TURKEY: Headscarf ban re-imposed

In a decision that will worsen Turkey's political crisis, the country's top constitutional court has re-imposed a ban on women wearing headscarves on university campuses. By a vote of nine to two, the judges ruled that constitutional amendments ending the ban were unlawful on the grounds that securlarism was an unalterable principle of the Turkish Republic.

The decision was made despite 80% of Turkish MPs voting to lift the ban. But it appears to vindicate the stance of university rectors, many of whom defied the orders of the Board of Higher Education and refused to allow the ban to be lifted until the court made its judgment known.

Bekir Bozdag, deputy head of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) said the court had acted as if it were parliament and the ruling was "unconstitutional". "This decision means any parliamentary activity concerning constitutional changes will be subject to review by the Constitutional Court," Bozdag said on television.

Onur Oymen, a spokesman for the Opposition Republican People's Party, told NTV Television the ruling would put an end to such constitutional amendments. "From now on no-one will be able to change the constitution," Oymen said.

The decision deepens the political crisis triggered by the headscarf issue. The government is facing a closure case, expected to be heard in the next few months, on allegations of promoting anti-secular activity and the court's decision is expected to be cited as key evidence.

Turkey's army chief said everybody should respect the court's decisions, Hurriyet reported. Yasur Buyukanit, Chief of General Staff, said: "All of us should respect the legal decisions. Turkey is a secular, democratic, social state of law. You cannot interpret those (values). This (ruling) is not an interpretation but the expression of the obvious."

The army forced a coalition government led by an Islamist-leaning party, a predecessor of the AKP, out of office in 1997. The court decision is being read by Turkish commentators as a strong signal the Constitutional Court will take a tough line in the closure case.

The fact that the court annulled the constitutional amendments lifting the headscarf ban on the basis of article 2 of the constitution, which defines secularism, suggests this ruling will validate the argument in the closure case that the AKP was a "hub of anti-secularist activities".

If the closure case is carried, the President, Prime Minister and 69 other senior AKP politicians will be banned from party politics for five years. This is despite the fact that the government was elected with 47% of the vote last year following a dispute over whether Abdullah Gul, then Foreign Secretary, could be put forward as a candidate for the presidency, when his wife wears a headscarf.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was previously imprisoned for reciting an inflammatory poem, believes allowing women to wear the scarf at university is a question of religious freedom. His own daughters studied at university in the United States so they could be free wear the headscarf.

Many secularists, on the other hand, believe the government has a hidden agenda to bring in Shariah law and establish an Islamic state. But the AKP has brought in a raft of pro-democracy reforms since in came to power five years ago, as part of the country's continuing candidature for EU membership.

Press reports suggest Erdogan has already drawn up plans to run as an independent in a future election if banned from party politics.

The headscarf ban has led thousands of devout young women in Turkey to give up on higher education.