Secular campaign revved up in Turkey

November 23, 2001

Turkey's higher education authority (Yok) has stepped up its campaign to keep Islamic influences off university campuses in the wake of September 11.

Yok's 20th anniversary this week was marked by protests across the country as students called for its abolition.

The authority has announced that a ban on headscarves worn in compliance with Muslim tradition has been extended to students taking university admission exams. Under a decree, students who passed the exam would be disqualified if it were proved that they had worn a headscarf. The decree closed a loophole that allowed students to remove their headscarves briefly to pass security checks at the doors of the exam hall. The decision has led to many students being barred from registering for university.

Yok head Kemal Guruz has said he would extend his campaign against what he called "the threat of Islamic fundamentalism".

In an address to mark the start of the academic year, Dr Guruz said Turkey faced similar threats to the United States after the attacks of September 11. "The truth of the matter is that the Turkish republic and nation have been targets of an asymmetric war taking the form of separatist, Armenian and fundamentalist movements."

Greater vigilance would be taken in the appointment of staff, he added, dismissing concerns about academic freedom. "You cannot exploit the privileges granted to university administrators, including that of appointment, in order to appoint religious fundamentalists to key positions. You cannot even permit them to enter university grounds."

Turkey, though 98 per cent Muslim, is a secular country.

The banning of headscarves has led to frequent protests by the country's Islamic movement and criticism has come from members of the ruling coalition government.

The largest demonstration took place at Istanbul University. Thousands of students called for an end to Yok and greater democracy in the way universities were run. Police broke up the protest, clubbing students indiscriminately and using tear gas. More than a dozen students were injured and nearly 100 arrested. Police action drew heavy criticism from most of the country's media.

Yok was created by a junta that seized power in a bloody coup in 1980.

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