Saturday, February 2, 2008


Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fires the opening shot during his visit to Spain for a solution to Turkey's longtime dilemma: The "headscarf issue".

He says the issue, even if the headscarf is emblematic of a certain political ideology, will be solved as soon as possible. So, one wonders if the headscarf genuinely represents a political symbol. A heated debate has already been brewing for many years. But there is another question. Do any other political symbols exist in Turkey? If so, then, what are their origins

ISTANBUL - Turkish Daily News

A man in dark sunglasses was chanting in a strong, deep voice on stage. Packed into the huge stadium, thousands holding their left fists in the air were adding their voices to the chorus of the following folk song sung spontaneously by the artist on stage: They found him lying on the ground, just lying dead in his parka. It was those criminal shootings that left him there with a bullet-riddled parka.

This was a scene in the early 1970s. The artist with the baritone voice was the late Cem Karaca, a sui generis figure, who left an indelible mark on the history of rock music in Turkey. The green parka he symbolically borrowed from Deniz Gezmiş, a prominent Marxist-Leninist activist and one of the founders of the Turkish revolutionary movement of the late 1960s, had already become one of the permanent political emblems of Turkish leftists.

The same period also witnessed the birth of another symbol of people with a distinct political proclivity. Shaped in the form of a crescent, the moustaches of Turkish
ultra-nationalists began curving around either side of the mouth toward the chin.

A couple of decades have passed, and that era has in a way come to an end. However, it was only recently that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while visiting Spain, said, "We will try to solve the headscarf issue within the framework of individual freedoms. They call it a political symbol. Even if it were a political symbol, does that give them the right to ban it?" This paved the way for a serious
discussion about ideological symbols. However, Turkey, despite having many segments in its society, has not yet developed a clear approach to how to side in that discussion. This derives mostly from the fact that while symbols define a certain segment or segments of society, they might also serve as a turnsole that is manipulated to label the very same groups. Given that fact, individual symbols or emblems are sometimes attributed with so many meanings that they further instigate
social hysteria.

Leftists' symbols


The green parka was etched in people's memories thanks to Karaca's unforgettable song. Accompanying two accessories, boots and a red scarf, the green parka was a sine qua non. Indeed communist boots were primarily accessories worn by those who would be the vanguard of a guerilla war; that would start either in the countryside or in the cities. The scarf, on the other hand, acquired symbolic meaning thanks to verses of a poem by Nazım Hikmet, the grand Turkish poet. Hikmet said, "He is walking with his forehead up in the air / He is walking step by step, with his red scarf waving in the air."

Thick moustache

There is no concrete information about why leftists in Turkey wear thick moustaches. Is it because Marx and Engels or Stalin used to have thick moustaches? Some say the Alevi faith had something to do with this political fashion statement.

Peace Symbol

Recognized around the globe, the peace symbol appeared 50 years ago. It was created by Gerald Holton, a textile designer and commercial artist from Twickenham, England in the spring of 1958 when a group of peace activists in Great Britain organized a rally against the use of nuclear weapons. Holton created the symbol by combining the letters N and D, for nuclear disarmament.

V for victory

Though the exact birth date of this gesture is not known, the hand gesture in the sign of a "V" might have been made popular by former U.K. Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill. Churchill used the V sign to symbolize "V for victory" during World War II. However, later on, the sign, ironically, began to symbolize the desire for attaining victory rather than victory itself. In Turkey, V for victory was for a time identified mostly with rallies and demonstrations, but above all, with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Left and right fists

The conventional symbol of leftist ideology around the globe for a long time was a right fist in the air with a slightly bent elbow. Big guns in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union always raised their right fists when greeting the masses gathering in squares. However, the '68 Movement, reacting against the mainstream communist parties as much as it was resisting the global capitalist system, chose for itself the left fist as a political symbol. In Turkey, while pro-Soviet and pro-China leftist groups raise the right fist in protests, other leftists groups use the left fist.

A for anarchy

The initial use of the anarchy sign was during the civil war in Spain in the 1930s, historical documents tell us. According to other historical records, an anarchist group that emerged in Brussels in 1956 began using the sign to express their political discourse. In Turkey, however, the "A for anarchy" sign, symbolizing the anti-stance of anarchists against the hegemonic system, private property, class difference and certainly the state, has recently been popularized again by fan groups of the well-known football club Beşiktaş.

Nationalist symbols:

Full-grown mustache with down-turned ends

The roots of Turkish right wing nationalists' full-grown mustache, the one that turns down at the ends, date back to times when Turks lived in Central Asia. It is said that clans of Turkic origins used to grow their mustache in that style. This type of mustache is also the subject of myriad myths. For instance, it was believed that the owner of a mustache with ends pointing beneath the chin would later become the "tribal leader." In addition, Turkish nationalists' full-grown mustache with down-turned ends at the corners of the mouth, together with the two eyebrows, make "three crescents" which is emblematic of nationalist ideology in Turkey.

Gray wolf sign

The "gray wolf" sign, a hand sign symbolizing the head of a wolf, is an attribution by Turkish nationalists to a Central Asian myth about a gray wolf. In fact, the sign was not originally created by nationalists in Turkey. Entry of the gray wolf sign into Turkey took place in 1991 when Alparslan Türkeş, the late leader of the Nationalist Movement Party MHP) of Turkey, attended a rally in Azerbaijan's capital
Baku. Masses gathered in Baku greeted him with the gray wolf sign and it was from then on that nationalists and ultra-nationalists in Turkey began to make that hand gesture.

