Turkey Offers Legal Assistance to Turkish Citizens Affected by the European Court of Justice Ruling That Companies Can Ban Employees from Wearing Visible Religious Symbols as the Muslim Headscarf
Date: March 30, 2017
European Court of Justice Ruling on Headscarves Sparks Ire in Turkey
By Riada Asimovic Akyol – March 21, 2017
On March 14, the European Court of Justice made a controversial ruling, stating that companies are permitted to ban employees from wearing visible religious symbols such as the Islamic headscarf. The decision from Europe’s top court came after two women were fired because they refused to take off their headscarves at workplaces in France and Belgium.
Many right-wing political actors praised the court’s decision, while human rights groups and liberal media criticized the ruling. While the European court claimed neutrality for not singling out Muslims and argued no direct discrimination, it was impossible to evaluate the court’s decision independently from increasingly hostile, anti-Muslim atmosphere in Europe and the fact that ruling was brought after two Muslim women filed complaints.
In Turkey, the European court’s decision was condemned as “scandalous” by the pro-government media and reopened a long-standing wound.
The headscarf issue is one of the most sensitive and politicized issues in recent Turkish history, and one of the most powerful symbols of past secularist authoritarianism and discrimination against religious conservatives.
Turkey’s religious conservatives remember another case related to the headscarf from another European court, the European Court of Human Rights. In 2005, that court made a ruling on a lawsuit that medical student Leyla Sahin brought against the Turkish state. She challenged a Turkish law, which at the time banned wearing the Islamic headscarf at universities and other educational and state institutions. To the dismay of Turkey’s religious conservatives, however, the European Court of Human Rights sided with Turkey’s draconian secularism.
Sahin is now a parliamentary deputy for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party. On March 15, she called the March 14 European Court of Justice decision a “political, wrong and unacceptable decision.” She said, “This is Europe’s Feb. 28,” referring to Turkey’s Feb. 28, 1997, “postmodern coup” era when similar decisions prevailed.
Soon after the European court’s ruling, reactions of harsh disapproval poured from numerous Turkish government officials. Among the first to react was Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag, who said March 15: “To force people to make a choice between their faith and work does not befit the dignity of the democratic state of law. It is of great primitiveness and is a greatly outdated practice. It carries no other meaning but as a resurrection of a medieval mentality in the 21st century at the hand of the courts.”
Several ministries, parliamentary commissions and deputies published statements in the media, reproaching what they mostly saw as an unacceptable decision primarily targeting Muslims and as being part of a rising Islamophobic, hypocritical tide of double standards on democracy in Europe.
Among them was Minister of Family and Social Affairs Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, who has been the heart of attention recently after she was blocked from entering the Turkish Consulate in Rotterdam on March 11 and was deported from Netherlands. She said, “Europe, which tells us it is the defender of women’s rights, and which frequently waves its finger at us on this topic, is now forcing Muslim women in Europe to make a choice between their careers and beliefs.”
The Women and Democracy Association (KADEM), a nongovernmental association known for being close to the Turkish government, joined the critics by issuing a public statement in which it argued that Europe has surrendered to xenophobia, Islamophobia, racism, fascism and enmity when it comes to Turks. The group said employers, government and the European Court of Justice should not be deciding the issue. “Women, with headscarves or not, should make their own decisions about how they work,” KADEM said.
Turkey was determined not only to condemn the decision, but also to aid those affected by it.
While denouncing the European court’s decision, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said Turkey would stand behind all those suffering from the ruling and provide legal help. According to information released March 16, Turkey will provide legal support to Turkish citizens living in France and Belgium by assigning a lawyer free of charge if a person is fired as a result of wearing a headscarf. Moreover, Justice Ministry said the citizens in question would be able to benefit from legal aid via Turkish consulates in such cases.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already begun to use the headscarf ban decision as ammunition for his campaign for an April 16 referendum that would give the Turkish presidency far greater executive powers. As Abdulkadir Selvi, a government-leaning columnist in the daily Hurriyet, wrote, “Erdogan is a leader born from the ashes of Feb. 28. Will the [religious] conservative voter, unable to forget the headscarf oppression from Feb. 28, not hold Europe accountable for headscarf ban?”
At a rally in Sakarya town March 16, Erdogan accused the top EU court of not upholding freedom of religion, adding harshly, “They have commenced a struggle between the cross and crescent. There is no other explanation than this. I am saying this clearly: Europe is heading toward the days just before World War II.”
A day later, on March 17, at a public gathering in Eskisehir, Erdogan again slammed the European court’s decision. “We are sick of this,” Erdogan said loudly. “You said, ‘There is freedom of religion, freedom of faith!'” he continued, while adding, “I dare you to ban the skullcap!”
It is unclear whether the president was aware or not that the court’s decision gives employers the right to ban all visible religious symbols, which would also include the Jewish kippa. (The Conference of European Rabbis condemned the court’s decision in a March 14 statement.) But Erdogan consciously emphasized the European court’s decision as targeting Muslim women in Europe, thus worsening the familiar pains of many Turkish religious conservatives, whose retribution could result in a “Yes” vote in the referendum.
From a legal point of view, the decision of the European Court of Justice stands in stark contrast with decisions on similar cases by the US Supreme Court that have upheld religious freedom over an illiberal notion of secularism. The March 14 European court decision, in other words, does not represent the whole Western world, let alone the world of “the Cross.”
Yet such nuances are easily lost in today’s Turkey. What rather resonates is the political propaganda that the West is always unfair to Muslims — which gets vindicated by some real example of unfairness, including this latest European court decision on “religious symbols.”
Turkey & The European Union – Negotiations were started with Turkey and the EU on 3 October 2005and out of 35 Chapters necessary to complete the accession process, 16 have been opened and one has been closed. The membership bid is a controversial topic of the ongoing enlargement of the European Union. On 24 November 2016 the European Parliament voted to suspend accession negotiations with Turkey over human rights and rule of law concerns, however this decision is not binding. On 13 December, the European Council (comprising the heads of state or government of the member states) resolved that it would open no new areas in Turkey’s membership talks in the “prevailing circumstances”, as Turkey’s path toward autocratic rule makes progress on EU accession impossible. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accession_of_Turkey_to_the_European_Union