Candidates (new prosecutors and judges who are on the shortlist) wait in excitement for their new appointment posts in this archive photo from 2016.

Specter of a Culture War Over Headscarf Haunts Turkey Again

The secular obsession with the hijab as an anathema to the constitutional principle of laicism rekindles an arcane debate around identity politics and culture wars in Turkey.

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When I go before a judge wearing a headscarf while I’m on trial, I doubt that she would protect my rights and do justice to me. (Fikri Saglar, former CHP lawmaker)

A former lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) said those words at a televised debate program on Halk TV last week. His remarks rekindled an old but “recently settled” matter of the dress code in the public service. After all, the existence of hijabi women in positions of power was only a recent phenomenon, something that only became possible following a century-long socio-political struggle over the definition of laicism — the constitutional building block of Turkey’s modern political system — and whether hijab (presumably as a religious symbol in the eyes of the seculars) violates that fundamental secular principle.

The country soon devolved into tit-for-tat recriminations between the government and the secular political opposition, throwing the headscarf back to the heart of the national debate above the pressing bread-and-butter issues amid a punishing pandemic.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan quickly capitalized on the debate that serves as a source of distraction from more compelling issues that concern people’s wallets and health. He voiced sharp criticism of Saglar on Friday.

“This person no longer lives in this age; he is far behind. Unfortunately, this is a reflection of the fascist mindset of the CHP mentality today, as it was in the past. The fascist mindset is still alive. When you ask them, they talk about freedom of belief. What kind of freedom of belief is this?” (President Erdogan)

The former minister’s televised remarks even generated fissures in the secular quarters of the political spectrum as the CHP felt compelled to distance itself from him. CHP Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu unsparingly criticized

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Abdullah Ayasun

Boston-based journalist and writer. Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. 2023 WHCA Scholar. On art, culture, politics and everything in between. X: @abyasun