String of beads

Turkish nationalists have lately begun resembling a stereotype. And metallic bead strands have become one of the symbols of that stereotype. But the wealthier among them are fond of silver beads. It is said that nationalists, in particular, enjoy sliding the strands between their fingers.

Long coat

Some argue that a dark long coat can substitute an Islamic cloak. Here the reference is mostly to a particular behavior by supporters of the nationalist movement in Turkey who wear such coats. Thus some even argue that this type of coat is a product of Turk-Islam synthesis. Whether it is or not, the long coats are almost the trademark of Turkish ultra-nationalists.

Islamists' symbols

Greetings with index finger

Greeting people by pointing an index finger up in air was an emblem of the Nationalist Order Party (MNP), a conservative party no longer in existence but which was active in Turkey's past political life. The use of the index finger when greeting a crowd in fact traces back to the early days of Islam. When Prophet Mohammed completed delivering his "Final Khutba"(final speech to all Muslims in 632 A.D., he asked all believers who gathered to listen to him to give their blessings to him. They then said they all gave their blessings to him. Then, Prophet Mohammed pointed his index finger up into air and asked for God's testimony.


Indeed wearing a neat and trimmed beard is a "Sunnah" literally meaning "trodden path" that represents the way Prophet Mohammed lived) in Islam. The mustache, on the other hand, should not cover the upper lip, according to Sunnah.

Takke (Coif)

The etymologic roots of the word takke, or prayer caps, in Turkish trace back to the Arabic word for the verb "protect". White takkes are preferred by Muslims. Coifs and
their equivalents were used even before Islam.

Green cloak (Jilbab)

According to information provided on various Internet sites about Islam, the descendents of Prophet Mohammed's daughter Fatima used to wear a green cloak and green turban, called "Sayyid" (for males) or "Sayyidah"(for females). In contemporary Turkey, green cloaks are mostly preferred by Menzil and İsmailağa groups of the Nakşibendi order of Sunni Islam.

99-bead tasbih

Though generally the Nakşibendi order uses the 99-bead tasbih (string of prayer beads or rosary), other devout Muslims also use such tasbihs. On top of praying five times a day, many Muslims always have their tasbih in hand, similar to the Catholic rosary, but with 99 beads, corresponding to the 99 attributes the Koran gives to God: The "Compassionate," the "Merciful"... or to the 99 times the Koran mentions the name "Allah."


It was said when Turgut Özal, a former prime minister of Turkey, was a civil servant in the State Planning Organization, the corridors of the institution were echoing
with the sound of steps taken by those wearing clogs before taking ablution for prayer. Later on, Islamic sect members trickling into the state's secular institutions were called "the ones with the clogs" which was an attribution to those
whose footsteps had resonated in the hallways of public institutions.

Çarşaf (Hijab)

In Turkey, some female members of some Islamic orders wear a large black cloth over their heads and bodies called çarşaf or hijab in Arabic. Similar to the use of prayer beads, women who are not members of particular Islamic sects also wear çarşaf
or hijab.


The latest dilemma in Turkey… Some say it is a political symbol while others say it is worn in compliance with religious beliefs. While the headscarf is described as the "latest fashion symbol" in Turkey, Erdoğan recently said even if headscarf were a political symbol, it does not give anyone any right to ban it. In present day Turkey, many women wear the headscarf employing different styles and degrees of covering.

Kurds' symbols

Green-yellow-red tricolor scarf and other items

Kurds' use of the colors green, yellow and red in a scarf or any other item date back to the Legend of Kawa the Blacksmith, a Kurdish myth that tells the story of Kaveh, written as Kawa in Kurdish. According to the myth, Kawa, who lived for 2,500
years under the tyranny of Zuhak or Dehak, an Assyrian figure, was waving his green, yellow and red leather apron during a rebellion he started and went on to win freedom against the tyrant. The three colors used together are the colors representing Kurdish nationalism.

Puşi-Poşu (Poshu)

Puşi or poşu (pronounced as poshu), the traditional Palestinian scarf or the Arabic head-dress kafiyyah, is also worn by many Kurds. Poşu, which means "to cover" is etymologically a Persian word. Poşu making has been a traditional handicraft among Armenians and Assyrians since the 16th century. Today, poşu is widely used by Kurds as well as by some other Middle East peoples. Poşu is most notably the Palestinian scarf and represents Arabic culture.

Secularists' symbol Atatürk pins

The image of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Turkish Republic, has always been used, and even sometimes manipulated, as an emblem by pro-Western and modernist segments. Nevertheless, the symbolism of Atatürk is still used by secularists against Islamists.

Symbols feed sense of belonging and identity

Professor Sibel Kalaycıoğlu, Sociology Department, Middle East Technical University (METU), Ankara

Symbols, ceremonies and rituals cannot be separated from social life. Rituals are what make a society an integrated sum of different segments. Ceremonies like weddings and funerals are special gatherings in which a set of certain symbolic patterns of behavior and rituals are observed. Such symbols and rituals as a whole function to compel individuals to be more involved with the rest of society and increase their adaptability to it through not allowing them to become just atomized persons. Thus, symbols, rituals, and ceremonies as a whole contribute to the survival of a social order. As a matter of fact, symbols are a source of acquiring a sense of belonging to a certain community or a society. They not only serve as transmitters of traditions for subsequent generations but also function as bridges between the past and present of a society. In that sense, symbols are slow to change and they even might create distinct social identities in society. Symbols do not only exist visually but also are expressed in ways of thinking and behaving. In this way, they shape the minutiae of daily life, and might even create further differences on a local level, that is to say, within small communities like neighborhoods.

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