How can the headscarf issue (banning of headscarves in the public sector in Turkey) be resolved?

by Doğu Ergil on . Posted in Fethullah Gülen and the Gülen Movement in 100 questions

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Fethullah Gülen

As background, in Turkey the headscarf and its derivatives (e.g. turban) have become a problem with the regime. Secularism is one of the basic principles of the regime. But by deviating from its essence, secularism is reduced to a phenomenon of symbols and this has played some role in headscarf issue. The conditions of secularism are met when a spectrum of values larger than religion is resorted to make decisions related to daily life; the laws are based, not on the religious rulings, but on social will; and the political authority is taken out of cultural and religious spheres and stand at an equal distance from all cultures and religions. It is not important who wears what or what relationship a particular garment has to do with faith. But in Turkey, the headscarf has been used as a pretext to close down political parties. On this issue, the Fethullah Gülen’s views are along the following lines:

The following kind of understanding and argument has gained an official status: Those who wear headscarves are traditional, religious, and conservative; those who do not are modern, contemporary and secular. Traditionalism and conservatism, to some extent, could be met with toleration; in any case it is true that people with these traits are uneducated, local, or rural population. However, the following view is unfair and discriminatory: The religious people have a secret agenda and this agenda or aim sooner or later will cause the erosion of secular values, and it will end up by the establishment of a state based on religion. Therefore, the headscarf and the people wearing them should be excluded from the public sphere and should be deprived of the public services so that they could not grow up.

First of all, it is based on the dictum that “secularism should be established from top down and by force.” This approach, which is devoid of every kind of historical and sociological notions, is ignorant about the four attributes of secularism.

Secularism can be a policy, but secularization is a socio-cultural process and as a society develops, industrialized, urbanized, as its relationship intensifies with the world, as the level of its knowledge increases, its frame of reference gradually expands when making a choice and in its decision-making. It embraces a pluralist frame of reference, in addition to the established traditional source of references. In the traditional world, the most established source of reference is religion. In the modern world, however, some other sources of references have been added to religion. Secularization points to this change in the nature of references from being one to being many different ones.

Secularism is a phenomenon arranging the relationships among human beings; it is a phenomenon in which the cardinal ethical principles have as their sources not only religion, but human preferences and mutual human expectations. The “secular morality” produces a synthesis with the principles derived from religious sources in order to meet the needs of the modern age.

The laws are made, not by an authority which claims representing the divine power, but are made by a contract, namely through an agreement among humans. Thus, there would not be a problem of the laws promulgated by an authority to which is attributed sacredness, which cannot be criticized or amended. People who practice freely what they believe would rule the common lives and the relationships they establish with others, through the decisions they make, and the laws that are enacted by them through a common will. When these regulations become insufficient to meet the needs of newly arising circumstances, become obsolete, and lose their functions, again they make new regulations based on common decisions.

In a secular order, the sate or the political authority and the faith are separated from each other. In a process called secularization, the constant conflicts among the faith groups or a state representing one particular faith from among many and trying to enforce this faith on the others, to prefer one over the others led to many unwanted problems; many wars lasting for years had taken place. The history is full of its examples. Now secularization is a phenomenon to end all this turmoil. At the end of the process of secularization, the state or political authority stays at an equal distance from all religions and it tries to guarantee that all the religious groups, without force or interference, to practice what they believe, and to impart it to the next generation. In order to secure all these, it stays away at an equal distance from them. A secular state does not prefer a particular religion, but provides support to the devotees in order to meet their needs, and also provides legal and de facto security for them to be realized. Thus, by its impartiality between the religious groups, it makes sure that they would become tolerant, respectful, and peaceful in their dealings among themselves.

Under the light of these given, when the headscarf issue whether it is related to traditionalism or originates from conservatism in religion and should be considered part of the cultural stock, it is squeezed between the ideological and political preferences of the state and in the end it has acquired a political and ideological character. Furthermore the label attached to it is the “hostility towards the state and the regime.”

With this label, the young girls with the headscarves are deprived of the right to education. The mothers, the aunts, and the grandmothers whose sons were conscripted into the army and were martyred, were not given permission to enter the Ordu Evleri (Army Guest Houses, where social gatherings take place) which are supported by the tax payer money and turned back. While all these take place, the most common pronouncements by the officials are, the “National unity and solidarity.”

There is also a socio-economic dimension of the issue. Anyone who travels from the east to the west or from the north to the south through Anatolia cannot understand how such a country with an enormous agricultural potential, having human resources and power of labor can be so backward and poor. He would even rebel, and rightly so, because the reason for this backwardness and poverty is the bad administration.

