Turkey’s top court today banned the wearing of Islamic head scarves at universities in a blow to the Islamic-leaning government.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had tried to reverse a ban on scarves saying it was a matter of personal and religious freedom.
However, the Constitutional Court verdict said the government’s effort to lift the ban violated secular principles.
In February, parliament passed amendments to allow head scarves to be worn at universities – but not in schools or state offices. The secular opposition appealed to the top court which ruled the changes contravened central constitutional principles.
The issue is an explosive one for Turkey, where the government is locked in a power struggle with secular groups supported by the military and other state institutions.
The verdict is likely to bode ill for the government. In a separate case before the same court, Turkey’s chief prosecutor is seeking to disband the ruling party on the grounds it is “the focal point of anti-secular activities.”
The prosecutor – who is also asking the court to ban Mr Erdogan and other party officials from politics for five years – has cited attempts to allow head scarves at universities as a case in point.
Many see the head scarf as an emblem of political Islam, and consider any attempt to allow it in schools as an attack on modern Turkey’s secular laws.
Devlet Bahceli, the leader of a nationalist party that wanted to allow head scarves, said the ruling would widen the growing breach in the country. “The decision accelerates the divide over religion,” he said.
Onur Oymen, a senior politician from the opposition Republican People Party, said the verdict spelled the end to such amendments.
“From now on, no one will be able to attempt to change the Constitution,”he said.
Turkey’s 70 million people are predominantly Muslim. But secularists feared that lifting the ban at universities would change the nature of the country and put pressure on all female students to cover themselves.