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The Attack On The Art Galleries

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] Tuesday night, something terrible happened in Istanbul: Two modern art galleries, which were hosting cocktail parties, were stormed by more than two dozen men who had batons, knives and bottles in their hands. They harassed the people inside, beat some of them, and used pepper sprays on others. Luckily, no serious injury took place, but many were hurt, and all art fans that happened to be there that night were terrorized. This is certainly a criminal and barbaric attack. I condemn it wholeheartedly. I also want to extend my “geçmiş olsun” (in Turkish, literally, “let it be passed”) wishes to the galleries in question and their guests. Class struggle? There is no confusion about that part. But there is controversy in the Turkish media now about what this attack was really about and what it tells us about our society. Newspapers, including the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review, reported the view that “the scuffle broke out due to alcohol consumption in the streets.” Accordingly, many people instinctively saw a parallelism between this incident and Turkey’s alleged course toward becoming a “shariah state.” Well, let’s see if that is really the case. One interesting note was in a column by Yalçın Doğan, whose secular credentials are impeccable, in daily Hürriyet. “A friend of mine has been living in that neighborhood for 20 years,” wrote Doğan the other day. “For 20 years, people there have been drinking alcohol, listening to music, and chatting on the street. Everybody has been living as they wished.” Who were the attackers, then? Doğan has no clear idea, but suspects that they are “a group of hooligans… who probably drink alcohol themselves.” (A self-declared culprit, who spoke to daily Radikal anonymously, also said, “Some of us were also people who drink.”) Besides, there is the interesting fact that one of the galleries, Galeri Non, was hosting an exhibit which made fun of – guess what – Atatürk and Kemalism: hardly the target for a cadre of ideological Islamists. To get a better picture, perhaps we should take a look at the Tophane neighborhood, where these attacks took place. Traditionally, this has been a poor and parochial area, but since its rusty streets have a “cool” historic feeling, it has become trendy in the past decade. So, places like art galleries, bars and hostels were opened here and there, bringing a whole new crowd of people. The traditional Tophane resident is the typical Anatolian man. But the new crowd includes people with unusual hairstyles, tattoos, piercings, and all sorts of things that probably look too alien to the old residents. The tension can be seen in some of the postings on the Tophane News website (, which became the focus of media attention after the incident. The chat board includes some of the resident’s complaints about the newcomers, who “show up in their hostel balconies half naked,” who “walk around drunken,” or who play loud music all night long. In return, they speak of the need to “reclaim our neighborhood.” The tension, it seems, is one that of class, rather than a strict religious-secular divide. Atılgan Bayar, a columnist for daily Akşam, agrees, and argues that the tension in Tophane is caused by “gentrification,” and takes place between “the poor” who are disturbed by, among other things, the astronomic increase in rents and other prices, and the newly arrived “bohemian rich.” I am not denying that religion must have a share in the cultural makeup of Tophane’s tough guys. (There is also no doubt that we have fanatic Islamists in Turkey who are responsible for some horrific incidents, such as the killing of 33 people in Sivas in 1993, for “insulting the prophet.”) But rather than ideological Islamists, the Tophane thugs seem to fit into the usual crude and uneducated conservative/nationalist type: the guy who would beat someone for eating during Ramadan and then cheer for this in the beer hall. Or beats someone who looks suggestively at his sister, but then would go and hit rudely on any good-looking lady he sees. AKP to blame? Finally, I should say that the incident did not happen because “the Islamist AKP is in power.” First of all, the municipality there is run by an AKP mayor, Ahmet Misbah Demircan, who spearheaded the gentrification project. He and his people clearly have no problem with the boom of art galleries or bars. Secondly, there is no need for “fundamentalists” to be “emboldened” by the government for such things, as Semiz İdiz unconvincingly suggested in these pages yesterday. (Sivas killings had taken place when a very secular-minded government was in power.) Third, I am sure AKP folks wish no such things ever happen, because they only bring on them more of this bilge about “creeping Islamism.” But it is certainly the job of the government to make sure that Tophane becomes safe for all. It was good that Culture Minister Ertuğrul Günay visited the attacked galleries and condemned the violence. But what is crucial is to find the culprits and bring them to justice – something the Istanbul police should do seriously and quickly.
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