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Thursday, 4 September 2008

He's going

A statement on the Turkish president's website published late this evening has confirmed that Abdullah Gül will be going to Yerevan this Saturday.

"Beyond being a sporting fixture," the statement says, "this match presents us with important opportunities. Especially in these times, when regional developments are causing worry among the people of the Caucasus, it is believed that all sides should appraise this opportunity in the best possible manner. It is thought that a visit on the occasion of this match could contribute to developing a climate of friendship. It is with this understanding that the president has accepted the invitation."

And quite right too. Well done.

Read my entry on this from yesterday here.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Go and watch some football

Saturday marks the return of international football in Europe after an interval of almost three months, as 53 teams begin to compete for thirteen spaces at the next World Cup in 2010. Turkey is in Group 5, and it has long been clear that its single greatest opponent will be Spain, the reigning European champions. But it was another fixture that everyone noticed when the group was drawn last November: Turkey versus Armenia.

Turkey will play ten qualification matches over the course of the next twelve months, and the first and last of these will be against Armenia. In footballing terms, it shouldn't be much of a contest: Turkey is a very strong side, ranking 13th in the world, while Armenia trails at number 94. Expect the Turks to win; anything less than a draw would be a great upset.

But it isn't just about football that Turkey's media is talking about this week. Also being debated - fiercely at times - is whether or not President Abdullah Gül should accept an invitation from his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, to watch Saturday's game in Yerevan together.

To describe Armenians and Turks as "having a history" is to vastly downplay what they have been through. The two are intertwined - or were, until around a 150 years ago - having lived alongside each other within the Ottoman Empire. Armenians, as Christians, had a privileged minority status and held many an influential position in the Ottoman civil service, particularly in the Empire's latter years. In fact, it was sometimes difficult to describe them as a minority: in many parts of Anatolia that are now Eastern Turkey, for instance, the number of Armenians almost equalled the number of Turks. This was the case as recently as the beginning of the First World War.

Of course, something happened to change that, because the number of Armenians living in Turkey today wouldn't fill a small town. That something remains deeply controversial both in Turkey (as in January last year) and abroad (see here and here for background). And it isn't just claims of genocide that have led to today's tension between the two countries. Armenia and Azerbaijan, a close Turkish partner, are still technically at war over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Turkey closed its border with Armenia over the issue more than a decade ago.

With so many factors to consider, Mr Gül has yet to RSVP. A delegation from the Turkish foreign ministry is in Yerevan this week to invite Armenia to join Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's plans for a Caucasus Alliance, but they are also there to discuss the potential visit too, and Mr Gül has said his decision will be announced after the delegation reports back.

There has been plenty of opinion from inside Turkey as to whether he should go, with the opposition being, well, rather opposed. Atilla Kaya, deputy leader of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), said Armenia "does not recognise the territorial integrity of the Turkish Republic you represent. It also occupies another Turkic territory. I call on you not to go to Armenia." Main opposition leader Deniz Baykal agrees, saying Mr Gül should recognise Turkey's friend in the region is Baku, not Yerevan.

Neither is there much enthusiasm from the ruling AK party. At its parliamentary assembly on Monday, AK MPs voted not to send representatives to accompany Mr Gül, should he decide to go. It looks like it would be a very lonely visit.

If he did accept, Mr Gül's visit would be fleeting. There are no diplomatic relations between the two countries, which means that, far from an official welcoming ceremony at Yerevan's Zvartnots airport, Mr Gül would land, travel directly to the stadium, watch the match, and then leave. Any discussions with Mr Sargsyan - and surely they would be superficial - would occur during the match. The engines on Mr Gül's aircraft would not even be switched off in the interim (carbon footprint, anyone?). This visit would hardly open the border tomorrow.

But that is no reason to turn the invitation down and happily, there are some in Turkey who agree. The influential Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association, TUSİAD, has urged Mr Gül to accept, saying that in the present climate of tension elsewhere in the Caucasus, any opportunity to improve relations should be taken.

