On 29 October, the day marking the eighty-ninth anniversary of the founding of Turkey, state officials and high-ranking military commanders attended a reception at the Çankaya presidential palace in Ankara. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President Abdullah Gül and their wives stood alongside military men at the ceremony.
It was a remarkable scene. The military commanders had for years refused to attend receptions held by President Gül and his wife since they objected to the first lady wearing a headscarf, which has long been a symbol for Turkey's conflicts over the role of religion in public life.
The army has traditionally seen itself as a guardian of Turkish secularism. When, in 2007, the AKP nominated Abdullah Gül as state president, the military warned that it would step in to defend the secular system, as it had done many times in the past by overturning governments that did not conform to Ataturkist ideals.
But here the commanders were, shaking hands with Turkey's Muslim leaders and their spouses.
Meanwhile, on the streets, riot police clashed with protesters, firing water cannons to disperse a patriotic rally organised by secularist opposition groups that are critical of the Islamist-rooted ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The march had been banned by the governor of Ankara, but the secularists defied the order.
While some celebrate the military's diminished power as a positive step towards democratisation, others decry Turkey's Islamicisation. The country's attempts to break from its past - such as the decision to write a new constitution to replace the one imposed after a 1980 military coup - is said to reveal new tensions and divisions in a country that is also trying to wield influence in international politics.
Similar sentiments and fears were expressed when Turkey lifted a headscarf ban back in 2008. I was in Istanbul at the time and tried, in the article republished below, to unwrap Turkey's turban troubles.
Unwrapping Turkey’s turban troubles
First published on spiked, 14 February 2008
On Saturday, the Turkish parliament voted to lift a ban on the wearing of headscarves at state universities. The country is said to be divided on the issue, with fears that the vote indicates a shift to a more religious society. But the changes in the country are much more complex than is often suggested.
Women have been banned from covering their heads in all state offices and institutions in Turkey for decades, and in the 1980s the headscarf, or turban as it’s called in Turkey, was also prohibited at state universities; it was declared a symbol of political Islam and a threat to secularism. Last week, the Turkish parliament voted for lifting the ban on religious garb in universities. On Saturday, a second round of votes on a bill to amend two articles of the constitution in order to lift the ban was passed by 411 votes to 103. The ruling, Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) has said regulations will be issued forbidding women to wear face-covering veils or full-length chadors on campus, and female professors and civil servants will still be subject to the headscarf ban.
According to Turkish newspaper headlines, the move has divided the country. While the AKP entered into an alliance with a right-wing party in order to pass the reform, the Republican People’s Party, the main secular opposition, has vowed to appeal this weekend’s vote in Turkey’s Constitutional Court, a pro-secular institution. Some academics and judicial officials have promised a long struggle against the reform, while others support it as an expansion of freedom. In Istanbul, there was a demonstration against the ban, while in Ankara, 76 NGOs led a rally opposing the constitutional reform.