Gaining Freedoms: Claiming Space in Istanbul and Berlin

Gaining Freedoms: Claiming Space in Istanbul and Berlin

by Berna Turam

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Gaining Freedoms reveals a new locus for global political change: everyday urban contestation. Cities are often assumed hotbeds of socio-economic division, but this assessment overlooks the importance of urban space and the everyday activities of urban life for empowerment, emancipation, and democratization. Through proximity, neighborhoods, streets, and squares can create unconventional power contestations over lifestyle and consumption. And through struggle, negotiation, and cooperation, competing claims across groups can become platforms to defend freedom and rights from government encroachments.
Drawing on more than seven years of fieldwork in three contested urban sites—a downtown neighborhood and a university campus in Istanbul, and a Turkish neighborhood in Berlin—Berna Turam shows how democratic contestation echoes through urban space. Countering common assumptions that Turkey is strongly polarized between Islamists and secularists, she illustrates how contested urban space encourages creative politics, the kind of politics that advance rights, expression, and representation shared between pious and secular groups. Exceptional moments of protest, like the recent Gezi protests which bookend this study, offer clear external signs of upheaval and disruption, but it is the everyday contestation and interaction that forge alliances and inspire change. Ultimately, Turam argues that the process of democratization is not the reduction of conflict, but rather the capacity to form new alliances out of conflict.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804794480
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 04/08/2015
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Berna Turam is Associate Professor of Sociology and International Affairs at Northeastern University. She is the author of Between Islam and the State: The Politics of Engagement (Stanford, 2006).

Read an Excerpt

Gaining Freedoms

Claiming Space in Istanbul and Berlin

By Berna Turam


Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9452-7



IN AN INTERVIEW published in the daily newspaper Taraf on January 9, 2013, Cemal Kafadar, Vehbi Koç professor of Turkish Studies at Harvard University, expressed deep concern about transformations of the built environment in Istanbul:

The construction of the Golden Horn Metro Bridge is always on my mind. I have lost sleep over this issue for two years. I invite the officials dealing with these issues to take a more serious and professional approach. They seem to suggest things like: "We'll reduce the height by three meters here; we'll change the lighting and color; we'll change a detail in the upper corner." Do these ease or solve our concerns? They [the planners] say the objections are ideological. Be reasonable; show mercy [El insaf]! It's no exaggeration to say that if there are a few places on earth favored above all others, this is one of them.

Dismayed by political leaders' lack of cultural sensitivity, Kafadar called for public debate about urban construction projects, policies, and decisions affecting the exquisite city of Istanbul and its historic sites. He argued that decisions about places that belong to the public must be made by and with the public. Emphasizing the meeting points between the state officials and urban residents, Kafadar's words underlined the importance of local participation under an unresponsive state that ignores and disrespects urban residents' demands, interests, and needs.

A lot has been said about how states penetrate societies by dividing them, permeating the city on an everyday basis, and controlling, intervening in, and encroaching on urban space. Going briefly over the Ottoman and Republican periods into the recent period under the AKP rule, this chapter explores major shifts in the interaction between political rule and urban space in Istanbul. Turkey is not an exception in regard to the formation of state spaces — a process that occurred at different historical periods before and after the consolidation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. In this respect, particular attention needs to be paid to the AKP's encroachment on Istanbul's historic sites. In which ways do political and urban contestations happen concurrently? Why are political and urban fault lines mapped onto each other? How is the government's infringement on city life countered by new alliances and the defense of freedoms and rights in urban space?


Istanbul has historically been a showcase for several empires and states. After the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, the following decades witnessed thorough spatial reconstructions in order to transform the capital of the Christian Eastern Roman Empire into that of the Islamic Ottoman Empire. Not only was the conquest of the city pivotal for the empire but the making of the empire was tightly intertwined with rebuilding the city. In every historical era, the grandiose refashioning of Istanbul has been the most visible expression of political dominance, enabling political rulers to take pride in their territorial sovereignty. Even Max Weber, who construed his "Occidental city" in opposition to the "Islamic city," differentiated the Ottoman city from his typology of the "Islamic city." Istanbul was a misfit in Weber's theory. Unlike some of the previously colonized cities of the Muslim world, it cannot be easily made to conform to Weber's ideal-type of the Islamic city. It was the capital city of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires for almost sixteen centuries (between 330 ce and 1924) and has always displayed an amalgam of various cultural artifacts and religious architectures. In the nineteenth century, it was subject to both Islamic and European influences.

