Turkey's governing party failed to win key opposition support on Wednesday for plans to lift a ban on the wearing of Islamic head scarves at universities, a deeply divisive issue in a country with secular laws and a Muslim population.
The conflict over the head scarf reflects a struggle over Turkey's direction between the Islamic-oriented government, which argues for more religious freedom, and critics who believe the country's secular principles are in peril.
In Turkey, women are free to wear Islamic head scarves, but students, teachers and state-employed officials are not.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a big victory last month when Turks approved a package of constitutional amendments in a referendum, and he now seeks a show of unity on the politically explosive issue of the head scarf.
On Wednesday, top governing party officials tried to persuade opposition lawmakers to form a joint parliamentary committee to study ways to lift the ban on Islamic-style head coverings for university students, but the secularist main opposition party said it got no guarantees that the ban would remain in effect in primary and secondary schools and government offices.
The government last tried to lift the ban in 2008 by backing a proposed constitutional amendment, but a court struck down the bill. There are signs, however, that enforcement and respect for the university head scarf ban are slipping.
Earlier this month, Yusuf Ziya Ozcan, the government-appointed leader of Turkey's Higher Education Board _ an outspoken critic of the ban _ ordered professors at Istanbul University to allow students wearing Islamic head scarves to remain in class. On Wednesday, he said female students would be allowed to take exams while veiled.
But his actions have raised questions about whether they are legal.
Most of Turkey's 75 million people are Muslim, but staunch secularists see the head scarf as a symbol of political Islam and consider any attempt to allow it in schools as an attack on Turkey's secular laws. There also are fears that lifting the ban would create pressure on all female students to cover themselves.
Erdogan has called for the abolition of restrictions on the head scarf since taking office in 2003, insisting that the prohibition violates religious and personal freedoms.
The opposition Republican People's Party, under a new leader since May, has sounded more sympathetic to students' demands to wear head scarves on campus. The party has said it could work toward lifting the ban, if the decision does not include high school pupils, teachers and state officials.
Kemal Anadol, a senior opposition lawmaker, told reporters after a 45-minute meeting Wednesday that officials from Erdogan's party would not guarantee that their effort to lift the head scarf ban would be limited to universities.
"They couldn't provide certain words that the lifting of the ban would not be expanded. They gave furtive answers," Anadol said. "We cannot allow or be part of an operation to take Turkey toward darkness."
Erdogan accused the opposition party of "insincerity," the state-run Anatolia news agency reported. It was not clear what his next move would be, but he could try to set up the joint parliamentary committee with small opposition parties.
On Wednesday, the chief prosecutor's office for Turkey's High Appeals Court, issued a reminder that allowing head scarves in schools violated the country's secular principles. That prompted Erdogan's party to accuse the court of interfering in the proceedings of Turkey's "democratic parliamentary regime."
Ozcan ordered teachers at Istanbul University not to dismiss students, regardless of their attire, after a female student there filed a complaint to a government human rights board that she was kicked out for wearing a hat. The order was seen as a relaxation of the head scarf ban.
Some students already wear wigs or hats over head scarves to defy the ban, but many others take off their head scarves just before entering campus.
Hayrunnisa Gul, President Abdullah Gul's wife, who wears a head scarf, appeared to step into the debate on Tuesday.
She usually keeps a low profile. But that day, she accompanied Germany's visiting president on an inspection of guards of honor in a ceremony shown on Turkish TV.