And quite right too. The Armenian president's invitation is an immense gesture and the perfect first meeting for further talks later on. It would not estrange Azerbaijan overnight, nor would it be a betrayal of the position Turkey took on the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. All the visit would demonstrate is that both sides are ready to talk. And seasoned observers know that alone would be a remarkable step forward.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

A step back from the brink

They must be exhausted, and it is easy to understand why: the eleven judges who sit on the Constitutional Court only met on Monday to begin deliberating over the chief prosecutor's case to close the ruling AK party. Their decision was announced at six o'clock this evening, meaning that the judges squeezed a week-and-a-half's work into just three days. They met at 9.30am each morning, and did not adjourn for the night until 10.30pm. Even the most optimistic press reports were not predicting a result until Friday.

But it is a reflection of how pivotal this case had become for Turkey that the ruling came so quickly. Court chairman Haşim Kılıç looked visibly tired, bags swinging under his eyes, when he appeared in front of a horde of journalists at six o'clock his evening. He was then prompty bathed in white light as every camera flash in the room went off at once. He had to ask the reporters to stop taking his picture before reading out the decision: six judges - a majority - voted to close Turkey's ruling AK party, four voted to impose financial sanctions, and one voted to dismiss all charges.

Seven votes were needed for closure, a threshold which was not met. The results mean the Constutional Court has accepted, albeit not unanimously, to cut AK's funding. The ruling party will receive only half of its funding this year; the precise figure will be determined when the Budget for 2009 is accepted.

It was so agonisingly close. The deciding vote, if there was such a thing, was probably cast by Mr Kılıç himself, who revealed he was the only one who voted to dismiss the charges. It would have taken just a single judge voting the other way to have brought a decision to close, and put the country into the unprecedented position of bringing down an overwhelmingly popular governing party in an instant. But that is not what happened. The AK Party remains open, its politicians remain unbanned, and the Turkish lira even managed to climb a kuruş or two against the dollar this evening.

AK supporters were naturally delighted. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was greeted with footall chants when he emerged to make a statement at party HQ. He said the decision had lifted away a great uncertainty in Turkey, and reiterated his commitment to European values: "Our path is that towards the EU. There is no return."

He avoided commenting explicitly on the outcome because, as is standard procedure in such cases, the judges' reasons for their decision has not yet been published. But while it is true that their response to Chief Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalçınkaya's charges will make interesting reading, it is pretty clear what their decision says already: the AK party has been deemed to have behaved in an unsecular manner, but not to so violent a degree that it merits closure.

This is the best result any of us could have hoped for. The Court has demonstrated that Turkey's political system is not necessarily inflexible and compatible only with parties that are militantly secular. There is room for diversity here. At the same time, it has warned that such diversity can only go so far, and that the AK Party has seriously pushed the limits of the secular system. This is more than a slap on the wrists; it is a demand for the government to change its ways.

So what next for Mr Erdoğan's party? The ruling should hopefully subside some of the arrogance and complacence with which it has approached the business of government, particularly since its phenomenal electoral victory last summer. It is true that AK has a very powerful mandate, but it certainly does not have a universal one, and it would do well to remember that more often. Its approach to the recent headscarf debacle was a telling example: having secured the support of the opposition Nationalist Action Party, AK proceded to draft its own law without consulting secularist parties, non-governmental organisations or - heaven forbid - women, and passed it easily in parliament. The law was promptly annulled by the same Constitutional Court that today voted to keep the party open. In matters as controversial as the headscarf, AK must recognise that to govern does not necessarily mean to impose; it can also mean to consult.

That, however, is for the future. Tonight, Turkey takes a step back from the brink. Things could have been a lot worse.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

More from me, more from Turkey

Thank you to everyone for the kind comments you left both on this blog and in my inbox. I spent the last few months writing a rather taxing research dissertation about Turkey's position on the Armenian genocide and had little time to keep anything else going. This is now complete and I am duly posting here once again. I do enjoy keeping this blog and intend to continue with a greater degree regularity in the future. But having not posted since February, that could mean anything...

Times have been turbulent in Turkish politics during my absence. The most striking development has been a case, by no less than the chief prosecutor, to close the ruling AK Party, on charges of not being secular enough. It calls for 71 members of the party, including prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül, to be banned from politics.

The AK Party's predecessors, Welfare and Virtue (RP and FP, respectively), were themselves closed down by the Constitutional Court in similar circumstances; the charge here is that AK is merely their continuation. But many have expressed disappointment at the prosecutor's case, as it appears to hinge largely on the public speeches made by those 71 implicated leaders and less on, for instance, evidence of non-secular AK legislation.

