Notes from Turkey: Istanbul (Part 1)

In a departure from my usual blog posts, which tend to be (admittedly sporadic) commentary on current developments in the Middle East, particularly Syria, in the coming weeks I will post my observations from field research currently underway. I am spending the next six weeks in Turkey (and briefly, Jordan) as part of a new project looking at Syrian-Turkish relations. This will take me to the power centres of Istanbul and Ankara as well as Gaziantep and Antakya (Hatay), close to the Syrian border. The purpose of these posts is not to present fully-formed theses or detailed research, which hopefully will follow in the months after this trip, but instead to offer a few thoughts based on what I have seen and who I have talked to. In particular, I want to focus on several central themes that centre on Turkey’s changing position both domestically and internationally, the first of which will be the Syria-Turkish relationship. I will discuss the other two in more detail below. So, as I type this first entry, confirming all orientalist clichés by sipping sweetened Turkish coffee whilst staring out across the sun-soaked Bosphorous from the cobbled square of  Ortaköy, I hope readers find some interest in what follows. All comments are welcome.

Second impressions

This is only my second visit to Istanbul, and it has changed. When I lived in Aleppo I visited Turkey a few times, whether to pop over to Antakya, or to make more adventurous excursions to Van and beyond, but I encountered Turkey’s largest city only once, as a tourist for a week in 2004. Obviously as a tourist my focus was more on the stunning ancient mosques and palaces of Sultanahmet or the trendy bars and restaurants of Beyoğlu rather than on the politics and society that I now attempt to comprehend. Even so, it strikes that even from my limited experience of eight years ago, Turkey’s largest city (with population estimated conservatively at 13 million) is now in a different place. The first thing that struck me is the affluence. Not that it felt anything like a poor city in 2004, but now the signs of the economic boom of the 2000s are everywhere. People appear well dressed and healthy looking; new cars (and taxis – all Fiats and Hyundis – the true sign of how developed an economy is) clog the roads, while teenagers play with their iphones and ipads in the Starbucks that seem to have made it to every corner. Speaking to various people I am aware that this wealth does not stretch across the city, and that there are much poorer neighbourhoods. However, this is not a wealthy, elite bubble such as in central Beirut, Cairo or Damascus, but a genuine middle class. I have traversed the metro line and walked and ridden far beyond the city centre (based around the vibrant Taksim Square) and am yet to see this affluence severely drop from the scene.

 My second observation would be the city’s obvious youth and optimism. While Istanbul is ancient, its people are not and, compared to London, it appears that young people outnumber the old wherever you go. A professor I interviewed at Boğaziçi  University informed me that every year 1.5 million students head to university, many to Istanbul, which might explain the youth glut. Presumably Turkey also has experienced something of a demographic boom yet, unlike the Arab world where youths languish in underemployment on street corners and outside family shops, the Istanbullus youth appear energized and are doing things. The rapidly expanding economy has clearly come at the right time for this generation. All this contrasts sharply with the picture painted by the Nobel prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, which I am currently reading. Pamuk paints a city consumed by melancholy, living in the shadow of its imperial past, aware that it will never regain the importance it commanded in the Ottoman period. Yet maybe this is what has changed since Pamuk published his memoir (it came out in 2004, soon after which Pamuk himself relocated to New York after a lifetime in Istanbul, following being put on trial for his stance on the 1916 Armenian genocide). Perhaps the economic boom, overseen by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party (more on whom later), and the increased weight given to Turkeys place in the world as a result of its (now seemingly defunct) ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy, has allowed this new generation to finally escape Pamuk’s ‘shadow of the past’. Perhaps more than their parents and grandparents Istanbul’s youth look forward with optimism.

The shrinking aquarium: Secularism and Islam

Erdogan’s AKP, who have dominated Turkish politics for the last decade since coming to power in 2002 fascinate me. For years I would speak to Syrians who would hold up the AKP as the ideal model of the kind of government they wanted at home: Islamist, moderate, pro-business and democratic. The same sentiment and admiration can be seen across the Arab world and, indeed, western governments now tend to hold up the party as the ‘kind of Islamists we can do business with’. Yet despite this admiration abroad, the AKP seem to divide opinion at home. Democrats are concerned that Erodgan has an authoritarian streak. “You can’t critcise the government here,” one young man told me, “there are a lot of journalists in jail.” Even so, both he and his wife admitted a grudging respect for the party, even though they didn’t support them: “They are very good at politics. They know what a lot of people want, and they have been very good with the economy. No one else can compete at the moment.” More notably secularists, those who remain committed to Attaturk’s vision of a Europeanised Turkey (Kemalists), where religion remains private rather than public, are worried by the increasing presence of Islam in society and the AKP’s role in encouraging it. This issue of secularism versus growing Islamism in society and politics is the second key theme I hope to explore whilst here.

