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A head scarf is not just a scarf

The dispute in Turkey reminds us of the importance of allowing 'others' emotional depth.

By Courtney E. Martin / February 25, 2008

brooklyn, n.y.

Just as a flag is not merely a swatch of material – stars, stripes, sickles – a scarf is no longer a piece of silk. Turkey is set to repeal its longstanding scarf ban in university settings – setting off a firestorm of controversy about class conflict, human rights, and the rise of Islam in a country fearful of religious influence.

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Secular Turks, outraged that religious Muslim women may soon sport their head scarves in even elite urban schools, have resorted to demeaning their fellow citizens. As Turkish political philosophy professor, Atilla Yayla, told The New York Times, the secular Turks "don't encounter them [the religious Turks] as human beings.... They want them to evaporate, to disappear as fast as possible."

The developing story in Turkey of its heated head scarf dispute is an important reminder to us all. Conflict, especially internecine, grows dangerous when dehumanization begins.

It is one thing to disagree about the appropriateness of religious symbols in public places, to debate and be divided on the necessity of separation of church and state – or in this case, mosque and school – but it is another thing entirely to deny the humanity of a group of people.

We see the beginning of this process emerging in Turkey; dehumanization is so often incubated in callous language, in angry labeling, in base and unfair generalizations. We see the end of this process in the tragic examples of Rwanda, Bosnia, the Middle East, and even in the fates of America's hate-crime victims Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, among many others.

So what happens between the thoughtless beginning and the tragic end? What causes the leap from dehumanizing rhetoric to dehumanizing violence?

Stanford psychology professor Albert Bandura offers an intriguing answer: It's when we strip away the hopes, emotions, and concerns of "others" – rendering them as subhuman, or mere objects of scorn. In our eyes, they become devoid of feelings and worth.

A staunchly secular Turk may disagree that Muslim women should have the right to wear their scarves in schools, but he will not make the jump to hatred and then on to violence if he can intuit her emotional experience – the comfort, affinity, and pride that she associates with that scarf.