Di­vided Turks live and let live

In an old Is­tan­bul district, sec­u­lar­ists are feel­ing pres­sure from ob­ser­vant Mus­lims. But the two co­ex­ist, and that’s some­thing.

Los Angeles Times - - Front Page - Bor­zou Dara­gahi 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 low­er­mid­dle-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 maybe 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.

Alow-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.” The ob­ser­vant speak of

ma­soulieh tabliq, a Mus­lim’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­mote the faith, to get the un­be­liev­ers to be­lieve and the less-ob­ser­vant to prac­tice their re­li­gion more strictly. As Mak­sut Seno­cak, a re­li­giously ob­ser­vant 50-year-old builder ex­plained dur­ing a tea at one of the lo­cal cafes: “Of course they would tell each other what is sin, be­cause our prophet and imams at the mosque are say­ing that we should.”

The neigh­bor­hood can be a cul­tural mine­field, es­pe­cially for sec­u­lar women. Mediha Hasakin, 30, an ac­coun­tant who has lived in Fatih her en­tire life, said she has be­gun to cover her shoul­ders or wear a jacket when she walks in or near cer­tain ar­eas, es­pe­cially Carsamba, a neigh­bor­hood of 50,000 de­scribed by many as Is­tan­bul’s most con­ser­va­tive.

“We’re be­ing care­ful, up on the hill,” she said, ges­tur­ing to­ward the war­ren of nar­row streets where men sport lengthy beards and skull caps, women dress in all-cov­er­ing Ara­bian-style black abayas and restau­rants re­main shut­tered in the day­time dur­ing the dawn-to-dusk fast of the Mus­lim holy month of Ra­madan.

“Some­one will come up to you and tell you, ‘Don’t let your hair show,’ ” she said.

Gul­cin Du­grul, 22, has stopped wear­ing dresses when she walks her 1-year-old boy. She veers to the other side of the road when she’s about to pass tea­houses filled with bearded, re­li­giously ob­ser­vant men.

“They tell me on the streets, ‘Why are you open?’ They say, ‘Get dressed, my girl,’ ” she said. Even women wear­ing the

hi­jab are told to cover up more, or wear darker clothes, she said. That has con­vinced her that there’s no pleas­ing the Is­lamists.

“I tell them, ‘It’s not your busi­ness. Ev­ery­one is re­spon­si­ble enough to her­self.’ ”

Some parts of Fatih seem a con­ti­nent away from the boozy, free­wheel­ing scene of Istik­lal Street or Tak­sim Square, Is­tan­bul’s cen­ter of tourism and nightlife. Very few shops or cafes sell al­co­hol, es­pe­cially any­where near Carsamba.

“It would take a brave heart to sell al­co­hol here,” said Adem Ozbek­tas, a lo­cal of­fi­cial.

Huge bill­boards along Vatan Street ad­ver­tise Is­lamic fash­ions aimed at the new Mus­lim mid­dle class. New stores sell Is­lamic swim and sports wear. Wed­ding halls of­fer sep­a­rate fa­cil­i­ties for men and women.

Sec­u­lar­ists feel that their free­dom to speak and act is be­ing threat­ened by so­cial pres­sures.

“Pros­per­ity has only made the Is­lamists bolder,” said Kader, a 64-year-old jew­eler who asked that his last name not be pub­lished. “They’re ma­nip­u­lat­ing peo­ple. They say, ‘God will do this and God will do that.’ ”

Turkey’s sec­u­lar elites marginal­ized the more con­ser­va­tive and ru­ral un­der­class un­til re­cently. And, so­cially, they still do. De­spite their grow­ing eco­nomic power, the new Mus­lim mid­dle classes, many of them rel­a­tively re­cent ar­rivals from Turkey’s vast Asian in­te­rior or the Black Sea coast, say they feel cul­tural dis­crim­i­na­tion.

“There are peo­ple who look down at us,” Deniz Ker said at the cash reg­is­ter of the cloth­ing store. “There are peo­ple who don’t want to be friends with us be­cause we’re closed. The open ones are em­bar­rassed to be seen with us.”

But there are some signs that there is room for com­pro­mise.

Ac­cord­ing to polling by the Turk­ish Eco­nomic and So­cial Stud­ies Foun­da­tion, no more than 5% of Turks are hard-core Is­lamists and 7% stri­dent sec­u­lar­ists. Most fall in the mid­dle, pre­sum­ably look­ing for com­mon ground.

“Thirty years ago, when peo­ple were ig­no­rant, the be­liev­ers lived on one side and the non­be­liev­ers lived on the other side,” said Os­man Ke­skin, 64, the pro­pri­etor of a cafe, who has lived in the neigh­bor­hood since 1957.

“Now, the peo­ple don’t live past each other. It’s a mo­saic.”

Zeinap Joske and Kubra Aryigit, both 14, have been best friends since child­hood, liv­ing in the same Fatih apart­ment build­ing and at­tend­ing the same schools. The teenage girls walk arm in arm through the streets, Zeinap wear­ing a head scarf and over­coat, and Kubra’s long blond curls hang­ing freely on her shoul­ders.

“We fight oc­ca­sion­ally, but only about lit­tle things,” Kubra said. “We re­spect each other’s re­li­gious views. And we would never try to im­pose our ideas on each other.”

dara­gahi@latimes.com

Hatem Moussa

HOUSE OF RE­LI­GION: Men pray this sum­mer at a mosque in Is­tan­bul’s Fatih district, where re­li­giously ob­ser­vant and sec­u­lar Turks live side by side, in­ter­act­ing daily and some­times un­com­fort­ably.

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