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In old Istanbul quarter, Islamic and secular Turks grope toward coexistence

In much of Turkey, observant and secularist Muslims live largely apart. But in Fatih, an ancient Istanbul district, the two cultural camps are side by side. They interact daily, sometimes uncomfortably.

September 23, 2010|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Istanbul, Turkey — The two sisters wear Islamic head scarves and say they have no problem with their secular friends and classmates, who don't. Yet on the streets, in classrooms and along the hallways of apartment buildings in the cramped Fatih district of Istanbul, Deniz and Daria Ker remind them every now and then that they'll stew in a fiery hell if they don't cover up.

"We say, 'If a single strand of hair comes out and a man sees it, you'll be damned for 40 years,'" says Daria, an 18-year-old high school student, a white head scarf covering her head as she helps her 20-year-old sister work the cash register of a children's clothing store. "It's a must in our religion."

In much of Turkey, observant and secularist Muslims live largely apart, inhabiting different enclaves within big cities like Istanbul and in different regions of the country.

But in Fatih, an ancient district that's home to about 450,000 people near the center of Turkey's economic and cultural capital, members of the two main cultural camps are side by side. They interact, sometimes uncomfortably, every day.

For centuries, Istanbul has been a crossroads of East and West, straddling the European and Asian continents on either side of the Bosporus strait. Fatih, a mostly working- and lower-middle-class district on the city's European side, is a microcosm of contemporary Turkey. As a growing and prosperous Muslim middle class rises to take the helm in Turkey, Fatih's fate also may be a test for the country's future, and possibly that of the West as it attempts to integrate Islam into its ethnic and religious landscape.

"Turkey is one country, but there is a polarization," says Nilufer Narli, a professor of sociology at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, who has studied Fatih since the late 1990s. "The polarization isn't new, but it has been sharpened within the last few years."

In Fatih, the observant and secular share new five- to10-story apartment buildings as well as the ancient streets. They shop at the same large chain clothing stores and corner groceries. They bump against one another on crosswalks, stare at the same store displays, negotiate over the price of tomatoes.

Every day, people here grapple with questions that have confounded politicians and social scientists, questions about the meaning of faith and of sovereignty over public spaces.

"The secularists lived with secularists for 150 years. Religious people lived with their own kind for 150 years," said Etyen Mahcupyan, director of the democratization program at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, an Istanbul think tank. "Now there is a social sphere where they are tangential to each other. They are touching each other."

Cheap rents and proximity to the center of the city lured migrants from Turkey's Anatolian interior to Fatih, Istanbul's oldest neighborhood. Some of the wealthier and more secular residents moved to more exclusive enclaves, but many also remained.

A low-level cultural war between the country's surging Islamic past and its century-old commitment to secularism unfolds daily on Fatih's streets. It is a conflict between the "closed," those families whose women wear the hijab, or head scarf, and publicly abide by a strict interpretation of Islam, and the "open," the secular Turks who dominated the country politically and economically during the 20th century.

Class resentment fuels the tensions. Cosmopolitan Istanbul residents speak of Fatih as though it were Kandahar, a backwater of extremists huddled together. "Those people live together because they want to live that way," said one resident of Bebek, an upscale northern suburb of Istanbul.

The subtle struggle plays out in how one presents oneself: in the cut of an outfit, the length of a woman's skirt, the growth of stubble on a man's face. It is felt in the duration of a stare at a scantily clad or heavily covered-up woman, or the rumble of an imam's voice on the mosque loudspeaker as he recites a particularly moralistic passage from the Koran.

Residents say there's no overt antagonism between the two groups, no violence or clashes on the street. Somehow, they say, they all work, walk and play next to one another, if not always with one another.

But what is unmistakable is a cultural chauvinism that is clearly practiced by the Islamists, one that frightens and angers many secular Turks who are worried that their cultural identity is being worn away.

"There's no harsh pressure," Hossein Avnikar, a local official, said of complaints by secular women that they're constantly asked to cover up. "They say it. But they say it very sweetly."

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