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By Michael D’Itri October 1, 2013

Clashes in Istanbul

Hijabs and disco clubs, medieval mosques and skyscrapers, anti-government riots and patriotism, strict alcohol laws and shisha. After spending only a week in Turkey, I can readily describe the city of Istanbul as one giant contradiction.

Once a Roman city by the name of Byzantium, the city of was rebuilt and renamed Constantinople by Constantine the Great in 330 CE. Constantinople remained under Christian rule until 1453, when the Ottoman sultan conquered the city, renamed it Istanbul and converted the beautiful Hagia Sophia church into a mosque.

Istanbul has been a cosmopolitan city as far back as the 5th century. However, these conversions from pagan to Catholic, and then from Christian to Muslim, rendered the city into an even more eclectic assortment of cultures and religions. Constantine’s attempts to transform the ancient Greek fishing village of Byzantium into the Roman capital of Constantinople was seen in the vestiges of the renovated Hippodrome. What remains of the once 1500 foot long race track, now called Sultan Ahmet Square, are two colossal Egyptian obelisks, reminiscent of the obelisk at St. Peter’s Square in Rome, and a spiral statue that once branched off into three snakes. Besides making me feel like I was in the middle of three different cities at once, the obelisks seemed to have some sense of grandeur and history that I would never be able to fully appreciate.

After the Ottoman Empire was defeated in World War I and Turkey won their War of Independence in 1923, a struggle for the ancient city of Istanbul to become modern and, in a way, more European, was compounded on top of their previous internal conflicts. The first thing my tour guide Ayla told me when I arrived in Turkey was that I was in a “modern country”, and that the Turks are a “secular” people. This sentiment was repeated and reinforced an endless amount of times throughout my trip, and was echoed by the many other Istanbulites I encountered. It was almost like an informal mantra that they had all agreed upon.

Unfortunately, claiming something to be true does not necessarily make it so. Although Turkey is trying to modernize itself and join the European Union, the EU has recently rejected their request, still perceiving a stark contrast between themselves and the Turks. Furthermore, the presence of religious values within the government is growing, leading to a decreasingly secular nation. This simultaneous struggle for modernization and religious conservatism manifests in the different facets of Istanbul to create contradictions and collisions.
Today, visual contrasts occur all over the city of Istanbul. In Modern Istanbul, Taksim Square and the Levent district boast the highest skyscrapers in Istanbul as well as a sophisticated metro system. In Old Istanbul, on the other hand, historic monuments exist from the Middle Ages onwards, including the Blue Mosque, Suleymaniye Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Within the Hagia Sophia itself, both Islamic calligraphy and Catholic imagery can be seen side by side in the oddest of combination of two religions commonly seen as being opposed to one another.
Imagine: you walk into a huge building that looks like a mosque, with a massive – and I mean massive – dome and four minarets (towers with onion-shaped tops) in each corner. Once you actually enter this behemoth, imagery of Mother Mary welcomes you through into a flood of windows and chandeliers.

You might have first thought this was an Islamic building, and then decided it was Catholic after seeing the good ole’ Madonna; however, after looking up and seeing more Virgin Mary imagery, but this time surrounded by Arabic calligraphy, your mind seriously starts to get messed up. You are only left to conclude that the Hagia Sophia cannot be defined in terms of religion; it is best to think of the monument in its current status as a museum. The past and possibly the future use of the Hagia Sophia as a mosque is still a controversial in Istanbul today between those who wish to practice their faith and those who simply want to conserve secularism and history.

Conflict between the official religion of Turkey, Islam, and the extremely secular values that were at the core of Turkey’s founding is another one of the more obvious contradictions within Istanbul. For example, it is illegal for Turkish women to veil themselves in government buildings or public spaces such as universities. On the other hand, a growing conservative movement in Turkey is looking to repeal this law. Walking down almost any street in Istanbul reveals that the vast majority of Turkish women do veil themselves.
The degree to which some women are veiled varied, however, whether I saw pairs of eyes peering out from behind a black niqab, a face staring out from a blue hijab or even some hair and neck visible from behind a leopard-print scarf. Nevertheless, we would normally label all of these women as ‘Muslim’.

