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Friday, May 7, 1999 Published at 16:42 GMT 17:42 UK

World: Europe

Analysis: A headscarf too far?

Merve Kavakci caused uproar at parliament's opening session

By Regional Analyst Pam O'Toole

The Turkish authorities have moved to close down one of the country's main parliamentary parties, the pro-Islamic Virtue Party, saying its activities violate Turkey's secular and democratic principles.

The party has been under threat of closure for some months, but the new move against it appears to have been triggered by a row over whether or not one of its new MPs should be allowed to wear an Islamic-style headscarf while taking the oath of office in parliament.

Her stand is being regarded as a political challenge to the secular principles upon which the Turkish Republic was founded.

The headscarf issue has become a symbol of the simmering confrontation between secularist and pro-Islamic forces in Turkey.

The army's role

Secularism was one of the main pillars of the modern Turkish state set up by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s.

[ image: The Turkish army's top brass also witnessed the dispute]
The Turkish army's top brass also witnessed the dispute
Turkey's powerful military, which regards itself as the guardian of Ataturk's legacy, regards pro-Islamic parties like Virtue as one of the main threats facing the Turkish Republic. It was responsible for forcing Virtue's predecessor, the Welfare Party, out of power in 1997.

Welfare was closed down early last year. Its leader, Necmettin Erbakan and several of its MPs were barred from public office for five years. Nevertheless, the majority of Welfare Party MPs managed to hold onto their seats by transferring to the new Virtue Party, which tried to present itself as a more moderate force than its predecessor.

Despite calls for its closure, Virtue managed to survive long enough to fight the general elections in April. It failed to repeat its 1995 election victory, winning only 15% of the vote.

However, when a Virtue Party MP, Merve Kavakci, tried to take her oath of office in a headscarf, it stirred up a major political controversy.

'Holy war'

Although the headscarf is widely worn in rural areas of Turkey, which is almost entirely Muslim, the secular elite regards it as a political symbol of Islamic fundamentalism and bans its use in universities and offices.

[ image: Deputies of the Democratic Left Party denounced Ms Kevakci's actions]
Deputies of the Democratic Left Party denounced Ms Kevakci's actions
The MP's refusal to compromise has rekindled allegations that Virtue is no less extreme a party than its predecessor.

The enraged Turkish establishment reacted by threatening to charge her with sedition. Their case has been bolstered by reports in Turkish newspapers, which maintain that in an address to a conference in the United States, Ms Kavakci had described her mission as a 'holy war'.

Political ban

Ms Kavakci has pledged to make another attempt to take her oath of office next week, but the Turkish authorities are now moving not only to close down her party, but to remove all its MPs from parliament and ban them from politics for five years.

If the courts decide there's a direct link between Virtue and the banned leaders of the former Welfare party, they will be able to establish that there's been a clear violation of the law.

It is likely to be months before the courts come to any decision but if they issue a closure order, by-elections for the party's 110 parliamentary seats would follow within three months.

The confrontation with Virtue has become a major issue in Turkish politics. With no sign of any compromise so far, the row is likely to continue and to complicate Prime Minister Ecevit's efforts to set up a coalition government.

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