Violence in Istanbul: a culture clash?

By Jean-baptiste Carrere

It doesn’t look very good for the 2010 European Capital of Culture when artists get beaten up with clubs on an exhibition night, but this is what happened in Istanbul last month. Gangs trashed three art galleries and injured several guests.

Tophane, where the attack took place, is a traditional and impoverished neighborhood in the centre of Istanbul. In recent years it has been experiencing gentrification: artists are settling in, galleries are opening, and even the Modern Art Museum was moved there. This phenomenon has consequences for the neighborhood: prices are rising, and the new arty crowd does not share the values of the traditional Muslim residents.

Moreover, the recent decision of the mayor of Beyoglu, the district encompassing Tophane, to destroy numerous derelict buildings – some inhabited – has created discontent among the lower classes.

On the night of 21 September, three galleries organising a common exhibition were attacked simultaneously by gangs carrying clubs, knives, shattered bottles and tear gas. The number of attackers was estimated to be about 40. Two of the galleries were trashed and both hosts and guests were targeted. Several sustained minor injuries, and five were seriously hurt but all were in deep shock. The victims reported that the attackers were shouting about the consumption of alcohol in the street, which became the first clue as to the cause of the attack: drinking on the street is considered a sign of disrespect by the Muslim locals.

Bari, who works at Gallery NON, does not believe it to be the main cause. This young man, who recently graduated from university, received tear gas in his eyes and was clubbed in the ribs. According to him the drinking did not trigger the attack. “It was too well organized,” he said. “They must have planned it for a long time”.

He is convinced that it was the work of extremist Muslim groups that operate in Tophane “sending a message” against the gentrification of the area. “It happened in New York, it happened in London, now Istanbul has to deal with it. And it’s not doing good so far,” he declared.

Indeed, the gap between the new residents and the local people is widening and the attack did not attract a lot of sympathy towards the new crowd. Ibrahim, who works in a restaurant next to Gallery NON said that “Tophane is a good place, a safe place” and that the artists “had it coming”.

Istanbul is the European Capital of Culture for 2010. The events of September may lead to questions about the stability of the city, especially considering Turkey’s aspirations for EU membership. Indeed, even though Ankara is the political capital, Istanbul is the actual face of modern Turkey.

Do these attacks reveal conflicts lying beneath the surface of Turkish society between tradition and innovation? At the very least Turkey should be concerned by the growing cultural gap between its citizens.