For centuries the Anatolian Peninsula ruled the world through the Byzantine Empire and then the Ottoman Empire. The state, so rich in Muslim legend and lore, finally won independence in 1923. With Mustafa Kemal (fondly called Ataturk) as its first president, Turkey declared itself a secular state and began to organize its government into a self-made democracy. Ataturk’s reforms brought Westernization to Turkey, perhaps evidenced best by Turkey’s close ties to the United States from the start of the Cold War. Turkey’s change from a one-party system to a two-party system in the 1940’s revolutionized the political sphere by causing consistent upheavals in the ruling powers. Three key issues Turkey currently struggles with are joining the EU, Islamic nationalists, and Kurdish insurgents.
Turkey’s moderate economy is expanding with the exception of the current recession. Turkey’s overall GDP has risen at record rates every year, sometimes reaching 12%, over the last decade until their close ties with the United States hurt their economy during the last few years. Last year’s GDP growth rate for Turkey was -5.8% compared to her surrounding neighbors of Greece and Syria who both rose at 2.5% and 2.2% respectively (CIA). Turkey’s economic rating of 1.5 is lower than Greece’s 2.2 but higher than Syria’s 1.05 (NM). While Greece triples Turkey’s GDP per capita of $11,200, Turkey still soars above Syria’s low amount of $4,700. Turkey’s labor force is separate into 29.5% agriculture, 24.7% industry, and 45.8% services which is highly unusual for the local region since other countries have a much higher service sector (CIA). However, since Turkey is mostly a rural state, a third of the population depends on agriculture for their basic economic needs. Since the Cold War, the United States has played an active role as Turkey’s big brother, linking one economy to the other. This economic alliance has helped Turkey immensely, and Turkey’s economic debt has fallen from 78% in 2001 to less than 53% (Turner, 1239). Although Turkey’s unemployment rate is 14.6% and 20% of the population lives below the poverty level, the rate has fallen in the past decade proving that Turkey is growing (CIA and NM).
The poor equality level in Turkish society is stagnate. Turkey’s political, social, and economic spheres have been dominated by men for centuries. Part of this machismo comes from the Islamic religion which does not believe that women are equal to men, and since Turkey is 99.8% Muslim, this creates a major problem for women’s rights movements (CIA). One writer stated that “[although] women from the educated elite have reached positions of power in the public and the private sector, particularly in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, Turkey is still a strongly patriarchal society where discrimination against women is endemic, and participation of women in the political life of the country remains minimal” (Lake, 115). The patriarchal idea plays its heaviest role in the countryside where 62% of marriages are arranged and 5% of those marriages are berdel marriages where girls are exchanged between two families (Lake, 118). While women struggle for freedom, other minority groups do have freedoms such as the gay rights movement. There are currently no laws against gay rights in Turkey (NM). One minority group that faces consisted persecution from the Turks is the Kurdish people living in southeastern Turkey. The Kurdish people are reproached in other Middle East states as well. The 1990’s were filled with atrocities done to the Kurds by the Turkish military. Over 40,000 Turkish Kurds died during the onslaught (Howe, 88). The Turks justified the raids by blaming the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for alleged terrorist connections. Civil unrest between the PKK and the Turkish government continues. In fall 2008 through spring 2009, seventeen people died in explosions blamed on the PKK in downtown Istanbul, and twenty-five soldiers were killed along the border by PKK attacks (King, 456).
Turkey is increasing in strong political liberty. In recent times, the headscarf ban has become a political issue based on the freedom of religion. Despite the fact that Islam still has a strong hold over the people, the government wants to increase Turkey’s secularism. Many college students were expelled or denied the right to take final exams because they insisted on wearing their headscarves to class (HRW). The government is relinquishing its hold over communication by establishing the freedom of speech and press in the 1990’s, “although journalists can still be imprisoned if they write about something that is deemed sensitive by the government” (Banks, 1378). Turkey currently ranks as Partly Free according to Freedom House’s annual survey. On a scale of 1 to 7 with 7 as the lowest, the nation-state received a 3 for both political rights and civil liberties (Freedom House).
The quality of life in Turkey is low but rising. With a life expectancy of 71.96, Turkey is moderate but lower than her neighbors compared to Greece with 79.66 and Syria with 74.22. Turkey’s high infant mortality rate of 25.79 deaths per 1,000 births creates a potential problem that health care must solve before the nation can achieve a status worthy of recognition among liberal democracies and other Middle Eastern nations (CIA). Turkey’s low crime rate of 4.11 per 1,000 people also contributes to her rising quality of life (NM). The human development index for Turkey has risen over the past twenty years and is currently at 0.806 under the high development category, and Turkey ranks 79th in the world for development (HDR). Turkey’s literacy rate is low at 87.4% compared to Greece at 96% but high compared to Syria at 79.6% (CIA). One journalist remarked that “22.4% of women are still illiterate compared with only 5.9% of men despite the fact that primary education has been compulsory since 1924, and only 2.8% of women have university degrees” (Lake, 117). The issue of gender equality spills over into the quality of life, especially in the rural areas of Turkey’s countryside. Even today, in some secluded areas, the men of the family still hold the right to kill an immoral female relative (Lake, 123). Polygamy is also still a problem despite the fact that polygamy has been banned since 1926 (Lake, 118).
Turkey’s entrance to the European Union is threatened. The EU stands to gain and also lose by accepting Turkey. If Turkey joins, the EU would gain command of the Straits and would have a bridge to the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East. The EU would also have access to Turkey’s large market, mineral wealth, investment prospects, and army power (Aksin, 318). However, the European Union worries about Turkey’s underdeveloped economy, poor education for girls, and huge population (Aksin, 318-319). If Turkey joins the EU, then a tenth of Europeans would be Muslim Turks, while presently Europe claims to be Christian (Carkoglu, 220). Turkey will only gain if it joins the EU because it provides a solution to Turkey’s economic problems, to her social, cultural, and educational development, and to her proper function as a democracy (Aksin, 318). Before Turkey can enter the European Union, two problems must be resolved: Cyprus and the Kurds. Turkey and Greece’s argument over the possession of Cyprus did not become a real problem until Cyprus and Turkey both claimed EU membership (Carkoglu, 55). If Greece gets Cyprus then Turkey will be virtually surrounded by Grecian islands and “Cyprus is perceived as a dagger aiming at the stomach of Turkey” (Carkoglu, 56). While arguing with Greece in the west, Turkey must also answer for the Kurdish problem in the east. Feuds and belligerent terrorist acts have been exchanged between the Kurds and the Turks for centuries. Turkey must find a solution before the EU will accept her. In a recent poll taken in Turkey, 66% of Turkish citizens wanted to join the EU while 30% did not want to be citizens; the rest were undecided (Carkoglu, 174). The issue of European acceptance still remains first and foremost in Turkey’s political campaign.
– Hannah S. Bowers
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