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Turkey's Foreign Minister Denies Islamic Agenda

Turkey's foreign minister Abdullah Gul in an interview with VOA denied opposition charges that his Justice and Development Party is seeking a greater role for Islam in the government. He was speaking just days after he withdrew his candidacy to become Turkey's new president because of a legal challenge mounted by his pro-secular opponents. From the Turkish capital Ankara, Amberin Zaman has details for VOA.

Nibbling on pastries and sipping tea at his quietly elegant residence in Ankara's Cankaya neighborhood, foreign minister Abdullah Gul looks remarkably relaxed, even cheerful. He betrays none of the political turmoil of the past two weeks that has engulfed his ruling Justice and Development Party - a wave of mass protests and threats of intervention by the Turkish military on the grounds that it is leading Turkey towards Islamist rule.

Gul tells VOA in an interview that, if the ruling Justice and Development Party, better known as "AK," had a "hidden Islamist agenda," why was it working so hard to get Turkey into the European Union?

"First of all we the AK party and this government, my government, we succeeded to start the accession negotiations with the EU. There were two critical moments in 2004 and in 2005, to start the negotiations with EU, at the last moment we secured this and we anchored Turkey in European structures," Gul said. "If we tried hard and succeeded this, how can you imagine that we have a hidden agenda. In order to start the accession negotiations there was only one condition. The condition was to fulfill the Copenhagen [political] criteria in Turkey. Therefore so many reform packages have been passed in this country. All these reform packages were related to political issues, to democratic standards and to the adoption of European style democracy in this country. We have passed so many so many legislations. We changed the constitution. We lead [led] all these things. Why should we do all this if we have a hidden agenda?"

Since coming to power four years ago, the government has adopted a wide range of reforms that convinced the European Union to open long delayed membership talks with Turkey in 2005. The death penalty has been scrapped. The country's estimated 12 million Kurds enjoy greater cultural autonomy. Women no longer require permission from their husbands to seek employment.

Yet over the past two weeks hundreds of thousands of Turks have taken to the streets to protest the government on the grounds that it is undermining the pro-secular tenets of the constitution laid down by the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk. Many of the demonstrators were women. They did not want their country to be represented by a First Lady who covers her head.

Gul's wife, Hayrunnisa, wears the Islamic headscarf that is banned in government offices and schools.

The foreign minister insists that his wife's headscarf is a symbol of piety and has nothing to do with political Islam. He asks for respect for her choice, adding that his government has never interfered with the private lives of its citizens.

"Well its obvious is there any single proof legislation, government decree that we imposed religious rules on the people? We have been in the government four and a half years and very powerful. We have the absolute majority in the parliament," Gul said. "Did we do anything or did they discover at the last moment something we were preparing to impose on the people? No. Just before the presidential election I declared a new reform package. It was the adoption of the EU acquis in Turkey. That was the calendar. So, therefore, I am really having difficulty understanding all this."

On Sunday Gul announced he was withdrawing his candidacy for president to replace the incumbent Ahmet Necdet Sezer when he retires on May 16. Gul's announcement came after opposition parties boycotted a second round of voting in the parliament to elect a new president.

Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called early elections for July 22 in the hope of breaking the political deadlock.

The government is also pushing for constitutional changes providing that voters, not the parliament, elect the president. Whether the constitutional amendment is adopted or not, Gul says he is determined to run again.

And if elected, he says, his top priority will be to lead Turkey into the European Union.