Like the "imperialization" period, the making of the nation and its state after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 was characterized by the reconstruction of Turkey's cities. Typically, modernist city planning and architecture gained particular momentum during the nation-building period. This relationship plays a crucial role in the state's assertiveness in the national project. "If nation is the constructed consensus of a collective memory, ... and an assembled sense of belonging to a set of values, norms, historical memories and narratives, then architectural landscapes indeed are the most visibly powerful ways in which it is created." In the decades following the consolidation of the secular Turkish Republic in 1923, the state initiated a massive de-Ottomanization of cities, followed by cultural defamiliarization and new forms of familiarizations in urban space. The mushrooming of statues of Kemal Atatürk across the urban landscape and the building of Atatürk's monumental mausoleum (Anitkabir) in Ankara were signs of the rapid state production of Republican space. By forming new state spaces, the state scaled up its political authority and power, aiming to shape social life and control political dynamics in national territory. Christopher Houston observes in this respect that "urban planners/architects alike invoke the efficacy of the planned environment and the politics of design to constrain and guide social conduct."

Similarly, when mosques are turned into churches (or vice versa) and/or into public museums, as in the case of Hagia Sofia, we are witnessing the refashioning of the built environment by the state. These changes in the built environment reflect the state's penetration of urban space with the goal of controlling, containing, and/or taming institutions, groups, people, and their behavior. Pointing to the political alliance between state officials and architects through the 1950s, Sibel Bozdogan refers to architecture as a field of visual politics. Indeed, more recently, the field of city planning and architecture has turned into a visual battlefield in Turkey.

The manifestation of tension and rivalry between Islamists and secularists over the use and control of urban landscapes is not a new phenomenon — particularly because while the urges of secularist elite were manifested most visibly in cities, Islamist movements also blossomed and flourished in urban space. From the late Ottoman period into the Republican era, Istanbul remained a locus of both secular and religious nostalgia for different people, reminding them of the different aspects of urbanity and various ways of life in the cosmopolitan city. The different imageries of the city evolved in competition with each other, making Istanbul an even more precious cultural and political landscape. From the mid-1980s on, Istanbul, like many cities in the Middle East, increasingly attracted Muslim groups and Islamist movements. This migration was largely propelled by the Turkish state's increasing tolerance for Islam as part of its battle against leftists in the aftermath of the military coup in 1980.

The Secular State Divides and Rules Urban Space

Actual contestations by Islamists for urban space, particularly over Istanbul, were fuelled in the mid-1990s, when "Islam" came to be seen as a major player in urban politics and a concern for urban policy manifested itself in both Turkey and Europe. When the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi; henceforth RP) won municipal elections in many Istanbul districts in 1994, the electoral victory was referred to by the RP as the "second conquest" by Islam after Fatih Sultan Mehmet's conquest in 1453, implying that the city was being rescued from Westernization and decadent modernity. The party made efforts to Islamize the city by building new mosques, attempting to impose new restrictions on alcohol consumption, policing the red light district in Beyoglu more strictly, and so on. At the same time, Istanbul witnessed the expansion of efficient municipal services under the then mayor, Tayyip Erdogan, later prime minister of Turkey (2002–present). While becoming increasingly afraid of the rise of political Islam, most Istanbulites appreciated the good local services provided by the RP.

The victory of the RP in the national parliamentary elections in 1996 fuelled the fears and reactions of secular Istanbulites. However, when the RP came to power in a coalition government, neither the secularists' complaints nor the contested entrance of head-scarved women into the city landscape dramatically changed everyday life. The semi-military coup in 1997 served as a catalyst, because the state confronted the rapid rise of Islamic movements by invading their associations and intimidating them with several repressive measures. The RP was closed down while still in power, and political leaders, including Tayyip Erdogan, were jailed. For a few years, successive Islamist parties (Fazilet and Saadet) remained marginal and weak. State intervention strategically repressed Islamists in the short run. Islamist activities in devout neighborhoods went underground. As Istanbul was already segregated into devout and secular neighborhoods, the state's ban on the head scarf in universities and public offices bolstered the city's segregation into mutually exclusive neighborhoods.

In the late 1990s, the majority of Istanbulites took care not to cross the invisible fences between devout and secular urban space. The scale of physical separation along urban fault lines was remarkable. Fear arising out of the unfamiliarity of the newcomers and elitism among old residents alienated the pious in the slums. Segregation was facilitated by the fact that these fault lines were not brand-new formations, but emerged originally from former patterns of settlement by the pious migrants. These boundaries existed between old and new neighborhoods within Istanbul before the revival of Islamism, since the divides between poor and well-off parts of the city were reinforced by neoliberal policies and globalization.