AK was the moderate half of a split that occurred following the FP's closure. The other half, which became the Felicity Party (SP), is pious, xenophobic and not very popular. It won just two percent of the vote in last year's election; AK won forty-six percent. It was the SP that was behind protests against Pope Benedict's visit in 2006, where "he's coming to resurrect Byzantium" was the bizarre rallying call. The SP has also organised similar protests denouncing such targets as Israel and the Danish cartoonists who depicted the Prophet Muhammad. Mr Erdoğan met the Pope, was only the second Turkish prime minister to visit Israel, and stayed sensibly quiet on the cartoon issue. You would think it would be the SP, not AK, that is targeted in an anti-secular lawsuit.

This leads commentators, including this blog, to conclude what everyone in Turkey already knows: that the chief prosecutor's case is about more than AK's overtly religious behaviour, of which there is scant evidence. The lawsuit reflects an ever-growing concern in Turkey that while AK might not be staunchly Islamist, it certainly is not staunchly secularist either.

In some areas of Turkey, fewer and fewer restaurants are granted licences to serve alcohol, and there has been recurent talk of creating "alcohol zones" in towns and cities and prohibiting licenced establishments outside of them. Many Turks also say more girls than before sport the Muslim headscarf and that this is noticeable in cities as western-orientated as Istanbul. There is little doubt that AK's six years in power has bolstered confidence among Turkish Muslims; many say the lawsuit is a reaction to that.

Photographs such as the above, of First Lady Hayrünnisa Gül and Queen Elizabeth at a state banquet in Ankara earlier this month, are a firm confirmation that times have changed in Turkey. The Queen last visited Turkey in 1971, not long after the country's second military intervention, when it would be unthinkable for the First Lady to have her head covered. It would have been unthinkable this time last year. But Mrs Gül accompanied the Queen throughout the four-day visit. Yes, things have changed.

Whether the lawsuit will be successful is unclear. AK originally planned to change a part of the constitution to render the case illegal, but the idea found little support among the opposition and has since been dropped. AK will now defend itself against the charges in court, but Mr Erdoğan is also rumoured to be arranging a successor party in case he loses. He has also been involved in a fiery and very public argument between the government and the judiciary. Those clashes will continue for sometime yet, both inside and outside the courtroom.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Why, oh why, could anyone possibly think that this is a good idea?

Part of the government in Britain, where I appear to be invariably based at the moment, seems obsessed with dispensing with its prime minister after less than a year in the job. "We're not popular, we'll probably lose the next election, it's not working out for us," they mutter behind closed doors, before adding: "Off with his head and bring in a new one." Or something to that effect.

The instinct in Turkey is precisely the opposite. When things go wrong, the prevailing mood is one of either stagnation or regression. Stagnation is the case with the Republican People's Party (CHP), which recently re-elected its directionless leader, unopposed, in an appalling example of democracy (see my outdated entry on the CHP for some back story). Regression appears to be what is happening to the Democrat Party (DP), which is trying to bring back its former leader and last prime minister, Tansu Çiller.

Mrs Çiller assumed the vacant post of prime minister in 1993, after Süleyman Demirel moved up to the presidency. She wasn't particularly high-ranking - a mere state minister, certainly not senior in the cabinet - and she contested her party's leadership against such heavyweights as İsmet Sezgin and Köksal Toptan. Her victory was credited largely to Turkey's media, including the fledgling private television channels, which made much of the idea of a first woman prime minister.

If you asked her what her greatest achievement in office was, she would probably tell you it was that Turkey entered a Customs Union with the European Union under her watch. Or that the military's funding was stepped up to combat the mounting PKK threat. She wouldn't be one to talk of the banking crisis of the early 1990s, her alleged corrupt practices (including tenders that favoured her wealthy businessman husband), or the fact that she never won a election.

