Istanbul’s powder keg

Money is rapidly transforming this megalopolis, but change is creating dangerous tensions between the old and the new, and bringing radicals out onto the streets


Istanbul's powder keg

Protesters respond to increased violence caused by Kurdish radicals; On Oct. 31, a suicide bomber from a radical Kurdish faction injured 32 people in Istanbul a ceasefire ended in October | Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images; Murad Sezer/Reuters

There are many telling details in the way the mafia don sits: the stiffness of his spine, his legs planted on the ground like two monstrous sledgehammers, eyes angrily darting around the tiny teahouse. His tension is palpable. “There are half a dozen small wars going on in Istanbul right now,” he says, dumping two cubes of sugar into his tea. “Everything is changing in this city, too quickly. There is chaos.”

On Oct. 31, a suicide bomber brought that chaos onto the streets of Turkey’s roiling megalopolis, blowing himself up in a crowd of police officers in Taksim Square and injuring 32 people, including 17 civilians. The choice of venue was no accident: Taksim is Istanbul’s symbol of modernity and pluralism, where immigrants come in search of a new life and foreigners throng to experience Turkey’s oft-cited convergence of East and West. Near the site of the blast, the Independence Monument replays the struggle of Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in a permanently frozen tableau, as if the country’s future was set in stone decades ago.

But the blast, claimed by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, a radical breakaway faction of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, was a stark reminder that Turkey’s republican project is far from complete. It’s in fact been proceeding in fits and starts ever since the nation was founded in 1923. But the past decade is proving to be its biggest test. “Turkey is in the process of redefining itself,” says the mafia don, who has a reputation of being a closet philosopher. “The old power brokers are being replaced by a new breed of young people. Capitalism has arrived, neighbourhoods are changing. In a situation like this, there is bound to be conflict.”

Indeed, the suicide attack itself, at a time when the PKK was hoping a two-month-old unilateral ceasefire would lead to some kind of political solution to its struggle for Kurdish rights in Turkey, is a clear demonstration of what happens when the rules of the game change: not everyone accepts it, and the radicals come out.

In Istanbul in particular, the effects of Turkey’s rapid emergence into a globalized world are wreaking havoc in every corner of society. Identities are changing. Pro-capitalist Islamists, as personified by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), now have a taste of economic success. Kurds can speak their language in public, watch television programs on a Kurdish television channel, and still retain their Turkish national identity. In a state whose founding principles were fiercely secular, terms like Islamist and secularist themselves are in a process of redefinition in Istanbul. The Islamist has embraced capitalism, while the secularist marches in demonstrations for more religious rights. Women wear head scarves while sporting pink Converse All Stars; clean-shaven, beer-swigging men vote for the ruling AKP despite its Islamist credentials. Istanbul is home to all, but kingdom to none.

And yet, clashes are on the rise, and while statistics are not available, experts report an increase in crime. “I don’t think the world really understands the kind of pressure Istanbul is under,” says Caglar Keyder, a professor of sociology at Bogazici University and an expert on Istanbul’s urban dynamics. “The city has gone from one million people to more than 12 million in 50 years. The pace of construction is unbelievable. It really is a new city. But there is a drawback. The process of change is difficult to accept for some.”

A Sept. 21 mob attack on a gallery crawl organized by art galleries in Istanbul’s Tophane district highlights the rising tensions between Istanbul’s traditional residents and the nouveau riche. Tophane has historically been a working-class, conservative Muslim neighbourhood. The city’s religious organizations, the Islamic brotherhoods (known as cemaat in Turkish), dominate the area, buying up buildings and renting them to people vetted on their religious credentials. But in recent years, because of its proximity to Taksim, Tophane has also seen an explosion of art galleries.

With them have come all the trappings of the arts scene—gentrification, openings, and of course alcohol. “These attacks happen because the traditional face of the neighbourhood is changing,” says one gallery owner in the district, requesting anonymity. “No one accepts the other. I’ve seen gallery owners reject local residents from attending openings. They tell them, ‘This is not for you,’ and turn them away at the door. The residents feel excluded from the change and so they react.”