Before us stands a state (the Republic of Turkey), which increasingly puts a distance between herself and the legal and political standards of those civilized societies which it had taken as a model to emulate, a state which wrote its history, not as it is, but as the ruling cadres wants it to be and instead of rather than accepting and managing the society with all its cultural, social, and religious diversity and richness, has been trying to squeeze it into a narrow format it drew and screw it under an ideological, cultural, and political press. The cadres dominant in the state, for tens of years now, in order to build a society at their whims (the most salient feature being obedient) and according to their wishes, have been implementing an authoritarian rule, had suppressed the political and cultural demands, instead of awakening the latent potential in individuals as well as in general society, opted to prefer to consolidate the state. So the society has not developed sufficient enough. What could it be more normal than underdeveloped segments of the society to be traditional?

As a result of intensive migration to the cities after the 1960s, the increasing visibility of those who come from the traditional cultural background from the hearts of Anatolia in the arena where always the domination of the secular state was felt firmly and the places where modernized segments were assumed to be living has produced an atmosphere of panic. The question, “Is secularism slipping from our hands?” became an oft-repeated question. Their visibility had an effect on them equal to that of encountering some creatures from space. But in actual fact, the traditional populace whose numbers were increasingly expanding in the cities were not some external, outside elements. They were the people coming from the large masses from the areas where the modernizing projects of the state could not penetrate and transform. But they were conceived as stranger and foreigner, non appealing, and even dangerous for their secular lifestyle and were treated as such, by the people who thought that in the identity tree of themselves the major branch was secularism.

To the question, “Is it obligatory for women to cover their hair?” Fethullah Gülen responds:

Women’s covering their hair is not a matter of faith. These are not as significant as the obligation of worship and servanthood to God in general sense. They belong to the secondary level, the level of details. The matter of belief in God was revealed from the outset to the Prophet in Mecca. The five daily ritual prayers became an injunction for us. And later the alms giving became obligatory. But as for the tasattur [covering], it is little different. I think in 16th or 17th year of the Prophethood, the Muslim women head no cover on their heads.[1]

When he is reminded that the insistence on wearing the turban (a term assigned by dominant power to a special form of headscarf stating that only this would be allowed because it is reminiscent of the modern European dress, later only this form was banned) generated an anti-turban stance, which caused a break in social cohesion in Turkey, he replies: “When there are main issues to be discussed, I think it would be wrong dealing with the details.”[2]

Fethullah Gülen, who thinks that this matter should be left to free will—let those who want to cover do so and for those who do not, others should look at them with tolerance; they should not be forced to act hypocritically:

It does not mean the following, either: When need be, let the people open their head and after a certain period they can cover. The matter of the place of covering in religion should be carefully deliberated and decided. Those who cover should be accepted as another segment within the mosaic of the society. In short, let us not be drowned in details. Let us not sacrifice big things for the sake of the small. That is to say, if the headscarf comes fourth or fifth in the order of ascendency in terms of its importance among the Islamic teachings, by making it as a cause for fight we are retarding to the background the matters related to faith. Namely, one might have a faith; he performs the pilgrimage and prays five times a day. But in this matter [covering the head] if he thinks differently [not covering the head] it could not be appropriate not to accept this person.[3]

Although Fethullah Gülen has a flexible interpretation about the headscarf issue, there are still some who raise the concern that Fethullah Gülen seeks the establishment of an Islamic state, after which he would force everyone in the society to cover. He responds:

This stems from not knowing the principles and precepts of Islam. If such a mistake is committed, in my opinion, it would have been opposed to the Islamic teaching. This would have been done, without the knowledge about Islam. You have to leave humans alone with their own conscience and lifestyle. We have to know that suppression is not Islam. The matter of putting pressure on the nation and the public is not Islam.[4]

According to Fethullah Gülen, coercion and suppression do not come from Islam but from the preferences of tyrants and political authorities. He implies that Islam could be exploited by political actors for the sake of power and political preferences.

In order to take headscarf out of the political debate and to prevent the harm to youth by these quarrels, Fethullah Gülen presents a practical and an effective solution in terms of consequences: If we approach the matter from the perspective of the fundamentals and the füru (in congruence with the fundamentals, but as compared to them, on a secondary or tertiary level) we are not faced with an issue as important as the five pillars of Islam: Then he is referring the matter of choice between wearing the headscarves and enrolling in a school to the conscience of the individuals. In order to expose the topic further, he continues:

In Islamic religion the matters offered to the people in terms of faith and deeds are studied under two categories of usul and füru. Among them the fundamentals which have vital significance are the matters which come under the heading of usul. As for füru, it is always based on this usul. From this perspective, it could be said that in a place where there is no usul, it is not possible to talk about a systematic füru.

According to this, starting with La ilaha illallah, Muhammadur Rasululllah [there is no deity but God, and Muhammad is His Messenger], the other articles of faith are considered proper subject of usul in the area of creed. The articles of faith could be summarized in four fundamentals: to believe in God, in the hereafter, the Prophets; worship God [servanthood] and justice.