Disparity amongst the beliefs of women in Turkey also helps demonstrate the conflict between older and newer generations. We were told before arriving in Turkey that it was not safe for women to walk the streets at night in Istanbul, and after one night out with three other guys I understood why. The once welcoming and breathtaking streets were littered with shady characters. Prostitutes and pimps roamed proudly everywhere. Groups of men in white dress shirts signalled nonchalantly to each other when cops were around the corner and overly-friendly strangers added to the eeriness of the night. Although we were not in the best area of Istanbul, it was still a sharp contrast to the swarms of veiled women accompanied by children or husbands who were busy shopping and commuting during the daytime.

Perhaps the greatest collision of worlds I also discovered that night was that the new liquor laws imposed by the government were not being enforced by any of the alcohol vendors. Months before arriving in Turkey, controversial liquor laws had been enacted, forbidding citizens to purchase alcohol between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.

The recent protests In Istanbul’s Taksim Square were sparked by the government’s decision to destroy one of the city’s last remaining parks, but are mainly concerned with the increasingly authoritarian actions of the government that many fear will bring Turkey back to the dictatorship of the Ottoman Empire. In particular, Prime Minister Erdoğan has instated an educational reform to make primary and secondary schools reinforce Islamic values, attempted to absolutely ban abortion, opposes gay rights and restricts freedom of press, freedom of speech, internet use, television content and alcohol consumption.

In opposition to this traditionalism, Taksim Square is a modern tourist destination known for its skyscrapers, shopping, hotels and liberalism. The demonstrations in this square oppose the government under the banner of patriotism, which seeks to preserve the secularism that was at the core of Turkey’s foundation. This collision between a Muslim majority and secular values seem to be tearing the city apart by the seams.

This particular conflict seems to be a fundamental one and reminds me of the cultural disparities between Montreal and the rest of Quebec. Although there is no comparison to the outright authoritarianism of Turkey’s government, many Quebecers in my experience feel like they are the loser in a cultural war. People with full citizenship in Quebec do not have the right to decide which school their child can attend. They also cannot decide what they would like to name their new business or what size font they want to advertise it in. And most recently, Quebec has proposed that those who are not of the ‘right’ culture are not allowed to work in the public sector or else they must deny who they are. Despite what was previously thought, we may not be so different from those oppressive countries we hear about in the news after all, no matter how unfortunate this truth may be.

About the author

Mike D'Itri is a Liberal Arts student at Dawson College who enjoys travel and literature.


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    Mara L.

    November 4, 2013

    Wow, Michael. Great article!
    As someone who loves to travel and experience new things, your article has sparked a flame of interest in me for Istanbul. I personally, see a special beauty in all things religious and this Hagia Sofia you speak of seems beautiful and exotic to me all at the same time. Your details are so well done, for a moment I felt I was actually there and had caught a glimpse of the Hagia Sofia.
    You also touched on an issue I kept relating too as well, how Quebec isn’t so different yet from this country in relation to problems relating the government and the freedom of the people.
    It’s very true how some people feel like losers in what’s suppose to be a democratic community, and how the government is run by the people and for the people, yet Istanbul and Quebec (though they say they do) are in multiple cases not looking out for our best interest.
    As well, your historic introduction wasn’t too bad, it kept my attention and didn’t feel like I was in a history class. I feel like though you were there for just a week, you experienced and learned a lot about a new culture and that’s one of the top things I’m all for people doing.

    Good job, keep up the great work!

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    Kevin Coughlin

    November 4, 2013

    Thanks for the article.

    I consider Istanbul to be one of the places I would like to travel to before I die. Your article paints a very good picture of what one should expect to experience when they visit. If i ever do get to begin traveling the world (I may just daydream about it) I would defiantly look back and remember your article.

    I think its great that you got into the history of the city yet also portrayed an image of a modern city. Sometimes writers don’t have that balance and i really liked seeing both sides of the city.

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    Steven P

    November 5, 2013

    This really is an absolutely fascinating read. As someone who has never gone great distances on vacation, it really is a form of culture shock to see how different and contrasting things are in some places of the world as compared to here at home.

    More surprising than the contrast between Canada and foreign countries, however, are the many contrasts that exist within those very countries.  Even more surprising than that is that there can be such staunch variations and contradictions within a single city. It really is something to imagine that there can be such large cultural and ideological differences within the very limited confines of Istanbul when the biggest contrast in the entirety of North America is perhaps whether you speak English, French, or Spanish.

    The article was very eye-opening, and an absolute treat to read. Thanks for sharing!

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