Last week, as foreign minister and member of the current ruling, pro-Islamist party, Abdullah Gul, aimed for the presidential office, the Turkish army vowed to step in if necessary to ensure the country remains firmly secularist. “Recently the main issue emerging in connection with the presidential election has focused on a debate over secularism. This is viewed with concern by the Turkish armed forces,” read the statement from the General Staff, which has toppled governments four times since 1960. “It should not be forgotten that the Turkish armed forces are partial in this debate and are a staunch defender of secularism. The Turkish armed forces are against those debates (questioning secularism)… and will display its position and attitudes when it becomes necessary. No one should doubt that.” The statement drew sharp rebukes from the European Union and others, but Turks’ concerns about remaining secular are real. Strongly secular, current President Ahmet Necdet Sezer keeps Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pro-Islamist government – which has tried to criminalize adultery – in check. The Turkish Republic, Sezer said recently of the Islamist-secularist tug-of-war, “has not faced any threat as significant as that of today.” And a million Turks turned out in Istanbul on Sunday to rally for secularism, topping the 300,000 who recently rallied in Ankara. “This government is the enemy of Ataturk,” one demonstrator told The Associated Press. “It wants to drag Turkey to the dark ages.” Also raising fears about the tide of Islamism was the murder of a Catholic priest last year by a teenager who claimed the shooting was retaliation for the Dutch Muhammad cartoons. That same month, a Catholic friar was beaten by assailants who said they wanted to “clean Turkey of non-Muslims,” according to a State Department report. This April, three employees of a Christian publishing house were found with their hands and feet tied and throats slit; some Muslims had previously accused the publisher of proselytizing. And what about those ties to the direction of Iraq? Turkey fears a strong Iraqi Kurdistan out of concerns that its own ethnic Kurdish minority will be inspired to separatism. Turkey has also threatened Iraq on the claim that the autonomous region is aiding and sheltering Turkish Kurd separatists. Iraq swears any attack would be met with massive resistance. Forget the Shiite-Sunni tit-for-tats: There’s a real possibility that the Iraq war could move to a whole new front, especially if Iraqi Kurdistan gains the independence it wants (and, frankly, deserves). Iraq’s Muslims would likely unite as never before to fight off secular Turkey, yet the last thing coalition forces would want to do is battle Turkey’s military – the avowed defenders of the secularism that the region needs – or attract fundamentalists like Iran into the melee. “We hope that one day Turkey can join the European Union, but for that, Turkey has to be a real European country, in economic and political terms,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said recently. The EU wants a less-powerful Turkish military, but without it Islamists could gain more power to turn back Ataturk’s vision. The nationalism isn’t synonymous with Islamism, but endangers those who are seen as insulting Turkish identity – such as slain ethnic Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink. Turkey could very well invade from the north, dramatically changing the region’s Risk board and forcing the U.S. to uncomfortably pick alliances; with the second-largest standing armed forces in NATO, Turkey could best Iraq’s current hardscrabble military. It’s time to start talking Turkey. Bridget Johnson writes for the Daily News. E-mail her at [email protected] local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! ISTANBUL may be a far cry from the Vegas strip, but when it comes to politics, what happens in Turkey does not stay in Turkey. In fact, this country could have a greater impact on the spread of Islamism and the direction of the war in Iraq than anywhere else. Turkey isn’t just the geographical doorway from the Middle East into Europe, but the ideological crossroads as well. Will the government gain acceptance into the European Union, or will it never prove that Turkey is European enough? Will it maintain its secular system or become more Islamist? Will it see Iraq’s prosperous autonomous Kurdish region as such a threat to its wholeness that it invades? Islamism vs. secularism. Muslim vs. European identity. Iraqi stability. It’s all coming together at the former Ottoman Empire, and it’s worth paying attention.