By Paul de Bendern
ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish President Abdullah Gul said on Friday he backed the Islamist-rooted governmentâ€™s proposal to lift a ban on the wearing of the Islamic headscarf in universities, a move opposed by the secular establishment.
â€œUniversities should not be places of political controversy, beliefs should be practiced freely at universities,â€ Gul, a former foreign minister in the AK Party government, told a conference in his home town Kayseri.
As head of state, Gul is expected to be neutral in political disputes but his support for the government on the headscarf issue is no surprise, given his past in political Islam.
Last year the secular elite, which includes army generals and judges, tried to block Gulâ€™s election as president because of his past and the fact his own wife wears the headscarf.
The crisis forced Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a close ally of Gul, to call early parliamentary elections that their AK Party won resoundingly.
The popular pro-business, centre-right AK Party and a key opposition party agreed on Thursday to cooperate to lift the ban on women students wearing headscarves in universities.
The ban will still apply to teachers and to women working in public offices.
â€œItâ€™s a good step but not sufficient because after graduating women will be faced with the same problem again. If they become doctors they wonâ€™t be able to wear the headscarf at state hospitals,â€ said Fatma Disli, a columnist at the English language newspaper Todayâ€™s Zaman.
â€œThis is not a final solution,â€ she told Reuters.
The AK Party, backed by the nationalist MHP opposition party, is expected to present the constitutional amendments shortly to parliament. Together, they have sufficient votes to get the amendment approved.
The role of religion has been a polarizing issue in mainly Muslim Turkey since the founding of the secular republic in 1923 on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. The current headscarf ban in universities dates back to a court ruling in 1989.
The move could increase political tensions in Turkey, a candidate for European Union membership, analysts say. Financial markets are closely watching the headscarf debate.
The secular elite views the ban as vital for the separation of state and religion in the mainly Muslim but constitutionally secular country.
The secularists accuse the AK Party of plotting to boost the role of Islam in Turkey, a claim Erdogan and his party deny.
â€œThis trend is one towards religious dictatorship. Turkeyâ€™s problem is that religion is used as a tool in politics,â€ said Sabih Kanadoglu, a retired supreme court chief prosecutor, according to the CNN Turk broadcasterâ€™s website.
Some secularists fear any relaxation of the ban would put pressure on women to wear the headscarf against their will.
â€œI donâ€™t think we should make such predictions. If such things happen people can go to court or to the police to take action but we cannot deny people their rights because of predictions,â€ said the columnist Disli, who wears the headscarf.
The powerful military, which views itself as the ultimate guarantor of Turkeyâ€™s secular order, has not yet commented but is unlikely to welcome the latest moves.
The army has ousted four democratically elected governments in the past 50 years, most recently in 1997 when with public support it drove out a cabinet it viewed as too Islamist.
The AK Party insists that wearing the headscarf is a matter of personal freedom in a country where two-thirds of women cover their heads. Opinion polls show strong public support for lifting the ban.
An increasingly wealthy but pious middle class is emerging in Turkey and it wants to practice its religion more freely.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)