Prospect of Devout Muslim President Divides Turkey

Protests have been growing in Turkey against the government's candidate for president. Citizens and members of the army are concerned about Abdullah Gul's Muslim roots. Many Turks fear Gul's faith will erode Turkish secularism.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

You could think of this as one of the great issues of our time, the role of religion in a state. Americans debate it; Middle Easterners sometimes die over it. And in Turkey there's growing unhappiness over a man expected to become the country's next president although he is a devout Muslim.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: That's the sound of hundreds of thousands of people who turned out for a protest demonstration yesterday in Istanbul. That's Turkey's largest city. Demonstrators praised the military and accused the government of attempting to create a pro-Islamist state. The military has been seen as a protector of secularism in Turkey.

NPR's Ivan Watson is following the story in Istanbul. And Ivan, could you just explain why this is such a big deal that someone described as a devout Muslim might become the president of Turkey.

IVAN WATSON: Well, if you ask the hundreds of thousands - nearly a million - demonstrators yesterday, they would say that this man, Abdullah Gul, the candidate for president, is trying to chip away at the secular system that they say is a founding principle of the Turkish state. And so they chanted slogans like Turkey is secular, it will remain secular, and they said things like no Mullahs, meaning Muslim religious leaders in the presidential palace.

And it was very interesting, Steve, there was a majority of women in this demonstration. They are very concerned about losing their rights if this man and his political party gain the presidency, which is traditionally held by a secular man. And they point as evidence to the fact that Abdullah Gul's wears an Islamic headscarf. If he's elected, this would be the first first lady in Turkish history to wear an Islamic headscarf in the presidential palace. And that is a very contentious issue in Turkey.

INSKEEP: Although, does the presidential contender, Abdullah Gul, want to change Turkey and it's relationship with Islam?

WATSON: Well, he has said that he is committed to secularism. But his ruling political party has pushed some Islamist policy, such as trying to promote religious education, trying to ease the ban on Islamic headscarves. At the same time, though, they've been very reform-minded. They've made joining the European Union priority number one. They've implemented democratic and human rights reforms, and they've opened up the economy to the outside world and have had unprecedented economic growth. And as a sign of the political tension now you had markets drop eight percent just this morning.

INSKEEP: Doesn't Turkey already have a prime minister with an Islamist background?

WATSON: It does. The prime minister is a moderate Islamist, but his powers have repeatedly been checked by the president, who is a very secular-minded, hard-line politician who has frequently blocked the prime minister's nominations for posts in the courts and in government.

INSKEEP: And we mentioned the praise for the military by the secular protestors. What should the military do as these presidential elections - the second round anyway - approaches?

WATSON: Well, there's a long history of military coups here. Three in the last 50 years, and the military helped overthrow a much more radical Islamist government in 1997. They came out with a midnight memorandum Friday night after the first round of elections, saying that the elections were threatening Turkey's secular system. And the military said that they were the absolute defenders of secularism and they would continue to fulfill that duty.

The fear is that their statement may have made an impact on the constitutional court, which now has been asked to rule on whether these elections are valid or not.

INSKEEP: You mean the election might not even be held on Wednesday?

WATSON: Exactly. There is a fear that if the constitutional court declares these elections invalid that the second round of elections will not take place, and instead Turkey will have to hold snap general elections.

INSKEEP: We've been listening to NPR's Ivan Watson, who's in Istanbul. Ivan, thanks very much.

WATSON: You're welcome, Steve.

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