TOPICS: Where will headscarf verdict lead Turkey?

Mohammed A Salih

A decision by Turkey’s constitutional court last Thursday to overturn a law lifting the ban on Islamic headscarves in the Muslim country will almost certainly heighten tensions in a country that has been a longstanding ally of the US. The verdict is viewed by many as part of the standoff between the secular and Islamist-oriented ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, which has intensified over the past year with the election of Abdullah Gul from the AKP as the country’s president. The 11-member constitutional court is now spearheading attempts to challenge the AKP, led by PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan, over its record and conduct.

“I think especially with AKP now under great pressure from the juridical system, this will be seen again as a kind of juridical coup against the parliament and its legitimately elected representatives,” a longtime observer of Turkey, said. The Turkish parliament had lifted the ban on headscarves in institutions of higher education last February, with support from some 80% lawmakers. The law was sponsored by the AKP as part of long-promised constitutional reforms to its popular base, which includes many conservative Muslims. But two opposition parties challenged the parliamentary vote and took it to constitutional court, which upheld the ban on Islamic headscarves.

The ruling on the headscarf issue can be interpreted as a prelude to how the court may rule on an attempt to ban the AKP, which has been accused by Turkey’s chief prosecutor of undermining the country’s secular political system. “The most important question is whether this decision will have any bearing on the decision relating to the possible closure of the party,” said Bulent Aliriza, director of Turkey programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“This suggests very strongly that the [future] verdict may go against the AKP party [of Erdogan] and the AKP party may be closed when that issue will come up for decision.” The court concluded that the constitutional amendment by the parliament contradicted several articles of constitution, among them articles 2 and 4, which set secularism as one of the unchangeable characteristics of the state.

Locked in a struggle with the country’s secular establishment, which has the blessing of the powerful military, frustrated AKP supporters may now feel that any attempts to change controversial provisions of the constitution will hit a brick wall. “The court overstepped the limits set out in article 148 of the constitution and violated the constitutional principle that no state institution can use powers not derived from the constitution,” Bakir Bozdag, the deputy head of AKP’s parliamentary bloc, told reporters.

According to the Turkish constitution, only the first three articles of the constitution — which deal with the nature of the state and its territory — cannot be changed. The amendment that lifted the headscarf ban, AKP supporters argue, did not fall within the limits of those three articles.