Turkey began 2008 in the shadow of a very heated debate over whether female students could cover their hair with a headscarf — a practice banned in Turkey since 1989. In February 2008, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), a “conservative” party led by devout Muslims, with the support of two other parties, passed an amendment that inserted two clauses into the constitution. One of them stated that all citizens, regardless of their religion, race, or ethnicity, would “benefit from public services equally.” The other amendment provided a guarantee: “No citizen can be barred from the right to higher education.”

To the secularist establishment, however, these declarations constituted an unacceptable heresy. The Constitutional Court stepped in nullifying the amendment and also levying a hefty fine on the AKP for violating the country’s self-styled secularism.

In the middle of this peculiar political controversy — during which “freedom” and “secularism” had become opposing and polarising slogans — an interesting voice emerged from female students wearing headscarves, whose right to education was being discussed. On a website titled “We Are Not Free Yet,” three hundred students put their signatures in support of a statement which mentioned an “authoritarian mentality” and tied this struggle to that of suppressed groups like the Kurds and Alevis.This genuinely liberal and Islamic message immediately became popular.

How all this came about is a story worth examining in the lessons that can be learnt for similar situations in the current Middle East.

History Revisited
The story above serves to highlight that Turkey is still the best example of a functioning democracy in the Middle East. Its Islamic movements and parties have almost never followed a radical agenda, and have even come to appreciate the blessings of modern liberal democracy. Therefore, the Turkish model has been cited as a source of inspiration for countries emerging out of the events of the Arab Spring.

There are two good reasons to doubt that the Arab world only needs its own Atatürks, however. The founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, had introduced radical secularist reforms in 1924 and 1938. Firstly, most of the regimes overthrown or challenged by the Arab Spring are the very secular dictatorships which used Atatürk as a model. Secondly, the Turkish story is much more complex than the ‘creation-ex-nihilo-by-Atatürk’ narrative

To read the executive summary, please click here

To read the longer version of this article in Arches Quarterly, please click here