In the Name of Secularism

Category: World Affairs Topics: Turkey

More than 37,000 girls expelled from school. Twenty four thousand teachers fired. Three women - a mother and her two teenage daughters - sentenced to death for participating in a political rally. Thousands of Islamic schools in the country ordered shut. Two hundred teachers prosecuted for violating a special anti-terror law. A journalist sentenced to 145 years in jail for writing a critical article about Israel. Teaching the Qur'an and Islam is forbidden even in the privacy of one's own home.

Welcome to Turkey in the 21st Century. The one time seat of the Islamic empire is now one of the bastions of Muslim persecution. The girls, the mothers, the teachers and daughters are all guilty of the same crime--wearing or advocating the right to don the hijab, an Islamic head covering. Over the last three years, the pseudo-secular state has intensified its anti-Islam policies set in motion by Mustafa Kemal Attaturk in the early 1920's.

The plight of Turks who wish to practice Islam is virtually ignored by the media in both the West and the East. Even editors of major media outlets in the west, who consider themselves so enlightened and aware, appear to be ignorant or indifferent. They definitely have the inside scoop when it comes to alleged violations of human rights of Muslims. Interestingly, most have no clue of the situation in Turkey as I discovered while trying to arrange interviews with Turkish Member of Parliament, Merve Kavakci. The thirty-two-year old was precluded from taking the oath of office after being elected to Parliament in 1999. She was booed out of Parliament by members of the ruling Democratic Social Leftist Party for walking into Parliament with her hijab. Even though her story got international coverage at the time, most editors I spoke with thought that she was thrown out for refusing to wear the hijab. When I corrected them, they asked incredulously "but isn't Turkey a Muslim country?"

It seems like no matter how hard the ruling elite in Turkey would like everyone to forget its roots; the world just won't let it. And even if the world did, courageous Merve Kavakci certainly won't. "I have hopes for Turkey, that it would integrate into the western world without ending its Islamic bonds with the East," says Kavakci, who was in Canada last week to deliver lectures and meet with the media in Toronto and Ottawa. She is not someone working to take Turkish women backward as her critics would have us believe. And she certainly is no pushover.

"Anyone who wants to fight for what is right must be prepared to struggle all the way," says the articulate advocate for women's rights.

The brunt of the human rights violations falls squarely on the shoulder of Muslim women in Turkey, and Kavakci has made it her mission to fight for the women in her homeland, almost 70% of whom wear the hijab. Her passion for the hijab issue was ignited back in the 1980's when her mother was forced to leave her faculty position at a Turkish University. It was reinforced in 1988 when she herself was forced to leave medical school due to pressures to remover her hijab.

"If we want to make a difference and we really mean it, we have to be in politics," says the University of Texas graduate. "That's why I chose politics, to make changes in Turkey and for the whole of humanity."

The former head of foreign affairs for the Islamist Virtue Party says that religion is a big part of her, and others must accept her the way she is. "What you see is what you get," she said.

The mother of two now lives in Washington, D.C., but still maintains her status as a Turkish MP along with her diplomatic immunity. She is now lobbying Western governments to put pressure on Turkish authorities to respect human rights for all Turkish citizens, including women.

"I want to point out the double standard and hypocrisy of the Western world in standing up for women in Afghanistan and Iran, while they ignore the right of the majority of women in Turkey who are precluded from school, work and society for simply covering their hair."

She and her family, including her young children, were repeatedly harassed in Turkey for what authorities said was her exploitation of Islam for political purposes.

But her crime is nothing other than refusing to remove her hijab. And for this, President Suleyman Demirel called her an "agent provocateur". Interestingly, Demirel, was appointed as a "Muslim" representative to the U.S. fact finding committee sent to investigate the violence in Palestine.

Ten days after being heckled out of Parliament, Kavakci was stripped of her citizenship for allegedly not disclosing her dual Turkish-- U.S. citizenship. Interestingly, more than 20 Turkish MP's including one of her strongest critics, Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, holds dual Turkish--U.S. citizenship. Moreover, thousands of other American Turks are also in a similar situation and have yet to have their citizenship revoked. In fact, many became worried when Kavakci's citizenship was taken away, but were assured by the Turkish embassy in Washington that they had nothing to worry about.

Turkey's pseudo-secular generals see the hijab as a symbol of political Islam and have intensified the ban following recommendations by the military-dominated National Security Council in 1997. The hijab ban is part of a strategy to combat the revival of Islam. The same year, the Islamist Refah party was forced out of power and its leaders, including the Prime Minister at the time, Necmettin Erbakan, were prosecuted for attempting to overthrow the Constitution by introducing Islamic rule. Erbakan and other leaders have been jailed and/or banned from politics. Some of the former members of the banned Refah party are now part of the new Islamist party, the Virtue Party.

Turkey's obsession with a perceived threat of Islam and the undertaking to combat it at any cost has led many to forget that secular liberalism is but one of many world views. Ironically, the assumption that everyone will wish to become secular when given the freedom to choose, and the imposition of this view on others, only leads them to commit a variation of the very crime of which they accuse Islamists. What it amounts to is "secular fundamentalism."

During her talk at the University of Toronto, Kavakci was asked about what Muslims in North America can do for Turkish Muslims. Kavakci said that Muslims in the democratic West have the perfect opportunity to use their vote and lobby their elected representatives to ease the plight of Turkish Muslims. In fact, she said that a simple phone call from Western leaders is all that is needed to end the persecution. "Turkey will listen to its masters," she said.

Kavakci has passed on the message. It' high time that the western masters pay heed to what is being done in the name of almighty secularism.

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Faisal Kutty is a Toronto based attorney and regular contributor to iviews.com.


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