Turkey: Turkish opposition CHP shoots itself in foot on headscarf issue

Istanbul, (Today's Zaman):

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), once the staunch defender of Turkey’s ongoing headscarf ban, has recently been sending signals that it will work to settle the headscarf issue -– despite failing to convince many people of its sincerity.

However, hopes are gradually fading for the party to bury the hatchet with the Islamic covering, given that the party keeps shooting itself in the foot whenever it attempts to solve the issue, by offending covered women with false steps taken by party members.

The CHP’s green light to finding a solution to the long-standing headscarf problem gained momentum when the party’s long-time leader, Deniz Baykal, handed over his seat to the party’s Ýstanbul deputy Kemal Kýlýçdaroðlu.

The new leader was quick to send a message to the religious segments of Turkish society. Hoping to attract their sympathy, he argued that his party could address Turkey’s controversial headscarf ban -- though he has so far failed to convince covered women of this, since he does not directly say that he will lift the ban. In spite of dozens of unanswered questions regarding his sincerity on the issue, the possibility of a change in the CHP’s approach to the issue boosted hopes that the staunchly secular party would bury the hatchet with the headscarf.

However, the party, which has been passing through a tough test on the solution of the headscarf ban for years, once again dropped the ball last week with the emergence of a scandalous campaign banner. The CHP’s Avcýlar Municipality posted campaign banners calling on voters to vote “no” in the Sept. 12 constitutional referendum, arguing that a “yes” would mean approving Turkish women dressing like nuns, which dealt a severe blow to expectations that change had arrived in the party with regards to its stance on the headscarf.

“The CHP has a problem with the headscarf, and it is bungling the issue with every move it makes. The headscarf has turned out to be a very tough test for the CHP,” says Bugün daily columnist Adem Yavuz Arslan.

CHP’s bad record on headscarves

The ban on the use of headscarves has remained one of the most serious problems in Turkey. Headscarves were banned on university campuses in the late 1990s through a Constitutional Court ruling, on the grounds that, by allowing it to be worn, the nation’s secular principles would be violated -- because the headscarf was seen as a political and religious symbol. Political parties have to date failed to find a solution that satisfies everyone.

The CHP’s record, which has been at odds with religious segments of Turkish society for years, is, unfortunately, not very bright on the headscarf issue, either.

In early February 2008, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) with the support of the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) passed a constitutional amendment that would have lifted the ban on wearing the headscarf on university campuses. However, upon an appeal by the staunchly secular CHP and its ally, the Democratic Left Party (DSP), the Constitutional Court ruled that Parliament had violated the constitutionally enshrined principle of secularism when it passed amendments to remove the scarf ban and annulled the amendment.

When the March 2009 local elections were drawing near, the party initiated its surprising “chador initiative,” which ended in failure. In what was seen as an attempt to gain the support of conservative voters in the local elections, former CHP leader Baykal -- better known for his opposition to the headscarf in the public sphere -- surprised everyone when he gave a woman wearing the chador a CHP badge in late 2008. The move sparked discussions over his credibility, with many interpreting the move as an attempt to win back the hearts of conservative voters ahead of the March 29 elections. The chador-wearing woman later resigned from the party.

The CHP’s “chador initiative” ended in March of this year, when a group of CHP members from the Mersin branch publicly ripped up several black chadors, arguing that the chador did not conform to the principles of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. The protest was met with indignation from rights organizations, which condemned the CHP’s intolerance toward religious attire. The chador is widely used as both traditional and religious attire in Anatolia.

An intra-party rift in CHP?

The fact that positive signals by CHP leaders proved unsuccessful, after moves by its local branches, also brings to mind the possibility of a rift within the main opposition party. Bugün daily columnist Ahmet Taþgetiren says such cases expose the “deep CHP” and that the CHP cannot take a step forward on the headscarf issue as long as the “secular and Kemalist vein” persists within the CHP. “When does this ‘vein’ emerge? It emerges when chadors are ripped up after you pinned a CHP badge on a chador.

It emerges when a nun-headscarf relationship is made after you say you will settle the headscarf issue. This is the classic CHP vein,” he says. Taþgetiren stressed that if the CHP wanted to be convincing, it should publicly announce that it does not agree with the reasoning of the Constitutional Court when banning the headscarf. “But I do not think thatthey can do that,” he told Sunday’s Zaman.