Turkey Cracks Down on Cleavage
How do you know whether a regime that frees women to wear Islamic headscarves at work is liberal and furthering democracy, or Islamist and restricting it?
The question concerns Turkey's government, which in the space of a few days has ended a headscarf ban for civil servants (except in the judiciary and security services), but also caused a female TV music-show presenter to be fired for showing too much cleavage.
The headscarf ban was a piece of unabashed social engineering introduced in the 1920s to make Turkey, the rump of the former Ottoman Empire and Islamic Caliphate, secular. If you are liberal and not Islamophobic, ending the ban is a good thing: Women should not be excluded from the workplace just because they are devout and believe this requires covering their hair, period.
But what if the change -- which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan introduced as part of a broad "democratization" package -- is part of a wider plan of social re-engineering, this time designed to impinge on the liberties of non-religious conservatives? If so, the numerous cases in which women were discriminated against, fired or passed over for promotion for wearing a headscarf even outside of work would now be repeated in reverse: Women who don't wear headscarves to work, and men whose wives don't cover their hair, will be discriminated against, fired and passed over for promotion.
Turkey's secularists say this is already happening to men whose wives show their locks. That's hard to prove, but the real issue is trust -- secularists believe the worst of Erdogan's intentions. Are they right?
The firing of a TV presenter, Gozde Kansu, this week is indicative. Huseyin Celik, spokesman for the ruling Justice and Development Party attacked Kansu (without actually naming her) for wearing a dress with a plunging neckline while on the air. A few days later, she was fired. There are a few points to make.
First, Celik should watch more Italian TV -- he would then understand that Kansu is a model of shy decorum. Second, Celik's words were as follows: “We don’t intervene against anyone, but this is too much. It is unacceptable,” according to Hurriyet Daily News. He later complained that it wasn't his fault that she was fired, and he had a right to express his opinions.
None of this is credible. Celik knows what "unacceptable" means; he knew that Kansu was on ATV television, which belongs to a company called Calik Holding; and he knew that Calik's chief executive officer is Erdogan's son-in-law, Berat Albayrak. There is no coincidence or unintended consequence here. Celik wants to re-engineer Turkish TV.
There are plenty of other pointers about the depth of the government's commitment to "democratization," such as the repeated tightening of restrictions on the sale of alcohol, frowned upon by devout Muslims; the routine prosecuting and jailing of journalists; and the crushing of dissent in the Gezi Park protests earlier this year.
One last piece of evidence: A Turkish appeals court today upheld the convictions 237 Turkish military officers convicted of plotting a coup against the government in 2003. The case, called Sledgehammer, has been thoroughly discredited. Forensic examination showed that the evidence on which the conviction rested was forged: The documents involved were on a CD-ROM date-stamped 2003, yet were written using a 2007 Microsoft program.
Again, a case first hailed abroad as good for democracy -- an effort to hold the country's generals accountable after decades of impunity -- turns out to be something else. The Sledgehammer case shows only continuity in Turkish governments' use of politicized courts against their enemies: In the old days the military and secularists abused the law to suppress Islamists; now the Islamists are returning the favor.
(Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter.)