Turkish Law and Human Rights

Having visited Turkey this past December to see firsthand a country at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, I read with great interest in today’s NY Times an article about the Turkish government’s recent decision to lift the ban on women wearing head scarves in universities. The article describes the standoff between traditional Islam and modern secularism, a tension that was strikingly evident in cities like Istanbul and Izmir—and to an even greater degree in smaller cities like Konya and Bursa where I traveled last month.

Since its founding as a republic in 1923, Turkey has developed a strong tradition of secularism which has moderated the influence of Islam in the political sector. With Turkey seeking full membership in the European Union, heated controversy has flared about key human rights principles that Turkey’s government treats differently from most other liberal democracies. Turkish laws restricting Islamic women from wearing head scarves in state-run universities pose a challenge to traditional Islam by mandating secular practices. The issue presents to Westerners an alternate view of what individual freedom means and many Westerners are often unable to reconcile their own notions of tolerance of religious expression in the context of Islam.

Another human rights issue involving Turkey is discussed in a report in Tuesday’s Chronicle of Higher Education. It involves a Turkish professor who was recently given a suspended prison sentence after being found guilty of insulting the memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish secular republic. Prosecutors had sought a five-year prison sentence. The professor was charged under a measure that makes it a crime to insult in public the memory of Atatürk. The Chronicle reported that a court in Izmir found that the professor had insulted Ataturk’s memory in comments he made last year while serving on a panel on the subject of Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. The professor had questioned his country’s political progressiveness and remarked that many Europeans would ask why there were so many statues and photographs of Ataturk in Turkey. The professor denied the charges that he had insulted Ataturk and argued that academics must have freedom of speech.

It is fascinating—and ironic—to notice how restrictions on freedom of speech can originate from both religious and secular fundamentalists. The principles being tested in Turkey may seem distant to American observers; but given the increased role of religious thought in our own political process, we might benefit from careful attention to this debate.

Sources: New York Times, For Many Turks, Head Scarf’s Return Aids Religion and Democracy, dated January 30, 2008
Chronicle of Higher Education, Turkish Professor Gets Suspended Sentence for Insulting Nation’s Founder by Aisha Labi, dated January 29, 2008