren’t wearing the turban would be advised to wear one. Segregation of boys and girls at the high school level would follow. In accordance with such a limited mind-set, men would have male doctors and women would have female doctors. Turbans would become even more powerful and colorful ones would no longer suffice; we would need black and brown ones. Those not wearing a turban would eventually be called “whores” and everyone would say, “We don’t want to see whores on the streets.” Finally, the religious police would abduct such women. Women would not be the only victims; men would also have their share of restrictions. They would be scorned for wearing ties—a symbol of the West. Drinking is sacrilegious, as is being in the same room as women and dancing! And it would be too late to stop it, because Turkey would be divided from within.
Keep the ban, I urge my country, so that we may move forward and not backwards; so that when I go back I will have the opportunity to apply my education in a developing society.
The author is a Columbia College first-year.