How Does Islam Affect Turkey's Government?

The hijab, or a woman's head covering, remains a political issue in Turkey.
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Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the Turkish Republic after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Since then, Turkey has been a nation with a secular government and an Islamic population. Atatürk's reforms to modernize the country became known as Kemalism and included the westernization of culture and education. Islamic political parties that disagreed with secular Kemalist values have either been shut down by the military or banned by the judicial system. These Islamic political parties have consistently reinvented themselves and returned with more moderate values.

1 The AKP Emerges

During the 1990s, while Turkey was plagued by both Kurdish and Islamic dissent, most Turkish citizens were looking for economic growth and governmental stability. In 2002, they elected Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who had created the Justice and Development Party (AKP) the previous year. He named his party ideology “conservative democracy,” downplaying its Islamic roots.

2 Opposition to the Successful AKP Grows

Dissent in Turkey continued into the next decade, and much of the conflict emerged because of opposition to the AKP and its religious conservative values. In April 2007, the military announced that it was prepared to take action to defend secularism. Prime Minister Erdoğan defied the military and called an early election instead. His party enjoyed a strong victory. In 2008, the Turkish chief prosecutor charged the AKP with having an Islamic agenda that ran contrary to the secular republic. The AKP won its court case by one vote. For the first time in the history of the Turkish Republic, the military and judicial systems were no longer strong enough to shut down a political party.

3 Strong Economic Growth and Controversy under the AKP

Under the AKP, Turkey weathered the recession of 2008 with strong economic growth and came closer to membership in the EU. Its economic presence in Asia continued to grow. Meanwhile, opposition members questioned the AKP's Islamic agenda. In 2004, penal code reformers attempted to criminalize adultery, and the opposition feared the influence of sharia, the moral and religious code by which Muslims live. Erdoğan ultimately abandoned that reform. The AKP also privatized alcohol distribution, a function previously managed by the state. Although the consumption of alcohol in cities such as Istanbul was unaffected, there were also attempts to restrict restaurant liquor licenses in the more conservative Anatolian region.

4 Conflict about the Hijab Continues in Turkey

Women wearing the headscarf called the hijab is one of the most contentious issues in Turkish politics. Until recently, the hijab was banned in universities and for women who held public positions. Women who chose to wear the hijab were prevented from attending or working in these institutions. The dress code for universities was changed in 2011 to allow the wearing of the hijab, but the public service ban remained. This ban has been blamed for restricting female employment and weakening the Turkish economy. In October 2013, following a summer of violent protests in Turkey against the AKP, Erdoğan announced that the dress code for public civil servants would also change to allow the wearing of the hijab.

Erica Gatz holds a Masters Degree in social work from Dalhousie University. She has worked in inner city locations and remote northern Aboriginal communities. Her experience includes community mental healthcare, HIV harm reduction, culturally relevant curriculum development, suicide prevention and early psychosis intervention. Her current interests are social justice and community development.