Five daily prayers, fasting, pilgrimage, prescribed purifying alms, or the other acts of worship are the deeds based on these usul and could be considered secondary kind of acts, compared to the usul. Nevertheless to say füruat [subdivisions] does not mean something as in Turkish usage “we could do without it.” Any concept similar to it should not come to mind. They, being in the category of füruat, are a consequence of comparison and in relationship with the asl [primary] and absolutely due to the way we divided them up according to the abovementioned categorization. Otherwise, it is evident that a faith without acts of worship would not be perfect.

When we examine the commandment of tasattur within the framework of these principles, first of all we see that it became obligatory in 7th or 8th year of the Hegira, that is to say 20 years after the inception of the religion of Islam. This would mean that in the first 20 years of Islam women maintained their attire from the Period of Ignorance.[5]

In that case we also have to draw attention to this important point in tabligh and irshad. Considering the things as big that God considers them big, and considering the things as small that he considers small is from the taqwa of the heart. The issue of tasattur is obligatory but it should never have a priority over the faith and the truths of faith. And especially it could not be claimed with an insistence on certain ways of dressing, of course in absolute sense the covering is reserved, because tasattur is something and wearing something like çarşaf [over garment covering the whole body with the exception of the face, usually black] are something else. It is for sure, çarşaf is one way of tasattur, and it is a kind of garment worn during the Ottoman Empire in certain regions. Its history goes back only several centuries. We even know that in those periods when it was in use in some regions, it was not used in Damascus and Baghdad. While this is the fact, to dwell on the issue of tasattur with an importance of a faith-related matter, and consider it as an essential would mean to put upside down the order of divine commandments. Though this is not a fundamental matter in religion, and it was only practiced after a while in history. Treating it as if it was part of a religious ritual would be in fact opposed to the measured spirit of Islam.

In addition, though it might not be accepted as an objective assessment, in the matter of interpretation of its usage with certain costumes, I would like to express my personal opinion: A Muslim’s habits of eating, drinking, sitting or standing, at home, street, market, bazaar all should reflect his consideration of art, spiritual elegance, and kindness of his heart. From this perspective, a summary perusal of some dresses and garments even through the eyes of a plebian, it is difficult to say that there is an esthetic taste on them.

Then, we, the people who have the responsibility to apply the commandment of tasattur in our lives, can choose any style of dress with our own free will: It does not make any difference whether they are overcoat or çarşaf; red, blue, yellow or green. Going into standardization would kill the flexibility and therefore the universality to be found in the spirit of the religion. There remains the fact that, there is another beauty in diversity. For sometime in the past in China until Mao, everyone used to wear collarless shirts, and in this way they used to present an ugly image. At the same time, to standardize life like this and put it into certain format would mean to make life difficult for the public. And this is opposed to the spirit of Islam, which is the religion of ease and comfort.

On the other hand, some sectors under the influence of unfortunately a faulty understanding regarding some dresses and garments are provoked beyond words. Not provoking the people who do not know much about religion is a fundamental rule of our religion. Otherwise those who wield power in their hands, let alone the füruat, might not give the possibility to practice the usul. One can find our recent history with full of its examples.[6]

With respect to women who cannot enter universities if they wear a headscarf, thereby depriving them of education, he states:

In the case of our young girls having difficulty, I would wish them to make their choices on the side of education. Of course, I am against the interference in the education of those who cover their hair for religious purposes. I am being saddened for them to be forced to make a choice between education and a matter related in religion which could be considered of details. But our society is going through a sensitive period. Everyone should take this into consideration. One side should not make this a cause for fight, and the other side, should not go to the fire with fuel saying the fight has already begun.[7]

According to Fethullah Gülen, covering is not among the principles of religion related to the usul. A faithful and a pious person, after making an introspective accounting, might decide not to cover. This is neither a loss of faith nor a deviation from the religion. Furthermore, those who cover should not go to extremes in order not to provoke those who think they are posing a threat for them. They should make their preferences of style and color in conformity with the spirit of the modern age.

Finally, Fethullah Gülen proposes not to take the phenomenon of covering in isolation, but to assess it within the broader set of rights and freedoms. He cites examples from other countries:

I would wish, just like in the Western countries, the women’s rights should be treated together with the freedom of conscience and thought. I never forget, when we went to the Vatican, there was a female journalist with us. Because the Pope does not meet with women, she could not enter inside. Can you imagine about something like this taking place in Turkey, for instance the Presidency of Religious Affairs meeting only with men, refusing to see the women? You should be the judge, would this matter be a cause for headline in the next day’s papers or not? But the Pope’s meeting only with men is not deemed to be newsworthy.[8]

[1] The interview given to Ertuğrul Özkök, Hürriyet, 23 January 1995.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Fethullah Gülen 2007c, 174.
[6] Ibid., 175–176.
[7] The interview given to Avni Özgürel, Radikal, 21 June 1998.
[8] Gündem 2005, 176.