ANKARA Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was quoted in the Financial Times on Wednesday as saying he wanted to lift the ban on the Islamic headscarf in universities as part of a planned constitutional overhaul.
The remarks by Erdogan, whose Islamist-rooted AK Party won a new five-year mandate in July elections, could reignite tensions with Turkey's powerful secular elite, including army generals, which suspects him of wanting to boost the role of religion.
"The right to higher education cannot be restricted because of what a girl wears. There is no such problem in Western societies but there is a problem in Turkey and I believe it is the first duty of those in politics to solve the problem," he told the FT in an interview in Ankara.
The secularists regard the headscarf as a symbolic threat to Turkey's separation of state and religion. They also fear any lifting of the ban would put social pressure on uncovered women to start wearing the headscarf in overwhelmingly Muslim Turkey.
But the AK Party says it is a question of freedom of expression and notes that the garment was only banned from university campuses in 1982 after a military coup.
Erdogan's government has pledged to replace Turkey's military-era constitution with a new charter that puts the focus on individual rights and freedoms and is more in line with the requirements of the European Union, which Ankara aims to join.
"We want a constitution that is going to provide and protect a state that is a democratic, secular, social state of law," Erdogan told the FT.
"This constitution is going to point Turkey in a certain direction and it is our duty to debate it and consult with people in the widest possible sense," he said.
The AK Party is currently debating a draft text drawn up by a team of legal experts but Turkish media say it is still divided over how to broach the headscarf issue in the charter.
Turkey's military, which views itself as the ultimate guarantor of the secular order, is closely watching the debates, as are nervous financial markets. Ten years ago the army, with strong public support, ousted a government seen as too Islamist.