TOPICS : A head scarf is not just a scarf

Just as a flag is not merely a swatch of material — stars, stripes, sickles — a scarf is no longer a piece of silk. Turkey is set to repeal its longstanding scarf ban in university settings - setting off a firestorm of controversy about class conflict, human rights, and the rise of

Islam in a country fearful of religious influence.

Secular Turks, outraged that religious Muslim women may soon sport their head scarves in even elite urban schools, have resorted to demeaning their fellow citizens. As Turkish political philosophy professor, Atilla Yayla, told The New York Times, the secular Turks “don’t encounter them [the religious Turks] as human beings.... They want them to evaporate, to disappear as fast as possible.”

The developing story in Turkey of its heated head scarf dispute is an important reminder to us all. Conflict, especially internecine, grows dangerous when dehumanisation begins.It is one thing to disagree about the appropriateness of religious symbols in public places, to debate and be divided on the necessity of separation of church and state but it is another thing entirely to deny the humanity of a group of people. A staunchly secular Turk may disagree that Muslim women should have the right to wear their scarves in schools, but he will not make the jump to hatred and then on to violence if he can intuit her emotional experience - the comfort, affinity, and pride that she associates with that scarf. If we want to avoid civil war, genocide, hate crimes, even plain old bigotry, we must strive to prevent dehumanisation by taking on the responsibility of being emotionally aware and socially intelligent.

Studies show it is not just beneficial for the children themselves. For the safety of our communities and the security of pluralism in this increasingly globalised world it is vital we share this with our youth. Consider organizations like Seeds of Peace, the summer camp in Maine that serves as a humanizer for teenagers from different sides of conflicts in the Middle East.

If dehumanisation is the scourge of our time, emotional awareness, it turns out, is the salve. How could a Kibaki supporter beat an Odinga supporter in Kenya if he knew the passions behind the political difference? How could an Israeli soldier or a Palestinian teenager cause harm to each other if they are aware of the deeply emotional motivations of the other to defend country, family, faith? How could a soldier rape a civilian girl, if he empathized with her fear, confusion, tenderness?

We will not, ultimately, be protected by laws or bombs. We will only be protected by the continued fight against dehumanisation in all its myriad forms, and the renewed effort to focus on developing emotional awareness and empathy in our children and in ourselves. A flag is not just a flag. A scarf is not just a scarf. And a human heart, well it is most certainly not just an organ. It is our fiercest weapon against annihilation, and our most inspired ally toward creating a more peaceful world. — The Christian Science Monitor