ANKARA: Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday announced key political reforms, including lifting a ban on Islamic headscarves and strengthening Kurdish rights.
The moves come as critics accuse Erdogan of bringing religion to the staunchly secular country and as minority Kurds pursuing a difficult peace process with Ankara demand still more rights.
In a highly-anticipated speech, Erdogan said that, with a few exceptions, female civil servants would be allowed to wear Islamic headscarves and male colleagues allowed to sport beards, a sign of Muslim piety. However, the ban will remain in place for judges, prosecutors, police and military personnel. “These restrictions violate the right to work, the freedom of thought and belief,” said Erdogan.
He added the government would vow to impose “a penalty on those who prevent people from exercising the rights attached to their religious” duties. At the same time, the prime minister moved to scrap restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language, allowing it to be used in private schools and letting election candidates campaign in Kurdish. Erdogan called the reforms “a historic moment, an important stage”.
The headscarf controversy is the fault line for a long-standing rivalry in Turkish society between religious conservatives, who form the bulk of Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), and secular opponents.
Secularists – particularly those in the army – see the headscarf as a symbol of defiance against the strict separation of state and religion, a basic tenet of modern Turkey.
The announcements risk re-opening wounds caused by the wave of anti-government protests that rocked Turkey in June, the biggest challenge to Erdogan’s decade-plus rule.
Tens of thousands of protesters, particularly in Turkey’s major cities took to the streets, calling Erdogan a “dictator”, accusing him of bringing religion to the predominantly Muslim but staunchly secular country. Critics say Erdogan’s rule has left Turkish society more polarised.
Recently, Turkey’s parliament passed legislation curbing alcohol sales and advertising, the toughest such measures in the republic’s history. This month, an Istanbul court again handed a 10-month suspended jail term to pianist Fazil Say over social media posts deemed religiously offensive.
Professor Ilter Turan of the Istanbul-based Bilgi University said that the lifting of the headscarf ban was expected.
“The ban has gradually been melting down throughout the AKP’s rule,” he told AFP. “To a great extent, it has not been applied in some government offices and AKP-led municipalities.”
The headscarf reform is considered as a gesture by Erdogan to his grassroots in the run-up to elections. His party has relaxed the ban at universities.
The country votes in local elections in March, a presidential election in August and parliamentary polls in 2015. However, one AKP politician expressed discontent.
“Why shouldn’t judges and prosecutors wear headscarves? Can’t those who wear headscarves deliver fair verdicts?” AKP’s deputy Cengiz Yavilioglu wrote on his Twitter account.
Erdogan’s proposals on strengthening the rights of minorities comes at a time when Ankara has begun peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to end the Kurdish conflict, which has claimed more than 40,000 lives since 1984.
Erdogan indicated that scrapping a 10-percent threshold required to secure seats in Turkey’s parliament would be “open to debate”, noting that the AKP had yet to introduce the reform after parliament returns from summer recess on Tuesday.
In addition, towns will be able to use their Kurdish name and schoolchildren will be no longer required to recite the pledge of allegiance – “How happy is the one who calls himself a Turk” – each morning.
The “democratisation package” is aimed at breaking an impasse in the peace process with the PKK, classified as a terrorist organisation by Turkey. In March the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan declared a ceasefire after months of negotiations.
In return for withdrawing its fighters, the PKK demanded changes such as the right to education in the Kurdish language and a degree of regional autonomy.
After starting in May, the PKK announced a suspension in the withdrawal, accusing Ankara of not keeping its promises of reform. Kurdish politicians said the changes were unsatisfactory.
“This is not a package that meets Turkey’s needs for democratisation,” said Gulten Kisanak, co-chair of the Peace and Democracy Party.
The proposed reforms will apply to other minorities within Turkey. The government-led reforms also included plans to return land belonging to a Syriac Christian monastery in the southeastern Mardin province which had been confiscated by the state.
Erdogan announced further reforms, saying that his government would establish a language and culture institute for Roma people.
Helene Flautre of the European Greens, who support Turkey’s entry into the European Union, said the measures “go in the direction of reinforcing the democratic base and fundamental rights.” AFP