ANKARA, Turkey – Some 125,000 Turks, mostly women, denounced the government on Saturday over its plans to lift a decades-old ban on Islamic head scarves at universities in the mainly Muslim but secular nation.
Many Turks, including the country's influential military establishment, see the move as a serious threat to the country's traditional separation of church and state. The government has defended its plan as a reform needed to give its citizens religious liberty and bring Turkey in line with European Union human rights guidelines
"We want to lift all ridiculous bans in Turkey; we want everyone to freely walk and receive education, either with their miniskirts or head scarves," said Egemen Bagis, a close aide to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is a devout Muslim.
The Parliament was expected to approve a series of legal amendments next week allowing female students to wear head scarves as long as they tie them under the chin, leaving more of their faces exposed.
But the nuance seemed unlikely to win over many opponents who regard the head scarves as political statements. Many secular women fear that allowing head scarves in universities will lead to their being pressured to cover their bodies as well.
"Turkey is secular and will remain secular," the protesters chanted as they marched to the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revered founder of modern Turkey and the symbol of its secular identity.
About 125,000 people visited the mausoleum on Saturday, the military announced on its Web site.
Senal Saruhan, head of the Association of Republican Women which organized the demonstration, accused the government of "exploiting religion," and thousands of protesters called on the government to resign.
Police on Saturday prevented some 1,000 protesters who chanted "Mullahs to Iran!" from marching to the parliament. The chant reflects a fear that if left unchecked, Islamic fundamentalism will lead to a theocracy like that in Iran.
In the Aegean port city of Izmir, protesters from the secular Democratic Left Party burned black Islamic chador full-body coverings at a main square.
Some Islamists staged separate protests in Istanbul and Ankara, demanding the freedom to wear a more Islamic-style head scarf that tightly covers the hair. Some of them covered their hair with paper bags at a protest in Ankara.
Turkey aspires to become the first Muslim member of the EU, and has long touted itself as a bridge between the Western and Islamic worlds. The prime minister enjoys some support in Europe and the United States, where backers hold up Turkey as proof that devout Islam and democracy can be compatible.
But many opponents at home remain suspicious of the government. Erdogan had tried to criminalize adultery before being forced to back down under intense pressure from the EU.
Wearing of head scarves in universities was first banned shortly after a military coup in 1980 but implementation of the ban has varied over the years.
The headscarf debate grew out of tension between the Islamic-oriented government and the military-backed, secular establishment, which faced off in a struggle for political power last year. The conflict ebbed after the government scored a resounding victory in general elections and its presidential candidate, Abdullah Gul, won election on his second attempt.
The fiercely pro-secular military retains influence over politics. It staged three coups between 1960 and 1980, and pressured a pro-Islamic premier — Erdogan's mentor — out of power in 1997.