ISTANBUL, Turkey – Turkey's devout Muslim prime minister said Wednesday that the constitution should be changed to remove a ban at universities on head scarves, the most potent symbol of the national divide over the role of religion in politics.
A group of legislators and scholars convened by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is writing a constitution to replace one written after a 1980 coup by secularist military officers. That constitution bans head scarves in schools and government buildings, alienating many of the observant Muslims who support Erdogan's Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party.
Asked at a news conference whether he wanted the new constitution to include an article removing the head scarf ban, Erdogan said: "We have said this many times so far. We are talking about freedoms."
Turkey's 70 million people are predominantly Muslim but many have secular lifestyles. The military sees itself as the guardian of the nation's secular traditions, and has ousted four governments since 1960.
This year, a rising class of devout Muslims struggled for control with the secular elite — Turkey's traditional power holders.
The struggle was fueled when the Islamic-leaning government put forth a presidential candidate, Abdullah Gul, whose wife wears a head scarf. Secularists were horrified by the prospect of a first lady in Islamic attire, and Gul's first attempt at the presidency was blocked by an opposition that feared he would back any government attempt to impose Islamic values.
Millions took to the streets in protest and the military threatened to intervene to protect the secular system. Many Turks worried about political chaos that could undermine the economy, or even a military coup aimed at preserving secular ideals at the expense of democracy.
Erdogan re-nominated Gul after Justice and Development won its second mandate in July, and Gul was elected by parliament in August.
Gul and Erdogan have said they are not Islamic fundamentalists, citing their promotion of reforms to advance Turkey's bid to join the European Union. But they have also sought to improve ties with the Islamic world, including with hard-line nations like Syria.