Mrs Çiller was a staggeringly ineffective leader. Under her, the party won a successively smaller share of the vote, finally failing to cross the electoral threshold in 2002. Her first election, in 1995, saw her lose to Necmettin Erbakan's Welfare Party (RP). It was a shock to Turkey's secular establishment for the overtly religious RP to do so well; what shocked them more was Mrs Çiller joining them in coalition. During the campaign, she had declared Mr Erbkaban "a smuggler of heroin" and herself "the safeguard of secularism", but after six months and a hefty libel fee the two leaders were in a "power rotating" scheme whereby Mr Erbakan would be prime minister first, and Mrs Çiller would follow in a year-and-a-half.

She stood silent as her senior partner spurned the west and made highly publicised visits to Iran and Libya. She was genuinely surprised, upon Mr Erbakan's resignation, not to be asked to form the next government. She was not a good leader, and now her old rump party wants her back.

To bring back a former, supposedly succesful leader is a delusional byword for political recovery in Turkey. Party leaders are effectively sanctified in the country - most party conventions, for instance, will feature large portraits of both Atatürk and the present leader - and they are a rallying point for genuine enthusiasm and unwavering loyalty. During a recent parliamentary debate on smoking bans, one Nationalist Action Party (MHP) MP spoke passionately about the charismatic style with which his leader, Devlet Bahçeli, could hold and smoke a cigarette. He was probably not even planted.

This near-blind degree of loyalty makes it somewhat easier to understand why Turkish parties tend not to blame their leaders for electoral failure. But it is still delusional: parties don't to recognise it even when the public have had enough of them. In the 1999 elections, having failed to cross the ten percent threshold to win seats in parliament, Mr Baykal resigned. It was widely hailed as an act of political maturity, but he was back in just six months. Mr Bahçeli, Mrs Çiller and Motherland Party leader Mesut Yılmaz all made similar pledges when their parties failed to cross the threshold in 2002; with this latest offer to Mrs Çiller, all have now returned to politics.

Turks have a long tradition of sanctifying their leaders. Any tourist to Turkey will tell you Kemal Atatürk is an obvious example, but it applies to more recent leaders too: the late Bülent Ecevit ousted CHP leader and War of Independence veteran Ismet İnönü in 1973. İnönü had been leader for thirty-five years, and Ecevit was widely credited with ending what was effectively a theocracy. But that same cult of personality came to apply to Ecevit, and it would be twenty-nine years before he was toppled himself.

Few outside the DP will celebrate Mrs Çiller's return. It will do little for the party's electability, as its traditional centre-right base has long been subsumed by the ruling AK Party. But it does have wider implications for Turkish politics: a year ago, I wrote that AK's electoral victory, while welcome, urgently needed to be balanced by an effective opposition. With stagnation in the CHP and regression in the DP, it does not appear to be happening. And that is not good for Turkey.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

In they march

This is the photo that is splashed across the front of nearly every Turkish newspaper this morning. Released on the Turkish Armed Forces website, it shows troops marching over the snowy border into Iraq. There are reported to be another ten thousand of them.

Newspapers outside Turkey have been covering it too. This morning's Independent called it "the new invasion of Iraq ... it threatens to destabilise the country's only peaceful region". It is indeed, as The Times says, Turkey's biggest incursion into the country for more than a decade. And as Radikal points out, the operation is taking place under "assurances" from Ankara and "understanding" from the rest of the world. No major political leader - not even the Iraqi president, himself a Kurd - has called this an illegal invasion.

Details of what is happening remain sketchy. The terrain is mountainous, temperatures are subzero, and the constant exchange of fire means there are no independent reporters in the region. All we have is what the Turkish army and sources close to the PKK tell us and, perhaps predictably, the information conflicts. The Turks say five of its troops have been killed in action, the PKK puts that figure at twenty. The Turks say they've killed 24 fighters, the PKK says it has no losses. Who to believe?

Alone in its opposition to the incursion was Birgün, which carried the headline "No! - to war, to conditions of war, to the noise of war". It says the land operation will "affect our side of the border more than it does the other. The powers of peace and democracy are wary for young lives and the spirirt of living among one another." There is, in this, a message that is conceded even by Turkish generals: Turkey's Kurdish problem cannot be solved purely by military means.

Murat Yetkin writes in today's Radikal that the time is right to take measures "other than military steps, to take political, legal and economic steps to combat those conditions that create the PKK." Iraqi president Jalal Talabani was invited yesterday to Ankara, he says, with this in mind. This diplomacy is perhaps more important than the strikes.

