In Turkey, celebrations highlight division

AP News
Posted: Oct 29, 2010 7:43 AM
In Turkey, celebrations highlight division

On Turkey's anniversary celebrations, all eyes are on the head of the president's wife.

In a gesture that strikes at the heart of a wrenching debate over secularism and piety, Hayrunnisa Gul is to wear an Islamic headscarf at a reception marking the founding of modern Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk _ whose secular principles are revered by the nation's traditional establishment with almost religious fervor.

Across town, at around the same time, the military _ which sees itself as the guardian of Ataturk's legacy _ is holding its own Republic Day fete in a scheduling conflict symbolic of the divide between the elected, Islamic-leaning government and opponents who fear secular ideals are in peril.

The attire of President Abdullah Gul's wife as she greets guests at the pink-walled presidential palace may strike outsiders as trivial, and it is not the first time she has done so. But for people on both sides of the philosophical split, the sight of an Islamic headscarf at the palace where Ataturk once lived, and which is seen as a symbol of the secular bedrock of Turkey's constitution, is a highly emotive sign of changing times.

Friday's reception marking the 87th anniversary of Turkey's establishment also amounts to a coming out party for the president's wife, who normally wears a headscarf and has mostly kept a low profile since her husband got the job in 2007 despite a warning from the military that his election would endanger secularism, stirring fears of a coup.

It's also a measure of how Muslim Turkey is changing under devout civilian leaders who have stripped the generals of much of their political power.

"It's just another sign of this very long transition. There are deep-rooted fears, suspicions, in society and they tend to spill over into politics," said Gulnur Aybet, a professor of international relations at the Izmir University of Economics in Turkey and a senior lecturer at the University of Kent in Britain.

The headscarf is an explosive issue in Turkey, where government supporters view it as an essential emblem of piety, and opponents see it as an ominous symbol of political Islam. Female students and civil servants are barred from wearing it in schools and offices, but many universities have relaxed the ban under a government that says the rules deprive devout women of the right to jobs and education.

The debate touches on broader issues about the direction of conflicted yet increasingly confident Turkey, a regional power and NATO member that asserts its outreach to Iran and harsh criticism of Israel do not mean it is turning away from Cold War-era alliances with the West. Turkey, struggling to join the European Union, has become a freer, richer place during the 8-year tenure of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but he has been unable to shake a minority's suspicions that he is steering the country toward an Islamic way of life.

The internal tensions have eased to the point where Gul is only now comfortable holding a single Republic Day reception with his wife in attendance. To skirt confrontation on past Republic Days, he held two receptions _ a midday one at which military officers and other VIPs gathered without wives, and one in the evening, during which women in headscarves were commonly seen, and which the secular elites normally shunned.

This time around, a scheduling conflict stirred speculation that hardline secularists were searching for an excuse to send regrets to the president. The military is holding a reception at 7 p.m. on Friday. The president's celebration begins at 7:30 p.m., meaning that the generals can cite inconvenient timing if they skip the trip to Cankaya Kosku, as the palace is called in Turkish.

The leader of the main opposition group, battered by a series of defeats in the voting booth, said he did not plan to attend the presidential reception although lawmakers of his Republican People's Party, a champion of the old secular order, were free to do so.

"I am going to celebrate it among the people," party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said on Kanal D television. "We are being unfair to the first lady. It is wrong to suggest that we are not going there because she wears a headscarf. Her choice of dress is her concern, not ours."

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The diplomatic remarks belie high tension over past parties, when the president essentially sought to keep everyone happy by hosting separate events on the same day. It was strange and stressful, said Ahmet Sever, Gul's media adviser.

"The protocol A-list was invited at lunchtime. Legislators, the military, the judiciary, senior bureaucrats," Milliyet newspaper quoted Sever as saying. "In truth, the spouses of these bureaucrats and military officials were victimized through this practice. Those who came in the evening were NGOs, artists, academics, journalists. The picture that emerged was as if Turkey were divided into two."

Hayrunnisa Gul was once denied enrollment at Ankara University because she wore a headscarf and took her case to the European Court of Human Rights, though she dropped it when her husband became foreign minister. In an unusual step, a headscarf-clad Hayrunnisa Gul accompanied Germany's visiting president on an inspection of honor guards in an Oct. 19 ceremony shown on Turkish television.

Aybet, the professor, described that appearance as a "turning point in how this now has to become an accepted fact of life in Turkey," though she noted that Turks in traditionally secular bastions such as Izmir, a coastal city, fret that the government's growing power augurs intolerance for those who are not devout.

Gulay Yakut, a 25-year-old bank employee who wears a headscarf, sees intolerance from the opposite side. She studied computer programming, and felt alienated by a job application form for a health foundation that required strict adherence to Ataturk's secular ideals.

"I have a job I am too qualified for now, but at least my employer respects my choice and lets me wear my headscarf," Yakut said. "Maybe I get paid less than other university graduates, but in return, I avoid condescending eyes."


Associated Press writer Ceren Kumova contributed to this report.