Turkey Ends Attempt to Lift Islamic Head Scarf Ban in Universities

Turkey's ruling party has dropped for now its attempts to lift a decades-old ban on wearing Islamic head scarves in universities, a campaign that infuriated defenders of the country's secular principles and nearly brought down the government.

Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek signaled Thursday the government would not push for a fresh round of legislation to lift the head scarf ban, a day after the country's top court narrowly decided not to shut down the ruling party on grounds that it was trying to impose an Islamic regime.

"The head scarf issue is not on our agenda now," Cicek told private NTV television in an interview.

Turkey's constitution enshrines a secular system introduced by the country's modern founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government, which has its roots in Turkey's Islamic movement, is locked in a power struggle with secularists backed by the military and the judiciary who claim the government is trying to roll back secular traditions.

A recent attempt by the ruling party to lift the headscarf ban was knocked down by the country's highest court on grounds it was anti-secular.

Then on Wednesday, the Constitutional Court turned down a case brought by Turkey's chief prosecutor asking the high court to disband Erdogan's Justice and Development Party and bar him and 70 other party members from joining any other political party for five years. President Abdullah Gul was also on the prosecutor's list.

The ruling party narrowly escaped the ban, with six of the 11 judges on the court voting to dissolve it, one less than the seven votes needed. However, the court cut off millions in state aid to the party in a serious warning to respect secularism.

Erdogan assured Turks Thursday that his government was loyal to Ataturk's principles.

"The Turkish republic — as a democratic, secular state governed by the rule of law — will continue, without stopping, on its path toward modernity that Ataturk guided it on," the prime minister said in his monthly televised address to the nation. "There is no turning back."

The Islamic head scarf issue carved out a deep divide in the mainly Muslim but secular country. Opponents of the ban say it is an issue of freedom for women who have been barred from studies or state jobs because of their attire. Others say the scarf is a political symbol that augurs the imposition of Islam at the expense of secular traditions.

The top court's decision not to shut down the ruling party averted political and economic chaos for the country that is vying for membership in the European Union and came as a reprieve for Erdogan and his allies.

A ban would have severely damaged Turkey's image as a democracy because the governing party won a landslide in elections last year. EU leaders had said the party's fate should be decided by voters, not judges.

Sadullah Ergin, deputy leader of the ruling party, said the party's role in promoting EU membership proves it is not anti-secular.

"We are the party that has contributed the most to Turkey's European Union membership goal," Ergin told CNN-Turk television. "We have worked day and night for it. How can we be the focal point of anti-secular activity?"

With the uncertainties posed by the closure case over, stocks and the local currency both strengthened on Thursday.

Many expressed relief at the court's ruling and urged Turkey to press ahead with EU-backed reforms that have been delayed partly because of the political strife and partly from Turkish skepticism about the need for changes.

The decision "not to close down the ruling Justice and Development Party has averted a political crisis in Turkey," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch. "The ruling party should honor its election promises now and revive the long-stalled reform of human rights in Turkey."