Choosing not to Choose – Turkish Headscarves and Governance in Somalia

What happens when the results of democratic choice do not align with traditional democratic values, such as freedom and choice? A Feb 19 New York Times article discusses the proposed repeal of a ban on the wearing of headscarves at universities in Turkey. Those supporting the ban are concerned about the rise of Islam and their view of the modernization of Turkey. But perhaps the most democratic reaction is to let such choices be made locally, even if the appearance is to promote non-democratic ideals. This is a fascinating question and I’m not sure of right answer.

It seems like a similar dilemma to that faced by developing countries when they try and move to democratic regimes. In Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew’s move toward a more democratic system used massive non-democratic efforts to dismantle the communist opposition. His justification was that no democratic government would be brought to the fore if an open vote was held in such conditions – the risk of the communists gaining power was too great. So it seems to be the case in other countries where a move to a system of democratically elected representatives might result in the ascendancy of Shari’a law.

For example, as Ethan Zuckerman has discussed at length (here), the overthrow of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in Somalia in 2006 by apparently US aided Ethiopian forces seems like an instance of the same underlying problem. The US’s involvement appears to be a policy of ‘not Islam’ rather than the traditionally articulated policy of pro-democracy/capitalism. The UIC regime, although Shari’a, brought enough stability to the region for Bakara Market to re-emerge as a functioning market in Mogadishu for the first time since Somalia descended into anarchy in 1991.

So what’s the policy goal? Is it, as Sen suggests in Development as Freedom, increasing choice so people can “exercise their reasoned agency,” or is it eradication of safety threats, perhaps perceived as associated with the rise of Islam, or something else?

Should we be willing to accept some Shari’a law in exchange for stability – the stability that might allow a market to develop, with the consequent increase in choice and the greater communication that comes with trade? Right now US policy seems not to accept any Shari’a law but perhaps that’s not the route that best promotes democracy, our traditional and explicit foreign policy goal.

It seems to be to be a cost benefit analysis where the costs and benefits are hard to measure: whether the costs of adhering to choice will undermine the value of choice itself. Is the right outcome to respect choices the citizens make, even if the choice is to dismantle the very freedoms typically undergird democracy, such as civil rights and political freedoms, or is there a mentality that must be in place before the citizenry can be “entrusted” with democratic institutions? And if democratic ideals are not present, what is the ideology? Nationalism? This seems to be counter to Fukuyama’s prediction of the universal adoption of Western liberal values.

As a Somali commented here, “any law is better than no laws.”

Crossposted in I&D Blog

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