05/22/2006, 00.00
TURKEY
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Islamic veil ever more popular in "secular" Turkey

by Mavi Zambak

The murder by a religious fanatic of Judge Ozbilgin, accused of forbidding a woman from wearing a "turban" at school, reveals just how burning an issue the veil has become, separating defenders of secularization of the State from "religious" people.

Istanbul (AsiaNews) – The killing by a religious fanatic of Turkish judge, Yucel Ozbilgin, found "guilty" of banning a woman from wearing the Islamic veil for her job in a school, reveals just what a burning issue veils have become in "secular" Turkey.

Completely forbidden in the first decades of the Republic of Turkey, the veil was gradually readmitted in recent years, and now it can be seen worn in all manner of ways and colours, depending on age, fashion and family tradition. To regulate and to contain this "popular" female religious explosion, in 1997, use of the Islamic veil was banned in schools, including University, and in State buildings, given that the turban (the veil that covers the hair and is twisted around the neck) is considered to be a political, anti-secular symbol, because – claim the country's secular faction – it symbolizes the segregation and submission of women in Muslim societies.

Leaders of the AKP Muslim party currently in government in Turkey with premier Erdogan, had promised their voters they would abolish the ban, considered to be a violation of freedom of worship and expression. But "Kemalist" Turks see this ban as a bulwark of the secular character of the Republic of Turkey, desired by the very father of the homeland, Kemal Ataturk, to safeguard secularism. Supports of secularism further claim that women generally are submitted to strong family and social pressure (to the point of moral and religious blackmail) from the time of their childhood, to make them wear a veil and to accept a submissive and segregated role in society. This is why, they claim, one absolutely cannot cite "freedom" or "free choice".

The fact remains that all this creates tensions, tearing civil society apart to the detriment of women.

Girls seeking to enter universities with a veil are denied access and thus, in recent years, more than 10,000 students, for whom the veil is not merely a "piece" of clothing but a part of their identity, left their university studies and enrolled in Koranic schools. In 2004, out of 20,000 people enrolled on the registers of 350 Koranic schools in Istanbul, 16,000 were practicing Muslim women and girls. This forced choice could well prove to be counter-productive in a journey of anti-confessional modernization.

Hence, although the president of the Republic of Turkey, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, vetoed a bill to abrogate the ban on the veil at the beginning of 2006, he was also forced to concede an amnesty to thousands of women expelled from university for wearing an Islamic veil, banned by the country's secular school system.

It was in this context that a Turkish lawyer was killed by one of his colleagues on Wednesday, 17 May. He was murdered because on 23 April, defending the secular nature of the State, he declared himself against the use of the veil by a Muslim female teacher and director of a nursery school. Yucel Ozbilgin was hit in the head by a pistol shot while he went about his duties as a judge, together with five of his colleagues – including two women – who were seriously injured during the shooting that took place in the court of Istanbul. The shots were fired by a lawyer, Alparslan Arslan, who cried out as he fired 11 shots: "Allahu Ekber. God is great. May the anger of God be upon you. We are his messengers and soldiers." This young lawyer, not yet 30 years, had already been followed by police in 2001 for his aggressive behaviour and religious fanaticism.

Something striking is that he managed to enter the courtroom armed, getting in unobserved. As soon as he was captured, when he tried to escape, he was found with a Glock pistol in hand, defined as a "ghost pistol" because it can escape the scrutiny of metal detectors. The pistol was of the same brand and manufacture as the weapon used to kill Fr Andrea Santoro.

More than 20,000 people attended the funeral of Ozbilgin, including the president of the Turkish Republic, Sezer, who condemned the action and said he was concerned by this attack, aimed not only at a lawyer – already a very serious matter – but also, for certain, at the Constitution of Turkey and the secularization of the State. Even Prime Minister Erdogan, who did not attend the funeral, expressed his disapproval about such a move, and confronted with suspicions that he secretly approved, he said those who linked this murder to the "veil issue" were mistaken.

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