Turkey has so far been playing this effectively, and by the book. The current operation is expected to last a fortnight; there might be more to follow in the coming months. But it is vital not to lose perspective, and ensure that any solution is a lasting one. Diplomacy and reform is the way to do it.

Monday, 18 February 2008

A moment of hope for Cyprus

On a day when the world was more occupied by more momentous events in another part of Europe, there has been a subtle change on the island of Cyprus.

The Greek, southern, internationally recognised part of the island was holding presidential elections that would effectively determine the next five years of relations with the north. The incumbent running for re-election, Tassos Papadopoulos, was by no means a shoo-in, but he was leading all the opinion polls. They turned out to be wrong - Mr Papadopoulos came third in today's vote and failed to progress to next week's run-off.

Greek Cypriots will choose next Sunday between Ioannis Kasoulides, a former foreign minister, and Demetris Christophias, leader of the communist AKEL party. Both have said they want to restart talks with the Turkish north, after negotiations stalled in the latter years of the Papadopoulos administration.

The precise policy of the eventual winner will not be clear for a while. Just 900 votes separated Mr Kasoulides and Mr Chirstophias today; as both will be courting Mr Papadopoulos's supporters over the coming week, neither is likely to detail their plans for talks or reunification. But it is an encouraging result. Turnout was very high - at almost 90 percent - and more than two-thirds voted for the top two candidates, which shows that Greek Cypriot voters strongly favour a more conciliatory approach to the Cyprus problem.

What is certain is that Mr Papadopoulos will not be Cypriot president come next week. He is no loss. He was a source of frustration not just for leaders in Turkey, who found EU accession chapters suspended on his insistence, but also for leaders in Europe, who felt betrayed by his opposition to the Annan plan for Cypriot reunification in 2004. His pledges for a second term offered little change from this approach, and Cypriot voters have now told him what they think of them.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Headscarves at universities

As I write, a second round of voting is underway in Turkey for the easing of the headscarf ban in universities. The bill has the support of the governing Justice and Development (AK) and opposition Nationalist Action (MHP) parties. It will pass, just like a first round did earlier in the week. The real question is what happens next.

Normal procedure is for laws such as this - a constitutional ammendment - to be taken directly to the president, Abdullah Gül, who can either approve it or exercise his one-time veto. It won't be that simple this time, because the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) says it will take the bill to the Constitutional Court, arguing the bill itself infringes the constitution. Once again we return to a situation where a panel of judges hold a remarkable say over a major political issue.

But is it a political issue? The protestors gathered outside parliament today certainly think so. The MPs voting inside the chamber certainly think so. But we're talking here about relaxing a ban on a choice of clothing that prevents a group of women from attending university - it is surely a social question too.

To isolate the matter for just one moment: there should be no question of whether women should be allowed to wear their headscarves at university. If it represents a personal faith, it should be no obstacle to education. But like so many things in Turkey, this is a highly symbolic issue, and secularists say it goes to the root of everything Turkey stands for.

There is no doubt that secularism has made Turkey unique. From an empire that even at its weakest was the indisputed leader of the Islamic world, it was transformed into a nationalist republic, its religious element entirely removed, and set firmly on a westward course. The Turkey of today is an official candidate for EU membership. Never before has a country so predominantly Muslim been this close to a group of countries that so predominantly are not. There is no other country in the world like it, and secularists are rightly proud of that.

But for all its benefits, Turkish secularism does not help illuminate the boundary where public life ends and personal life begins. Universities represent part of that boundary: are they public spaces that should be religion-neutral, or centres of learning where personal faith is irrelevant?

Many headscarf-wearing women do, it is true, attend university. While some fumble with wigs, others just remove the scarf before entering the classrom and put it back on immediately after leaving. There was even talk last summer of lecturers at Sabancı University in Istanbul who cast a blind eye at those who sport it.

Two major issues that exist in Turkey have been exposed by this latest debate. They are issues that will not be resolved anytime soon.

The first is the secular structure itself. Many in Turkey would have you believe that secularism is the country's most important principle. It supercedes everything else, they say, including democracy if necessary. The army chief, Yaşar Büyükanıt, frequently warns that "secularism is becoming a matter for debate", implicitly suggesting that it shouldn't be. He is wrong.

