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Turkish court refuses to lift ban on Muslim scarf

Arguing that it is against the principles of secularism

Lifting a ban on women wearing the Muslim headscarf at university violates Turkey's secular constitution, the country's top court said on Wednesday, defending a decision against the ruling AK Party.

In a legal reasoning that appeared to end any hope for the Islamist-rooted AK Party to revive the sensitive headscarf issue, the Constitutional Court said that while wearing a headscarf was "an individual choice and a freedom", lifting the ban was "openly against the principles of secularism".

The Constitutional Court, a bastion of Turkey's secular founding principles, overturned in June a constitutional amendment sponsored by the AK Party to lift the restriction, but only issued its long-awaited reasoning on Wednesday.

The AK Party, which denies accusations by secularist opponents of harboring an Islamist agenda, said it would respect the constitution. It had first reacted angrily to the ruling, accusing the court of violating the constitution.

"We do not have any intention of undermining the republic's essential principles," Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin said.

The headscarf issue is one of the most highly charged in Turkey, a predominantly Sunni Muslim country with a secular constitution, and has long been a source of political instability in the European Union applicant.

The AK Party, which has its roots in political Islam, sees it as a question of religious freedom, while secularists see it as proof the government wants to impose sharia law by stealth. The party repeatedly denies those charges.

The AK Party, which has a huge majority in parliament, passed the amendment earlier this year, angering a secularist establishment of judges and army generals.

Another attempt to lift the headscarf ban would require a constitutional reform and broad social consensus, an unlikely event in a country deeply polarized over the role of Islam.

"The amendments in articles 10 and 42 are openly against the principle of secularism because procedurally they mean using religion as a tool in politics, and breach other people's rights and cause public disorder by content," the court said.

The headscarf reform was seen as a catalyst for a separate case, in which the same court narrowly voted in July not to close the AK Party on charges of Islamist activities. The court is expected to issue the reasoning of that case this week.