Istanbul and Islam’s one thousand cultures
Nicola Mirenzi 27 May 2011

Istanbul is a city of a thousand faces, which never tires of facelifts. Always changing, this half-European, half-Asian metropolis is forever the setting for rapid and irremediable change. And yet, there is something there that always remains, an immutable and stationary core. This something is difficult to define, but the word that comes closest is “soul.” “We often concentrate on what changes rather than on what remains the same,” said Alan Duben, an anthropologist at Istanbul’s Bilgi University and professor of the course “Istanbul in the 20th Century.” “It is actually easier to define what changes rather than what remains, because if one looks at Istanbul over the past one hundred years, one realises there has been radical change.”

At the beginning of the 20th Century the city had a million inhabitants. Now there is no specific census; some say there are 12 million, others say 14 million and other still say 20 million. It depends on how much of the metropolitan area considered part of Istanbul. However, whichever number one considers correct (“the largest estimate is the most correct,” said Duben), one realises the extent of the upheaval the city has experienced. “The increase in population portrays this change in its simplest aspects,” explained Duben, “because the most significant and incredible change has been in terms of ethnic groups and social classes. In the first decade of the 20th Century, Istanbul was inhabited half by Muslims and half by non-Muslims (Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Levantines and foreigners). At the moment non-Muslims are fewer than 1 percent. Before World War I there were about 250,000 Greeks, nowadays there are 3,000 or 4,000. There are also very few Armenians left, perhaps 60,000, and even fewer Jews, perhaps 25,000. One can say that the multicultural Istanbul of a hundred years ago no longer exists.”

And yet, Istanbul has managed to find a different way of remaining the same. “When the Greeks left the city,” said Duben, “thousands started to arrive from Anatolia. Some even simply moved into the homes previously lived in by Greeks. Armenians and Jews came too. Many also chose to move to the suburbs, and most of them became Muslims. However, if one analyses the ethnicities in this population, one discovers that it is once again filled with differences. There are many Kurds and Alevis and other ethnic groups. Effectively there is now a multiculturalism within Islam itself, although not all Muslims are practicing, and this is another aspect of the issue. Nowadays there are some Muslims who are secular and some who are religious. During the ‘30s, the city was far more secularised. Religion was repressed by the single Kemalist party, and there were very few signs of Islam around the city. Things began to change during the ‘80s, when women started to wear the veil, and religion became far more visible in daily life. This transformation is effectively one of the great political issues of our time. The founders of the Republic believed that religion belonged to the past, that it would mean something only to the poor and the peasants. The secular elites thought that when these people became urbanized and modernized, then religion too would lose its importance. But this did not happen. It happened in Europe but not here.”

According to Duben, “the new and unforeseen phenomenon is that a class of young city-born, sophisticated, and educated young people has formed, but they are also religious. This something the old elite would never have expected. Women cover their hair but wear very beautiful and fashionable clothes. These are not poor and uneducated people, but a new urban religious class, sharing with the secular class consumerism and integration into the capitalist system. This too is a sort of multiculturalism. In Istanbul one can find two amazingly different lifestyles, one is the Islamic and the other is secular. Then there are the more moderate and the more radical Muslims, just as in the secular camp there are some who are extremists and others who are more open. This is yet another special kind of multiculturalism.”

Turkey and Istanbul are experiencing powerful economic growth reflected in changes in the city’s architecture and daily life. “It is only when one when one sets aside increased buying power,” explained Coșkun Așar, a photographer and author of an exhibition entitled “Invisible Istanbul,” that one understands that there are many things in this city that are being destroyed. “The imperative of construction at any cost is ruining entire districts, without anyone protecting a heritage that does not consist of great paintings or statues, but rather of palaces that are dilapidated and falling to pieces, but which represent the history and identity of this city.”

Așar also organized an exhibition entitled “Children of Darkness,” the subjects of which were “the extremely poor street children who until a decade ago ran wild on Istiklal Avenue [Istanbul’s shopping and nightlife centre] and survived by stealing and begging.” There are far fewer of them nowadays, “not because economic development has saved them, but because the government wants to keep the centre clean and has chased them away far from the eyes of the wealthy. Instead of looking after them, the government has alienated them even more, and their situation has worsened, causing them to become even more violent and aggressive. So, while everyone praises the economic boom, there are many people living like beggars with no prospects. It is just that no one speaks of social issues when speaking of Istanbul.”

Translated by Francesca Simmons



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