Turkey's secularism is not sanctified, it should be justified. The concept of keeping apart mosque and state should be explored and debated, not committed to memory in endless platitudes. Part of the reason for hawkish generals and Ataturk statues is an intrinsic fear that the system could be lost. The way to prevent that is to talk about it rather than defend it with a gun.

The second issue is the oil-and-water manner in which politicians operate in Turkey. Today's response to the long-running headscarf debate has been typically Turkish: a decree from above is made, and those below are left to sort out the details. There was a small cry that the AK-MHP committee putting together the bill contained not one woman, but then again, there isn't a single woman MP in parliament who wears a headscarf. There couldn't be.

What politicians in this country have yet to understand is that social politics involves actually talking to those people whose lives you intend to change. This would mean public consultations, campus debates with ministers, perhaps even a televised seminar or two attended by the prime minister - the kind of thing at which European hearts beat a little faster. Mr Erdoğan himself attended a meeting with Turkish students and German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin yesterday. He looked uncomfortable, but he was there. He wouldn't do the same thing in Turkey.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

A crash course in Turkey's headscarf debate

Not for the first time in recent Turkish politics, the headscarf is all anyone can talk about. That piece of fabric that Muslim women use to wrap around their heads has been banned in universities and public buildings de jure since 1980, and de facto since 1997, meaning that Turkish women wearing it are not allowed to work in most civil service positions. Many, including the president's wife, were given a place at university but were unable to go because of the headwear.

The issue has been raised very often over the last decade, in particular since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK) came to power in 2002. But for all the fierce political debate, there have been few attempts to find a political solution. That is, until a couple of weeks ago, when one party took the initiative. Perhaps surprisingly, it was not AK who piped up. If they had, it surely would have triggered accusations of a hidden Islamic agenda faster than it takes to wrap a headscarf.

No, it was Devlet Bahçeli and his right wing Nationalist and Action Party (MHP) who first said some arrangement had to be made. AK officials jumped at the opportunity and now, two weeks later, we have a bill that would lift the ban on wearing the most basic form of headscarf in Turkish universities.

The changes involve modifying two articles of the constitution, which concern equality before the law and the rights to education, to say that no person shall be deprived of an education except for reasons openly laid out in the law. There is a more explicit revision to the law for higher education, which says: "No-one shall be deprived of their right to higher education because their head is covered, nor can any enforcement or arrangement be made in this regard. However, the covering of the head must leave the face open and allow for the person to be identified, and must be tied beneath the chin."

Voting takes place in parliament at the end of next week. Together, AK and MHP have enough of a majority to pass the bill through, although they have been lobbying the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and the small left wing DSP to come on board. The CHP's Hakkı Suha Okay described the proposal as "insufficient", and added, somewhat bizarrely, that the AK and MHP had clearly not come to any consensus on how to solve the problem. He also confirmed a return to their tactics of last spring, saying that they would fulfil their duty of opposition by challenging the bill in the Supreme Court, after it passes. The DSP were a little more cooperative, refraining from comment until they had reviewed the proposal.

The process is by no means over - President Abdullah Gül has hinted at putting the matter to referendum even if the bill passes, and there is little appetite for that in any party - but it is nevertheless encouraging that the matter is being discussed, the CHP's guerilla threats aside, in such a mature manner.

The Turkish headscarf debate is complicated by the fact that there are more styles than just the loose headscarf and the full veil. Under the new arrangement, Mr Gül's wife, Hayrünnisa (pictured at the start of this article), would still not be permitted to enroll at a university, because her choice of headscarf covers the neck. Rather, it will be the so-called "traditional" style of headscarf that is permitted. No-one knows precisely what that is, although some media outlets have dubbed it the "grandmother headscarf", in reference to what is predominant among Turkey's OAPs.

A firm definition of what separates a headscarf (başörtü) from what Mrs Gül is wearing will not be decided until later. How, for instance, should the headscarf be tied under the chin: in a knot, as is popular in the countryside or in the home, or with a special kind of pin, which is more widespread in the cities and tightens the scarf around the face?

