In July 2007, Turks, in overwhelming numbers, reelected the Justice and Development Party (AKP). This led to Abdullah Gul's ascension as president, where he joined fellow-conservative Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to govern the country. In Istanbul, die-hard secularists have been alarmed by AKP's increasing power and continue to assert that the party seeks to erode the secular legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Some even contend that the AKP seeks to impose Sharia law (strict Islamic day-to-day religious law) on the country, though party leadership vehemently denies such aims. Secularists point to laws limiting the sale of alcohol, tobacco, pornography, and pork as well as a 2007 law to lift the constitutional ban on headscarves at universities.
Turkey's biggest foreign policy goal continues to be accession to the European Union. Most member states are in favor of Turkey joining, though there are some strong opponents, and accession talks have made only halting progress as Turkey faces criticism on several issues. Continued Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus (which only Turkey recognizes as a sovereign nation) is one stumbling block, another is the Turkish government's refusal to label the death of several hundred thousand Armenian citizens during World War I as genocide. Domestically, critics cite Turkey's headscarf ban and criminal laws that punish anyone found guilt of insulting "Turkishness" as undemocratic as further obstructions.
The AKP's greatest bargaining chip in recent elections was the upsurge of the Turkish economy since the aftermath of the 1999 earthquake. The country enjoys a diverse economy: self-sufficient agricultural production, a massive textile industry, and a growing electronics sector. Turkish annual GDP growth this decade, at 7.4% per year, is among the fastest in the world. The rest of the world has taken a greater interest in Turkey in the past 10 years, as evidenced by the consistent 10% growth rate of the tourist industry. International faith in the economy has driven considerable foreign investment, which has strengthened the Turkish Lira. Inflation, which for 30 years led to the counting of the Lira in millions, has dropped to single digit levels and allowed the government to lop six zeroes from the old Lira in 2005. Turkey's greatest economic liability is a sizable trade deficit, driven largely by the country's need to import foreign oil. Until the 2008 credit crunch, however, foreign investment more than compensated for these deficits.
In Istanbul they sell a T-shirt with the name of the city spelled using a crescent, a cross, and a Star of David. Turks pride themselves on their secularism and tolerance of other religions, a legacy of the Ottoman Empire, which governed people of all faiths. While Turkey is a secular republic, however, its population is overwhelming (99%) comprised of Muslims; the remaining 1% are Christians (Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic) and Jews. One reason for the relative harmony between people of different faiths may be the relaxed approach that many Turks take toward religion. In addition to having a secular government, many Turks drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes, and on any given day in Istanbul you are as liable to find as many scantily clad fashionistas walking down the street as women wearing headscarves.
Turkey has made many recent contributions to the art world—no surprise from a country that boasts such stunning antiquity—and Istanbul has been chosen as the 2010 European Capital of Culture. The country's most well-known creative mind may be novelist Orhan Pamuk, who garnered the country's first Nobel Prize in 2006 for his dreamy yet historic novels, but the Istanbul Film Festival is currently in its 26th year: held every April, the festival awards prizes for both Turkish and International films. Additionally, Turkey's status as a large textile exporter has helped ensure the nation a place in fashion design, and Istanbul's Nişantaşı district is literally a maze of small boutiques selling imported and Turkish clothing. In the visual arts, Turkey is most famous for its ceramics and porcelain, especially handmade Kütahya and İznik tiles.
Turkey is a die-hard soccer nation (they call it football), and heated rivalries run strong. Turkey's clubs boast lots of homegrown talent along with some players imported from Europe and South America. The Turkish national football team has enjoyed sporadic success in international play. In this decade, the team reached the semifinals in the 2002 World Cup and 2008 European Cup. Other popular sports in Turkey are basketball (the NBA has a growing fan base in Turkey) and Turkish Grease Wrestling. Edirne is famous for its annual Kırkpinar oil wrestling festival.
Turkish media seems always to be on people's lips, mainly because of Article 301 and the Turkish government's penchant for closing down outlets that offend its conservative moral code. Article 301 forbids anyone from insulting "Turkishness," under pain of criminal prosecution. Most cases are dropped but many notable Turks, including Orhan Pamuk, have been prosecuted. Another issue was the 2007 shutdown of the popular video site YouTube after the government discovered videos insulting Atatürk. Despite these controversies, freedom of speech is mostly unlimited in Turkey and writers and journalists can criticize the government and people as long as they don't cross the line to insult.
In an effort to curb rampant tobacco addiction, the Turkish government introduced a ban on smoking in enclosed public places, which took effect in May of 2008. Some bars and clubs simply ignore the ban, but the Turkish Health Ministry estimates that Turks are smoking 500 million fewer cigarettes per month.
And Looking Forward ...
2009 marks the return of the Rock N' Coke music festival after a hiatus in 2008. This is Turkey's largest music festival attracts big names in local and international music; the 2007 festival drew Franz Ferdinand and Smashing Pumpkins. 2010 will also be a proud year for Turkey, since Istanbul has been chosen as the European Capital of Culture for the year. The Turkish government sees this as an opportunity to showcase Istanbul's wealth of art, culture, and history to the rest of the world.
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