Turkey court blocks moves over headscarves

Hidir Goktas,Reuters
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:47

Turkey's ruling AK Party are holding an emergency meeting today to discuss how to respond to a top court's ruling to overturn a government-led reform to lift a ban on Muslim headscarves at university.

Analysts said the ruling by the Constitutional Court, the highest judicial body in Turkey, was the most serious setback for the AK Party since it came to power in 2002 and posed a serious threat to its survival.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan will chair the AK Party meeting, starting at 1200 GMT, his office said.

The now-defeated headscarf amendment plays a central role in a separate case that seeks to close the AK Party for anti-secular activities, and ban 71 members, including the prime minister and the president, from belonging to a political party for five years.

The headscarf reform has rekindled a decades-long dispute over the role of Islam in a country of 70 million that is officially secular but predominantly Muslim and has yet to reconcile the two sides.

The Constitutional Court is expected to rule on the closure case brought by the Court of Appeals chief prosecutor in the coming months.

Analysts expect the AK Party to be outlawed, although some say the court could instead decide to punish the party's leaders given that forming a new political party, were the AK Party to be banned, would be easy under Turkish electoral law.

"This verdict will affect the closure case negatively," wrote Mustafa Unal, a columnist for religious-leaning daily Zaman.

Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek dismissed the connection between the cases, saying "let's not compare apples with pears".

The political uncertainty has hit lira and bonds.

Analysts fear that as the AK Party, born of a coalition of former Islamists, centre-right politicians and nationalists, fights for survival, reforms will be put on hold.

Turkey's secularist establishment, including army generals and judges, suspects the AK Party of harbouring a hidden agenda.

The party denies the charges of Islamist activities, which it regards as an attempt by arch-secularist opponents to dislodge a government with a large parliamentary majority.

The government has won praise for securing European Union-accession talks status in 2005 and pushing through political and economic reforms, although the reform process has since slowed.

The courts and the military see themselves as guardians of the country's strict separation of religion and politics, which is rooted in the foundation of the modern state in the 1920s from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

The AK Party says the headscarf is a matter of individual religious freedom but secularists see it as part of a long-term government strategy to boost the role of religion in Turkey.

While many Turkish intellectuals criticised Erdogan for pushing ahead with the headscarf reform without seeking to appease those who opposed lifting the ban, they see such involvement by the courts as undemocratic.

"(The ruling) is not a surprise to me because I know that in Turkey not only the official ideology, but also the judiciary is illiberal," wrote columnist Taha Akyol in newspaper Milliyet.

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