Untying Turkey's head-scarf knot

The issue is causing political polarization and points to the need for greater religious tolerance.

That strategic ally so vital to NATO; that bridge between Europe and the Middle East; that symbol of a relatively stable, secular democracy in a Muslim nation: Could Turkey now rupture over Islam's role in public life?

On Sunday, at least 700,000 protesters marched in Istanbul, insisting that Turkey maintain its secular laws and demanding the resignation of the government, which is led by the Islamic Justice and Development Party, or AKP.

Sparking the protest is the election of Turkey's president, who is chosen by parliament – which in turn is dominated by the AKP. At first the AKP prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wanted the job. That met with a backlash from demonstrators and a warning from the military. Last week, the AKP foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, became the party's official candidate – setting off Sunday's much larger protest and another military warning.

What's objectionable about these men? Their wives wear the head scarf, a sign of Islamic modesty.

The controversy stretches further than a piece of silk fabric, although the covering itself is no small matter. The strictly secularist Constitution forbids wearing a head scarf in a public building. The ban is thanks to the revered founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who also gave women the right to vote and changed the alphabet from Arabic to Roman letters.

The protestors fear that a head scarf in the presidential palace would be just the first step to an official Islamic influence on public life. They point to AKP-Islamic "creep" through patronage, textbooks, and tolerance of radical Islam.

The presidency, able to veto legislation and appointees, has kept the AKP in check, the protesters point out. If the head-scarf crowd takes this job, too, it will be all over for modern Turkey, they warn.

But in five years of power, the AKP has been a modernizer. Mr. Gul has advanced Turkey's drive to join the European Union. Mr. Erdogan has pushed human rights reforms (he still has more to do). The economy has sprinted ahead, and per capita income more than doubled. The military's role conforms more closely to EU norms. And Gul and Erdogan profess respect for secularism.

It can't be denied, though, that Turkey is feeling its Islamic roots. Nearly 50 percent declare themselves observant Muslims. That the AKP wants devout Muslims to be able to wear head scarves to school and wants fairer treatment for graduates of religious schools seem reasonable demands by American standards.

And there's the rub. Ataturk founded Turkey on the French secular model, in which religion is not just separate from, but subordinate to, the state. One need only look at the 2005 riots by the French immigrant community, many of whom are Muslims, to see what can happen when one group feels suppressed and discriminated against.

Turkey needs to better accommodate religion in the public sphere. If it's overreach that secularists fear (and there are some grounds for this), they should take heart in checks on government that are functioning, including their own protests. If they want more checks, they should consider changing an electoral system that has given the AKP disproportional power.

Rule by fundamentalists of both stripes – either secularists or Islamists – will only harm Turkey.

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