Local residents in Tophane reject the claim that they are against the galleries. “But they must respect our ways,” says Cemal Karatas, the owner of a local eatery. “Most of us don’t condone the attacks, but there are people here who will not tolerate the kinds of things the galleries bring with them.”

The problem, according to Tolga Baysal, a filmmaker and staunch secularist, is that ultra-conservative Muslims feel strengthened by the Islamic-leaning AKP’s political success. “They think they own the country now,” he says.

That attitude has, interestingly, raised the spectre of a clash between the more moderate AKP and hard-line Islamists. Evidence of a growing divide emerged recently with the release of secret diplomatic cables by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks. In one cable dated Oct. 13, 2009, James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, told Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Alexander Vershbow that while the AKP “is squarely in the driver’s seat,” there are fears within the party over the “erosion of its political base from more conservative/Islamist parties.” As Keyder explains, “The AKP doesn’t represent ultra-conservative Muslims. Its dominance in Turkey has helped the capitalists. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a committed neo-liberal who has always supported the capitalist enterprise.”

Lacking representation, and facing an era of massive change, radicals of every socio-political colour are lashing out. Fascists are attacking anyone they feel doesn’t represent Turkey’s Turkic ethnicity. Ultra-conservative Muslims are attacking secularists and members of other religious groups with alarming regularity. Hate crimes in general are on the rise.

But Istanbul’s municipal officials are unwilling to release crime statistics. The city, they say, is safer than many large European cities—which is true, according to 2004 data compiled in the most recent International Crime Victims Survey. But hate crimes largely go unreported because the victims are often foreign workers, illegal migrants or members of ethnic or religious minorities who feel threatened, not only by radical individuals in society but by elements of the state security apparatus itself. But, “unfortunately, incidents of hate crime are on the rise,” Hakan Ataman, secretary-general of the Human Rights Agenda Association (HRAA) in Ankara, told a U.S.-based newspaper in October. “They vary from religious and ethnic intolerance to intolerance of differences related to disability and gender.”

The head of Istanbul’s Police Inspection Board, Sadettin Tantan, blames the population explosion for the rapid increase in crimes related to identity. The rate of people entering the city—on average 300,000 new residents per year over the past decade—sets the stage for confrontation, he says. Long-time residents feel threatened by the rapid changes accompanying the influx, and feel they are losing something fundamental to themselves.

“My children can feel it,” says Maria Sezer, a Dutch artist and teacher who has lived in Istanbul for the past 40 years and is married to a Turk. “They tell me they are sad to see so much of what they love in the city disappearing.” Sezer recently co-curated Istanbul’s first Children and Youth Art Biennale, titled “I’m changing, are you aware of that?”, currently on display at the Sanat Limani, a warehouse space turned into a gallery on the banks of the Bosphorus Strait. She was surprised to find that much of the art submitted for the exhibition focused on Istanbul and its rapid pace of change.

“We had so many submissions dealing with that issue that we had to reject many,” she says. “And none of them were positive. So many of these young people are frightened to lose their known surroundings. They fear losing their way of life.” Predictably, themes of identity dominate the pieces. And Sezer says she’s distressed by the utter lack of hope the young people transmit through their work. “Young people usually feel powerful,” she says. “They feel they can change the world. But you don’t see any of that here.”

Instead, the city’s radicals are the ones taking action, making the job of trying to govern an essentially ungovernable city like Istanbul even more difficult. Turkey’s burgeoning economy, with Istanbul at its heart, has lifted many out of poverty. Development in the city is proceeding at breakneck speed; poor neighbourhoods have been transformed in a matter of a few years into posh playgrounds, attracting the hedonistic rich. But there are consequences. “Think of it this way,” says the mafia don, dropping two more cubes of sugar into a fresh cup of tea. “If you control the drugs in a neighbourhood and then someone comes in with a new drug that everyone wants, what are you going to do? You take control of it or you die.

The new drug in Istanbul is money, and everyone wants a piece of it. Everyone has changed because of it.”

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