Steve Kaczynski explains the link in Turkey between head scarves and the Turkish army’s invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan

Recently, two issues involving Turkey have received wide coverage in the international media. The first is Islamic head scarves, the second is the Turkish army incursion into northern Iraq. I will look at these matters in turn.

In February 2008, the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), the ruling party in parliament, put forward a constitutional amendment allowing Islamic headscarves to be worn in universities. This was passed – the AKP has a clear majority and in any case the amendment was supported by the deputies of the far right MHP (Nationalist Movement Party), an opposition party in parliament.

Before, during and after the vote, there were protests by people and parties who think the secular order of Turkey is being overturned gradually. Another opposition party, the CHP (Republican People’s Party), has been heavily involved in these protests, claiming, as is common in mainstream Turkish politics, to be defending the principles of the Republic founded by Kemal Ataturk in 1923.

Turkey is not the only country in the world where Islamic head scarves and clothing have been controversial, subject to bans now or in the past. To look at the issue specifically in that country, it is necessary to delve into its past.


The Republic and its predecessor the Ottoman Empire are predominantly inhabited by Muslims, the majority Sunni. The Ottoman Empire was heavily influenced by Islam in every area of life, with this permeating everyday life, including how people dressed. On the other hand, the Empire’s decline caused its rulers to attempt to Westernise, notably with the Tanzimat reform in the 19th century. This included changes in clothing – the fez worn by Ottoman men in the latter stages of the Empire was actually an attempt to adopt clothing more Western than what went before (men wore a turban earlier).

When the Republic was founded by Ataturk, a major attempt was made to continue to Westernise. The fez was banned, and even today, especially in the countryside, men can be seen wearing the kind of flat caps popular in Western Europe in the 1930s. These were meant to replace the fez.

Ataturk also encouraged women to wear Western-style clothes, and bans on wearing Islamic headgear in public buildings such as universities were introduced, though not always strictly enforced. However, these kinds of reforms never really penetrated the countryside – many Turkish women continued to wear headscarves in everyday life.

Powerful servant, dangerous master

While Turkey is often described as a secular state, this picture needs some qualification. The socialist weekly magazine Yuruyus (‘March’) noted (February 10, 2008 edition, page 9) that the state in Turkey has always been a religious one. Its religion is Sunni Islam. The government’s Office Of Religious Affairs is a powerful department and the state carefully supervises Islam, often using it for its own purposes. After the 1980 military coup, Islam was encouraged by the allegedly secular generals, partly to turn people away from more suspect ideologies like socialism. The attitude of the generals and secular politicians seems to have been that Islam was a powerful servant but a dangerous master, and they acted accordingly.

The worldwide surge in political Islam in the later 20th century also affected Turkey (Iran, which had an Islamic Revolution, is a neighbour). The controversies over headgear and related issues really boil down to Islam ceasing to be the servant of the state, and becoming its master instead. It is against this background that moves to rescind the ban on head scarves should be seen, as well as resistance to lifting the ban.

The controversy was graphically illustrated in the Turkish satirical magazine Le Man in October 2007. A cartoon strip was published describing a young Turkish woman going to a fancy dress ball at a university wearing her headscarf and an eye mask. She gets into an argument with a man dressed as Jesus Christ, and others at the party notice that she is wearing Islamic clothing. People dressed up as clowns or as Dracula berate her, saying they are children of the Republic and demanding that she leave the premises. She flees down the stairs past a bust of Kemal Ataturk, looks at it and reflects, I am very alone, my father (referring to Ataturk).

How does the left react? Some oppose the lifting of the ban, worried about creeping Islamism. Others see no side to choose between the secularists and the Islamists, noting that the AKP does not defend freedoms that have no tinge of Islam about them, such as the right to be a socialist or the right to strike. It is good that women who feel so inclined can wear the headscarf in university. But it is bad if it is a step towards making women wear one in public, as happens in Iran.

So far, the army generals seem to accept the lifting of the head scarves ban. This may be because they have been given a free hand by the AKP with the other major matter on the agenda, the Kurdish question.

The guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have long had bases in northern Iraq, where Kurds live on both sides of the Turkish-Iraqi state frontier. After their leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured in 1999, the PKK insurgency, which has gone on since 1984, entered a relative lull (the PKK has repeatedly declared cease-fires but the Turkish state has never accepted them). However, recently the PKK has stepped up its armed activity. It is not clear why. Using Islamism, the AKP has made some inroads into the PKK’s support base (many Turkish Kurds are devout Sunni Muslims and thus a key AKP target constituency) and it may be that the PKK is trying to arrest this process. Few real concessions have been gained from the government, whose resistance is futile mentality and general’s epaulettes prevent it from coming up with a Turkish equivalent of the Good Friday Agreement, and frustration might also be a factor in the PKK attacks. And last but not least, the autonomous region in northern Iraq has given a major boost to Kurdish nationalism.

Threatening noises

The Turkish state has made increasingly threatening noises about the PKK guerrillas in Iraq. In fact, many PKK guerrillas are based well inside Turkey and have not crossed from Iraq, but this was overlooked. After the PKK sprang a particularly successful ambush near the Iraq border in October 2007, killing and capturing a number of Turkish soldiers, the Turkish authorities began beating the war drums. A huge wave of chauvinism was encouraged in Turkey (I was there at the time), with Kurdish and left-wing institutions and individuals being attacked by patriots amid a lynch-mob atmosphere. (The far-right lynch mob is a recurring feature of late Ottoman and Republican Turkish history.) A certain amount of anti-American feeling was generated by the apparent refusal of the Americans to let Turkish forces pour into northern Iraq. However, behind the scenes terms and conditions were being negotiated. Also, the AKP government passed a resolution permitting the Turkish armed forces to cross into Iraq if they felt the need to do so.

In December, the Turkish air force carried out air raids on northern Iraq which were apparently aided by intelligence from American sources. It was claimed in the Turkish media that hundreds of PKK guerrillas were killed. This was apparently not enough, even if it is assumed that the figure was anything other than propaganda. It was generally thought that the Turkish army would carry out land operations after the spring thaw, since the region is like an icebox in the winter and movement is difficult. However, presumably with the aim of taking the PKK by surprise, the Turkish army suddenly attacked on February 21, 2008.

Claims and counter claims

There was heavy fighting for about a week inside northern Iraq, then the Turkish army announced its withdrawal, claiming to have achieved its goals. It claimed to have killed over 200 PKK guerrillas, saying it had lost 24 soldiers and three village guards (a kind of militia recruited by the Turkish state from villagers, often under duress). The PKK claimed to have killed over 100 soldiers, admitting to losing nine guerrillas at the time of writing. The Turkish attacks seem to have been massive and aided by American intelligence information. There has been controversy in Turkey about the operation ending the day after US Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, called on the Turkish armed forces to pull back. However, the Turkish state has too many links to the Americans to seriously contradict US wishes.

Many Kurds in Iraq suspect their autonomous region was as much a target of the attack as the PKK, and was perhaps the real target. The operation was a kind of warning to them. Iraq President, Jalal Talabani, has been invited to Turkey. It was claimed in the Turkish media that he approved of the Turkish attack in private while condemning it in public. This is possible, though the Turkish media capacity for engaging in psychological warfare should never be underestimated.

The Turkish state has said it will invade the north of Iraq again if it feels it is necessary. Certainly the pro-system opposition parties think not enough has been done. The leader of the CHP, Deniz Baykal, complained in parliament on March 4 that the operation’s work had not been completed and MHP leader, Devlet Bahceli, said the way had been paved for deep disappointment. More fighting is almost certain, and possibly also another large cross-border incursion into Iraq by Turkey when the snows melt.

Internal repression is on the increase in Turkey, with the quest for enemies within (and without) being renewed. “Terrorists”, a very flexible term in Turkey, are a favourite target and have long been so, but there have also been murders and serious assaults on Christians in recent years, and while there is no sign the AKP government actually approves of them, it must be said that these things are as much a part of Turkey’s political Islam as the AKP’s election results. Turkey is a country at war with itself, and on more than one front.