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Turkey’s debate over the head scarf

February 16, 2008

There is a big debate going on in Turkey today over the governing party’s plan to relax restrictions of women’s use of the head scarf in public places such as schools and government buildings (article). Turkey declared itself as a secular state in the 1920’s. Restrictions on the wearing of the scarf are defended as ways of keeping religion out of politics and the public sphere. The governing party won election in 2007 and raised questions about its attitudes towards secularism. Would it favor a gradual movement towards an Islamic state in Turkey? And is this current legislative effort a step against the secularism of the state?

The question is further clouded by the role of families and men in the woman’s choice of whether to wear the scarf. Is this a free choice or a coerced choice? And if coerced, is this another independent reason for legislation — essentially, to reinforce the ability of women and girls to make their own choices? The issue is complex and has also been debated in France as well — for some of the same reasons of secularism and personal freedom and for the additional social goal of assimilation for France’s minorities.

And some observers in Turkey maintain that the debate isn’t really about individual liberties of religion and dress at all, but rather about politics: who supports the secularist elites in the military and economic leadership, versus which social groups support the more religious political parties.

There aren’t many areas where the US has solved a social issue fairly well. But maybe this is one such area. There are several million Muslims in the United States. And there is a healthy degree of social harmony among almost all of the religious communities in the United States. In particular, there is no legal limitation on the right of women and girls to wear the scarf (and the burka, for that matter), and a wide public acceptance of these religious and cultural practices. Within American ideas of individual freedom of expression, questions of dress and religious symbols fall pretty much within the scope of the individual’s zone of choice rather than being subject to state regulation. This reflects John Stuart Mill’s conception of liberty — the state should refrain from regulation of conduct that is self-regarding and doesn’t impose concrete harms on others.

This liberal thought about freedom of choice converges with another important civic value — that of respecting differences among citizens. And so speech and forms of conduct that are primarily related to one’s private and personal choices need to be left unfettered. This is sometimes put as a principle of tolerance — but maybe it is better to describe it as a principle of mutual respect and the acceptance of difference. If we pull these principles of a liberal society together, maybe it amounts to a policy that the Turkish people might want to support — to be tolerant of the head scarf and to espouse a society based on equality and liberty.

Moreover, there are some positive social goods that come out of this approach — the civility that this approach encourages among citizens of different faiths is also an important component of social harmony and secular equality.

Against these conclusions, advocates of the restrictions might argue that these are western philosophical ideas that don’t reflect Turkey’s complex history very well. They might argue that Millian liberalism is too simple a lens through which to view a many-sided issue such as this.

So the question here is this: whether it is useful to bring classical ideas of liberalism and the proper relationship between state and individual liberties, into this complicated and historically extended debate in Turkey over the head scarf?

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