An Istanbullu friend described secular society in the city as ‘the shrinking aquarium’. The number of young people, she said, who like to drink alcohol, go out to clubs and bars and live what some would call the ‘western’ lifestyle is limited and getting smaller. For an outside observer like me, these claims seem a little exaggerated. Compared to Tunis and Beirut – which are far more secular than other Arab cities such as Cairo or Aleppo – Istanbul is a secular model. In the part of town where I am staying, Şişli, a middle class area home to a large shopping mall, I would estimate that maybe 20% of women wear hijab. Yet its is the rest of the women wearing miniskirts, holding hands (and even kissing in public) their boyfriends, and the very visible presence of alcohol almost everywhere (especially Raki and Efes beer), that sets the area apart from supposed ‘western’ corners of the Arab world. Unlike Beirut, for example, these parts of Istanbul feel secular in society as well as appearance, at least on the surface. Moreover, glancing at Turkish television and advertisements on the side of the streets, the central message to society is certainly secular – apparently controlled by large, Kemalist-orientated companies. From what I have seen, no female characters (save for old women in soap operas) wear hijab, and the ideal presented to the consumer is of a modern, uncovered, ‘western’ woman. This is not unlike the image deliberately constructed on Syria TV by the secular Baathist regime that I have observed in previous research.

However, I do still sympathise with my friend. Kemalists have long feared that the majority of Turks from mainland Anatolia (who flocked to Istanbul following the rapid economic development of the 1980s) would rather return to the more Islamic society of the Ottoman era and now, with the repeated success of the AKP, this appears to be finally happening. 20% in a hijab sounds like a small number compared to parts of the Arab world, but if it something that has only happened in recent years and, compared to no covered women in the past, it must be quite a shock to secularists who feel like an ever increasing minority. My friend said that there were now areas of the city she felt she could not live in or even visit because of her secular views. Presumably the secularists used to feel that their right to live a lifestyle not dominated by religion was protected by the government, and this is what has changed following the repeated success of the AKP. The dreaded conservatism of the masses now appears endorsed by government policy. Such fears we realized in the last week when Erdogan announced (with no opposition) a new law that effectively made abortion illegal (permitting it up to 4 weeks only), prompting a wave of protests from women’s groups and medical professionals. Though this looks likely to be revised for now, secular fears that the government – which has also called for a new generation of more religious Turks to be encouraged – are overseeing the deconstruction of Attaturk’s legacy are understandable. I am sure that the more time I spend here, and the more I see of the more conservative parts of Istanbul and Anatolia, I will learn much on this subject.

‘Terrorists’: The Kurdish issue

A further thing that has struck me has been, for want of a better word, the ethnic diversity of Istanbullus. I’m ashamed to say that I had a bit of a stereotypical view of Turkish ethnicity and was thus surprised to see many Turks with blond hair, blue eyes and other variations. I have since learned from both Pamuk and Philip Robins’ excellent, Suits and Uniforms: Turkish Foreign Policy since the Cold War, that Turkey’s multi-ethnic make up stems from the final few Ottoman decades when many retreating Muslims from the Balkans emigrated to Istanbul and Anatolia as the empire crumbled. Attaturk’s way of integrating all these different groups was to foster a strong sense of Turkish identity based on the Turkish language and a very loose cultural Islam (in that ‘Turks’ were Muslims, as opposed to Christian ‘Greeks’, even those who spoke Turkish as their first language – see Louis De Berniere’s Birds without wings or Andrew Mango’s Attaturk). However, this left no space for non-Turkish speaking Muslims such as Arabs and, most notably, the Kurds. The issue of Kurdish cultural political rights has been ever present since the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, but it gained extra impetus in the 1980s when the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) launched an armed insurgency and the state responded with a harsh military response that continues, in some from, today. The role of the Kurds in Turkey is the third theme I will explore, stemming from my interest in the current debate over the role of the Kurds in Syria.

I won’t dwell too much on this subject for now as I’m sure it will be a recurrent issue, but I am struck by how salient it is among those that I have spoken to. I arrived in Turkey at a time when violence in the eastern Kurdish regions was on the rise, possibly related to the carnage in neighbouring Syria. An important thing to remember is that Turkey has a conscript army. Apparently all young men do at least 6 months military service if they attend university, and 15 months if not. That means that, as in Israel, when someone is killed in service there’s instantly greater empathy from society given that everyone has a son, brother, father or uncle who has served or will serve. On the day that I arrived 17 people were reportedly killed in the East, 10 more the day after. With this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that I found little sympathy for the Kurdish cause among those I spoke to. I am limited to those that speak English, given my non-existent Turkish, which means I was speaking to mostly middle class educated respondents, yet even they were relatively one-sided. One man I spoke to put it bluntly: “We have a terrorist problem in Turkey. The Kurds are killing our young men.” My secular friend offered a more balance response: “it’s not that I have a problem with them learning their own language, who cares? But it’s about what that might lead to, and I don’t want to see Turkey break up.”

The young couple were also more nuanced on the issue. “I have some friends who are Kurdish, they’re fine,” said the young man, “though a lot of Kurds keep themselves separate in Istanbul, living in Kurdish-only neighbourhoods. They’re proud to be Kurdish and don’t want to integrate.” His wife chimed in, “…and this is the problem. They don’t want to learn our language, only their own. This is our state and they should speak our language. I feel the same about Turks who have moved to Germany, who only speak Turkish. They choose to live in Germany, so they should learn German, its only right.” I didn’t bother highlighting to her that, whilst Turks had emigrated to Germany, the Kurds had always lived in the territory that suddenly became part of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Rather like Hispanic families who for centuries lived in Mexican Texas or California and yet are now considered immigrants, actually ‘the border crossed them’.

One thought on “Notes from Turkey: Istanbul (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Notes from Turkey: Istanbul (Part 1) | Christopher Phillips | turkischland

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