Michael Gerson

ISTANBUL -- Here in Turkey, the matter of headgear is taken seriously. An edict in 1925 forbade the wearing of the fez, causing millions of Turkish men to don bowlers, which were seen as more Western and secular. In 1982, the government of Turkey banned the wearing of headscarves by women in university classrooms -- a symbolic statement that Turkey would not be taking the route of the Iranian revolution across the border, which mandated the veil. But colorful headscarves are common on the streets here, worn in piety and protest. And the resulting headscarf debate is the Turkish equivalent of the American abortion controversy -- heated, culturally defining, admitting no compromise.

Haberdashery as political philosophy is unfamiliar to Americans. But this sartorial piety points to a large historical fact. From the Enlightenment to the sociological theories of the 20th century, it was assumed that religion was in decline and would be increasingly privatized and marginalized. Instead, as Professor José Casanova points out in his landmark book "Public Religions in the Modern World," we have seen the global "deprivatization" of religion -- a reassertion of religious values in defining the common good, from the Islamic revolution in Iran to the Solidarity movement in Poland to the religious right in America. As these examples show, the attitude of public religion toward democracy and individual freedom varies greatly -- and matters greatly.

This "deprivatization" has caused particular strains in Turkey, the most resolutely secular of nations. Religion, according to the Turkish constitution, is supposed to have no political or legal influence of any kind -- an ACLU utopia. The Religious Affairs Directorate supervises the training of all imams and determines the themes for Friday sermons. It is difficult to argue with the outcome of this model: Turkey is a prospering democracy where radical Islam has little traction. At the same time, Turks live with restrictions that would drive religious Americans frantic with resentment -- imagine nuns in habits being banned from the U.S. Capitol.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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