Rectors face beards crisis

May 15, 1998

Turkish academics face being forced into the centre of deepening controversy over religious dress in universities.

YOK, the ruling authority for universities, and the joint rectors' committee have said that academics who are deemed to be supporting breaches of the dress codes in universities will face sanctions.

The past few months have seen a bitter dispute at some of the largest universities between Islamic students and the governing authorities over the wearing of religious dress.

The dispute has already prompted demonstrations by thousands of Islamic students, exam boycotts and a government crisis. YOK's decision is expected to further deepen what the media has dubbed the "turban crisis".

Although Turks are predominantly Muslim, the state has been strictly secular since the foundation of the republic in 1923. The country has strict legislation forbidding religious dress in state buildings, including universities. The law affects women wearing Islamic-style headscarves and men sporting beards and turbans.

Kemal Guruz, head of YOK, said: "We are calling for a rigorous enforcement of the law on dress codes in all universities and that academics who are deemed to be supporting those who violate the law will face sanctions."

Academics could face fines, suspensions or even dismissal if they fall foul of the authorities.

The reaction by some academics was anger and shock. Law professor Istar Gozaydin, of Istanbul's Mimar Sinan University, said: "No one can force me to tell someone how they should live their lives or how they should dress. My job is not a watchman for the state, I will not do this. They can do what they want to me, as I will fight it in the courts."

An Istanbul University academic said: "It is awful, we must fight this collectively. Tensions are already high here. The authorities are rumoured to be planning to prevent these students from attending their final exams next month. With all this tension there could well be a crisis."

But Turkan Saylan of Istanbul's Cappa University believes the law enforcement is long overdue: "These violations of the laws had to be stopped one day. This is nothing to do with democracy. This new attempt by YOK is a good step for us. There may be some demonstrations but as time passes by responsible people will insist on not applying double standards, all the resistance will disappear."

In the past decade the enforcement of the dress codes was left to the discretion of individual institutions. Most rarely enforced the laws. Religiously dressed students are now a common sight but with growing government concern over rising support for religious political parties, a clampdown on Islamic activities is under way.

When the former ruling Islamic Welfare Party was closed by the supreme court earlier this year, one of the reasons given was the party's support for Islamic-dressed students. The government, which had initially opposed YOK's stance, now supports it following pressure from the army. Sami Turk, the human rights minister, said the ban was not a violation of human rights, and confirmed the government's support for it.

Dr Guruz said: "The students who are religiously dressed are an army and their dress is a kind of uniform. It threatens other secular students and the state. It is a challenge, backed by Islamic parties. This is why we must enforce this law now, it is the law of the country and it has to be enforced."

Until now the dispute has centred on the few universities that have attempted to enforce the ban. But YOK's decision to ban all religiously-dressed students from classes next academic year has fuelled fears of confrontations.

University applicants received a warning that if they succeeded in gaining a place they would have to abide by the dress laws.

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