The word "secularist" in Turkey is a collective term that tends to refer to the Turkish state, the CHP, and the army, although definitions vary (the MHP would describe itself as 'secularist' too - but then again, so would AK). These secularists argue, with some degree of justification, that the headscarf has become a symbol of political Islam. They point to the fact that some women attend university wearing wigs over their headscarves which makes it not a symbol of faith but a blatant protest. CHP leader Deniz Baykal YESTERDAY described it as a "foreign uniform" and the entire issue as "an incident provoked from outside the country, an Arab symbol targetting the secular Turkish republic."

Part of the secularist position is that the whole point of a Muslim headscarf is to conceal a woman's beauty, rather than becoming an accessory for it. Why, they ask, is there a whole industry in headscarf fashion (see right)? They say the whole concept is paradoxical and only reinforces the argument that it is a political symbol.

There is also the open-ended question of where it will all end. Now that the first lady sports a headscarf, and universities might be permitting them, there is a fear that the next step will only further dismantle Atatürk's legacy.

That doesn't seem likely at the moment. Government spokesman Cemil Çiçek told this morning's Hürriyet in the clearest terms I have ever seen him speak that the restriction would be lifted solely for universities, and not for public offices or primary and secondary schools. He said the permitted headscarf would be tied beneath the chin, and revealed that they were even thinking of attaching photographs of a regulation headscarf to the law.

There is a lot of scaremongering going on, and Radikal's front page today played very effectively on it by modifying Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream" to wear a headscarf, under the headline "Republic of fear". With the army openly opposed, AK are being very careful. But in this ruling, they might succeed.

Headscarf photos from here, here, here and here.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

What was the point?

Before and after: this is what Cardiff's memorial to the Armenian victims of 1915 now looks like. It had been unveiled at a ceremony I attended in November, to the accompaniment of noisy Turkish protests. At the time, I wrote there had been "no incursion into the temple, nor any attempt to reach or deface the memorial."

It appears the cross on the khatchkar was smashed off the stone with a hammer on Saturday night, before a ceremony the following morning to mark Britain's Holocaust Memorial Day. The damaged cross were abandoned at the scene, and has been taken away for prints. There is a police investigation underway, although it appears the nearest CCTV cameras were pointing in the wrong direction at the time.

The Wales-Armenia Solidarity group called it "a despicable racist attack" and called on the British government and the Turkish Embassy to condemn it. Eilian Williams, from the society, said he blamed Hal Savaş and his Committee for the Protection of Turkish Rights, who organised the Turkish protest at the November unveiling.

A press officer at the Turkish Embassy in London, who would not give me his name, told me he had seen the story carried in some Turkish newspapers today, but had no comment of his own to make. When pressured on whether it was a regrettable incident in terms of Turkish-Armenian relations, he said: "We think it is regrettable that there was a memorial built there in the first place."

Stephen Thomas, director at the Temple of Peace where the memorial is based, said Sunday's service "wasn’t specific to the Armenians", but it featured a reading to mark the assassination of Hrant Dink. The first anniversary of his death was the previous weekend, and there were tense protests in Istanbul for it.

It was an ugly attack and surely took any wind out of the Turkish protest planned to take place during the service. Mr Savaş was there at the service, rather than leading the protest. He told the South Wales Echo: "Whoever has done it should be ashamed of themselves. We would condemn any damage done to any religious monument."

It is unclear whether anyone will be caught, but it is even less clear why the attack took place at all. The finger can easily pointed at extreme Turkish nationalist groups - to put it politely, such circles can be irrational on occasion - but destroying a cross in some far-off country is utterly pointless. The perpetrators were hardly even recognised for it: Milliyet covered the story deep on an inside page; few other papers bothered. Coverage was scant in Britain too, save the BBC and South Wales Echo.

The blunt reality is that the right people simply don't care. If there needs to be change in Turkish-Armenian relations, it has to come from the top. But Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is busy lifting restrictions on headscarves in universities, and Armenia is in the midst of presidential elections. The Cardiff incident is just another episode of mudslinging.

As it did in November, the plain piece of Welsh stone symbolises the gulf between Turkey and Armenia. Sunday went to show once again that it will not be bridged any time soon.

Second photo from the BBC News article "Memorial to 'genocide' vandalised", published Monday 28 January 2008.

James in Turkey took a very long break from November, involving lots of research and reading, as well as the occasional fish supper by the Bosphorus. Normal service - if there ever was such a thing - resumes now.