University ban on headscarves in secular Turkey and other issues.
pfink at albanylaw.edu
Sat Feb 9 20:27:07 PST 2008
I think there is a certain sort of imperialism in Prof,. Sheridan's argument, implying that we in the US should judge Turkey by our standards. Religious freedom in this country has developed in part by allowing fairly free (but never fully free) exercise. In other nations (Mexico, France, Turkey) the history of religious oppression by the dominant group was so great that religious freedom could only be achieved by eliminating certain public displays of religious belief. This may not as absurd as it seems to us. Prof Sheridan has nice stories about Baptists churches helping people in need, and I am sure they are true. But, I have also seen "prayer at the flagpole" (often by Baptists and other evangelicals) used to oppress, isolate, and discriminate against those public school students who do not participate in the prayer at the flagpole. Turkey lived with a very oppressive tyranny of the majority for centuries; it now tells the majority it may not do some things in public. Different nations have different traditions and heritages. To use another example (and I am not comparing Ottoman Turkey to Nazi Germany, I am only using the example), Germany, although a democracy and free country does not allow free speech for Nazis. In the US we would not allow such restrictions; the Germans do because their history suggests a different route to democracy. I would not want to import the German system or the Turkish system here, but I am reluctant to condemn it without a careful evaluation of the historical circumstances that led to the current rules. It may be the rules are antiquated and stupid -- sort of like the thoroughly undemocratic and absurd way the US allocates Senators or elects its presidents -- or it may be that the Turkish system is still necessary to maintain Democracy.
President William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law
and Public Policy
Albany Law School
80 New Scotland Avenue
Albany, New York 12208-3494
pfink at albanylaw.edu
>>> Robert Sheridan <rs at robertsheridan.com> 02/09/08 9:01 PM >>>
Turkey went secular when re-constituted, under Kemal Ataturk, after
the defeat and dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire in WWI. As a
result, Muslim women students who observe a religious desire or rule
to cover their heads by wearing headscarves cannot attend university
in Turkey. Noah Feldman has an op-ed in today's NYT in which he
discusses but doesn't offer to provide a solution to this difficulty, at
He notes that Prime Minister Erdogan's daughter attended university in
the U.S. for this reason. Here she may wear the scarf.
I know a Muslim woman who promised God during a difficult childbirth
that if only things went well she'd always wear the headscarf. This
got her fired from her Christmas sales job at a large department store
chain as well as an appearance on the TV news and an appointment with
The proponents of secularism in government anywhere including here
seem to have unusual difficulty in distinguishing government as
regulator from government as provider of other services, such as
I have a friend who retired to Picayune, Mississippi, where Hurricane
Katrina smote him and his neighbors sorely. He was out of touch for
weeks. No communications, no power. Local stores were closed. What
kept him and his neighbors alive was the local Baptist church, not any
of the local, state, or federal agencies. The church set up soup
kitchens. This has made me rethink any idea of absolute separation
between church and state in an ideal world that doesn't exist. It
appears to me that, as in other areas, we need to carefully
distinguish whether the ideal of separation applies to government's
regulating power or to its support for helping to keep people alive,
an important value to me.
In wondering why Turkey has difficulty distinguishing between
secularism in lawmaking and a ban on headscarves in class, I wonder
what I'm missing, about Turkey and about us.
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