DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
News now from one of Iraq's neighbors: Turkey. The country's military is warning parliament that it is the absolute defender of secularism. This warning comes as the country's foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, is poised to win the presidency in a parliamentary vote next week. Gul is a member of the ruling AKP Party, which has Islamist roots.
Paul De Bendern is the Ankara Bureau Chief for Reuters. The Turkish military has staged coups in the past. I asked De Bendern what the army might do if Gul is elected to office.
Mr. PAUL DE BENDERN (Ankara Bureau Chief, Reuters): It's too early to say what really is going to happen, but this statement from last night is pretty serious, in the sense that it squarely attacks the current political situation on the AKP government. They have referred to several events over the last couple of months, which they call Islamization, et cetera. And they blame it…
ELLIOTT: Like what?
Mr. DE BENDERN: Like for example, there's been a - there were killings of some Christian missionaries in Turkey about two weeks ago, where their throats were cut in the southeast of the country. And the army made a comment about that in a statement where they said that this is the indication of radical Islam in Turkey. So the army is, you know, the defenders of secularism so-called. They say that the current government is too loose when it comes to Islam and that they're trying to undermine and chip away at the secular state.
ELLIOTT: How does the government react to the statement?
Mr. DE BENDERN: So the government has been very sharp today against the army where they have condemned the army for trying to intervene in the presidential contest. They said that the armed forces chief is answerable to the prime minister and that this government is elected. So the government has criticized the army for interfering in the political process and for pressuring them to either change the candidate, i.e., not have Abdul Gul, who's the foreign minister, as a candidate anymore because he has an Islamist past, or to actually call early elections.
ELLIOTT: Abdullah Gul was considered a compromised candidate. He is identified with the liberal wing of his party. How does he see the role of Islam in the state?
Mr. DE BENDERN: Well, first of all, many people respect Gul because he's a great diplomat and he's very respected domestically and abroad, but he was always seen as having an Islamist past and being very conservative. On the other hand, he has repeatedly said that he will uphold the secular values of the state and many people believe him.
ELLIOTT: So what are the secularists worried about?
Mr. DE BENDERN: The secularists are worried that the principles of separating state and religion will disappear. In Turkey, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Ataturk took out religion from public life. He took away the turban and the headscarf. And he modernized the country. Now, the seculars - they're worried that the current government will seek to undermine the separation and that they will want to introduce, for example, lifting the ban on headscarves at universities and at public offices, and appointing, because you have to remember if you have an AKP president, they will be to approve key officials. And the secularists fear that the AKP will appoint religiously minded people in the key positions in the country.
ELLIOTT: Paul De Bendern is the Ankara Bureau Chief for Reuters. Thank you for talking with us.
Mr. DE BENDERN: Thank you.
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