Turkey’s top prosecutor warned Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government that its bid to end a ban on Islamic headscarves at universities is unconstitutional and undermines secular rules, a charge that almost brought down Erdogan’s administration two years ago.
The warning was issued by the Supreme Court prosecutor’s office in Ankara, headed by Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, who sought to bar Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or AK Party, from politics two years ago. It came as the party held meetings with opposition groups to garner support for easing the ban, which prevents women from working in Turkish government offices or attending universities while wearing headscarves.
Efforts to end the ban have been ruled unconstitutional by Turkey’s top court, and are incompatible with “the principles of equality and secularism,” the prosecutor’s office said in a statement today. “The limits on wearing the Islamic headscarf and the precautions taken to enforce them are correct and commensurate with their goals, and must be accepted as a necessity in a democratic society.”
Erdogan, whose roots are in Turkey’s Islamist political movement, has made overturning the ban one of his long-time goals, placing his career at risk in a country where the senior judiciary has traditionally been dominated by secularists. The prime minister spent 10 months in prison after a 1998 conviction on charges of subverting the secular state while he was mayor of Istanbul by reading an Islamist poem in public.
A decade later, as prime minister, Erdogan succeeded in having the headscarf ban overturned by parliament only to have that decision annulled by the Constitutional Court in 2008.
His efforts to end the prohibition were also the centerpiece of attempts the same year by the Supreme Court prosecutor to shut down Erdogan’s party for seeking to impose Islamic rules. The premier narrowly escaped a political ban, which was supported by six of 11 judges on the Constitutional Court, one short of the required number for a party closure.
The Ak Party attacked the prosecutor for issuing today’s statement, calling it “an open blow to the democratic parliamentary regime.”
Parliament, not the judiciary, has “the legal authority to institute such rules,” and “no person, organ or office can give orders to the parliament,” the party said in a statement from its Ankara headquarters.
The prosecutor’s warning may destabilize Turkey if it leads to another closure case against the AK Party, and the government’s initial reaction suggests “they would favor escalating the tension,” Guldem Atabay, chief economist at Ekspres Invest in Istanbul, wrote in an e-mailed note.
Still, it’s now harder to get a closure verdict against the party in the Constitutional Court, after government-backed legislation approved in a referendum last month increased the number of judges on the tribunal, Atabay said.
The prosecutor’s warning today follows administrative decisions by the Higher Education Board, headed by an AK Party nominee, that effectively loosen the ban even as the government seeks political support for a more comprehensive rule change.
This week, the board lifted requirements that female students remove headscarves while taking exams to qualify as teachers or to enter universities and the civil service, according to local media. And two weeks ago, the board ordered Istanbul University to allow a student in a headscarf to attend lessons after she complained about her exclusion, NTV said.
Kemal Anadol, a politician from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, said after his meeting with AK Party lawmakers today that the ruling party was not sincere and harbored a hidden Islamist agenda.
The CHP is willing to allow headscarves at universities provided the ban continued to be enforced at primary and secondary schools and public offices, he said. Officials from Erdogan’s party would not make a commitment to confine the lifting of the ban to universities, he said.
“Everyone says the AK Party has a hidden agenda, this view is widespread among the people, and also among us,” Anadol said. “Today we tested that.”
Bekir Bozdag, deputy head of the AK Party’s parliament group and a member of the delegation that met with opposition parties, said that headscarved students are the victims of “a great drama,” and that there is “a broad coalition in public opinion that believes this must be resolved.” He said the party’s efforts are focused on ending the ban at universities, not in schools or state offices.
Bozdag and colleagues also met today with leaders of the main nationalist party and the largest pro-Kurdish party to discuss the headscarf ban.
Erdogan was out of the country on a state visit to Finland.