Some 125,000 flag-waving Turks, mostly women, denounced the Islamic-rooted government on Saturday over its plans to lift a decades-old ban on Islamic head scarves in universities — a move the foreign minister said would expand Turkish freedoms.
The government has defended its plan as a reform needed to bring Turkey in line with European Union human rights guidelines, but many including the country's influential military establishment see the move as a serious threat to the country's secular traditions.
The Parliament was expected to approve a series of legal amendments next week under which female students would be allowed to wear head scarves at universities as long as they tie them under the chin, leaving their faces more exposed.
The nuance was unlikely to win over many opponents who regard the head scarves as political statements. It even failed to satisfy some Islamists who staged separate protests in Istanbul and Ankara, demanding the freedom to wear a more Islamic-style head scarf that tightly covers the hair. Some of them covered their hair with paper bags in protest in Ankara.
"We want to lift all ridiculous bans in Turkey; we want everyone to freely walk and receive education, either with their miniskirts or head scarves," said Egemen Bagis, a close aide to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The government says the measure is aimed at ensuring liberties at universities, and that it intends to uphold secular principles enshrined in the constitution. But many secular women fear that allowing head scarves in universities will lead eventually to their being pressured to cover their bodies as well.
"Turkey is secular and will remain secular," the protesters chanted as they marched to the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the revered founder of modern Turkey and the symbol of its secular identity. Some 125,000 people visited the mausoleum on Saturday, the military announced on its Web site.
Many fear the government is raising the profile of Islam in this secular country and rolling back gains of the secular republic against Islamic rule during the times of the Ottoman Empire.
"I am furious over attempts to cover the republic itself," Sevgi Ozel, an author, told NTV television.
Senal Saruhan, head of the Association of Republican Women which organized the demonstration, accused the government of "exploiting religion," and thousands of protesters called on the government to resign.
Before the protest, Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said debates on the issue were "weakening Turkey's image abroad."
Police on Saturday prevented some 1,000 secular protesters who chanted "Mullahs to Iran!" from marching to the parliament. Turkey's strict secular laws separate religion and state. Some fear that, if left unchecked, Islamic fundamentalism will lead to a theocracy like that in Iran.
In the Aegean port city of Izmir, protesters from the secular Democratic Left Party burned black Islamic chadors at a main square.
"Turkey is a country which must record progress in the field of rights and freedoms, Turkey has to carry out political reforms to clinch EU membership," Babacan told reporters before flying to Saudi Arabia. "It is our government's main criteria to make people fully enjoy freedoms in Turkey in every field."
Turkey aspires to become the first Muslim member of the European Union, and has long touted itself as a bridge between the Western and Islamic worlds. The prime minister enjoys some support in Europe and the United States, where backers hold up Turkey as proof that devout Islam and democracy can be compatible.
But many opponents at home are suspicious. Erdogan had tried to criminalize adultery before being forced to back down under intense pressure from the EU.
It started with Ataturk
Beginning in 1923 in the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, Ataturk, a soldier, set about on a series of secular reforms that imposed Western laws, replaced Arabic script with the Latin alphabet, banned Islamic dress and granted women the right to vote. The head scarf ban was enforced after a military coup in 1980.
Deans of several state and private universities on Friday warned the government against approving the measure, after Erdogan's Justice and Development Party struck a deal with the Nationalist Action Party to allow women wearing head scarves on campuses.
The secular Republican People's Party strongly opposed the measure, but they lack seats to prevent the measure from being approved on the floor. However, it said it would ask the Constitutional Court to cancel the legal amendment later.
Turkey's debate over wearing headscarves grew out of tension between the Islamic-oriented government and the military-backed, secular establishment, which faced off in a struggle for political power last year. The conflict ebbed after the government scored a resounding victory in general elections and its presidential candidate, Abdullah Gul, won election on his second attempt.
The fiercely pro-secular military retains influence over politics. It staged three coups between 1960 and 1980, and pressured a pro-Islamic premier — Erdogan's mentor — out of power in 1997.
The military said Wednesday its views on the head scarf issue were well known; it strongly opposes the wearing of Islamic head scarves in universities and public offices.