Turkish reforms are blocked by secular military

October 24, 2003

The Turkish government has temporarily backed down on plans to reform higher education in the face of strong criticism from the country's powerful military.

Proposals had been drawn up by the ruling Justice and Development Party to take universities under government control, reappoint more than 20,000 academic personnel, including all deans and rectors, and permit the wearing of religious headscarves on campus.

But the Turkish army, which has overthrown three governments since 1960 and sees itself as the guardian of the 80-year-old secular republic, is suspicious of the government's Islamic roots as it regards higher education as a cornerstone of the secular state. Intense pressure from senior military figures prompted the government to postpone the reforms.

Cemil Cicek, the deputy prime minister, said the issue would be reassessed.

"There is no need for tension," he said.

Istar Gozaydin, an associate professor of law at Istanbul Technical University, said: "Hopefully this delay will give time to find a compromise but it seems neither side is interested in a compromise."

Turkey's universities are administered by higher education authority Yok, which opposes the reforms. Yok chairman Kemal Guruz said: "The government is trying to use higher education as an instrument of social change to undermine the secular state."

He said the delay in pushing through the reforms was tactical and they would be introduced at a more opportune time.

Consultations will be held with university representatives. But Dr Guruz said: "I don't expect any rector to cooperate with this government unless it totally withdraws the legislation."

That is unlikely as the government is under pressure from its supporters to reform higher education and to lift the ban on the wearing of headscarves by religious students on campus. This regulation, designed to enforce the secular character of education, led to thousands of students being dismissed from their colleges.

Nuray Mert, a sociologist at Galatasaray University, said it was wrong for students to be banned for wearing headscarves. "They are losing their right to education," she said. "Postponing the decision will not end the tension."

Turkish universities have been paralysed by debate over the reforms as a freeze on all academic appointments is in force until the legislation is passed.

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