In the 1990s, Istanbul remained spatially segregated. When I invited some pious Muslim friends to a Euro-cafe in my neighborhood, Tesvikiye, on a cold winter day in 1998, the segregation of the city hit me in the face. I picked up three head-scarved women from the shuttle stop in Tesvikiye, and walked with them for less than five minutes to a café on the next block. During this short walk, every person on the street stared at us. The head-scarved women became increasingly self-conscious and embarrassed. When we entered the café, everybody in the small, cozy coffee shop looked at my guests with curious eyes, wondering what they were doing there, and what I was doing with them. Not having seen a veiled woman in the neighborhood café before, they turned us into spectacle.

I experienced the symptoms of a segregated city through another incident on a hot summer day in 1998, several months after the military intervention. During a city tour organized for a group of secular urban intellectuals and scholars, the bus stopped at Çamlica Hill, a place revitalized as a public park by the Islamic municipality, where we took a break in a teahouse administered by the local government. Soon after we arrived, we realized we were the only group of people who did not look "modestly dressed." Some in our group were wearing shorts, short tops, or tight jeans. The locals, who gave disapproving looks, stared at the entire group. Some people in our group asked for beer, while many in our group stared at devout brides who had come to Çamlica Park to take bridal pictures. The conservative bridal gowns covering the entire body and the head especially interested most people in our group. This bridal fashion was simply new and unfamiliar to the visitors, who had not seen it before. Made to feel uncomfortable by the visitors, several groups of people sitting around our large table left soon after we arrived. Back on the bus, people expressed disappointment about stopping in "neighborhoods invaded by the devout [dinci]." The tour guide apologized for the inconvenience.

Both of these events attest to the neat fences that demarcated Islamic and secular urban space in Istanbul in the late 1990s. Both the secular group's stop at Çamlica and the devout women's visit to Tesvikiye illustrate exceptional instances of "transgression" of the fault lines. They illuminate social exclusion and segregation in public spaces, which were open to everyone in principle but were not preferred and utilized collectively in practice. While the entrance of devout or secular groups into the others' "unfamiliar territory" was unpleasant and involuntary, there seemed to be an undeclared comfort in segregation and conserving the status quo, which kept everything in place. More bluntly, social exclusion was embraced bilaterally and seemed to create mutual relief from uncomfortable contact with "the unwanted." In both cases, the most obvious reminder of transgression was the female body.

Although state intervention in 1998 divided the landscape and segregated urban residents of Istanbul in the short run, Islamism in Turkey soon started to transform itself in unforeseen directions. Abandoning the party's initial principle of siding with poor urban migrants, RP municipalities started to work on "rescuing Istanbul from barbarian provincials." This clearly showed that "Istanbul [was] the key to [the Islamist RP's] bargain with the established structures of power." Although the state's divide-and-rule policy intended to suppress and segregate Islamists by dividing urban space, it ended up indirectly facilitating their integration into the free market, the secular state, and secular urban space in the new millennium.

Unintended by the State: From Segregated into Mixed City

Just ten years later, in 2007, when the pro-Islamic party was elected by free and fair elections for the second time in the secular Turkish Republic, the spatial organization of the city revealed a totally different story. As Muslim actors and head-scarved women have permeated the entire city landscape, as well as bourgeois lifestyles, Istanbul has changed from being a "divided" city into a more "integrated" mixed geography. Given the earlier segregation of Istanbul along religious lines, existing works distinguished between "Islamic" and "secular" spaces. This was perceived as one of the main principles of urban inequality, exclusion, and discrimination. Yet the new millennium was marked by a gradual shift from mutually exclusive Islamic and secular neighborhoods into a contested proximity and integration between these groups.

Paradoxically, instead of erasing the divides, this integration simply meant that the nature of the fault lines has gradually changed. As the unspoken fences between "Islamic and secular spaces" were casually transgressed in central Istanbul, the neat lines of segregation in the city have lent themselves to vocal microlevel urban contestations. More concretely, urban conflict deepened in one's immediate life sphere, as the ways of life and education levels of pious and secular urban residents have become more similar. The spatial proximity and leveling off of differences have forced the old secularist elite to share not only political power but also urban space with the new rising Muslim bourgeoisie. My findings suggest that urban space has become the locus of contestation triggered by uncomfortable proximity between pious and secular ways of life. Paradoxically, these discomforts trigger spatial processes of negotiation over rights and freedom.

The schemes and strategies of states do not always follow smoothly as planned. More concretely, states' overarching projects rooted in the nation-building period encounter a series of challenges and attacks from oppositional political forces. These contestations reshape the original agendas of founding fathers, and may mold them into new trajectories. "[P]eople subvert, lucidly or practically, the intentions of states and their planners, and cities are partially constituted through the very resistance their built environments provoke," Houston notes. The entrance and gradual integration of pious Muslims into urban spaces that were previously designated as secular sites interrupted and unsettled the environmental determinism of the previous secularist elite. Throughout the first decade of the new millennium, pious Muslims filtered into Istanbul's most secular "fortresses," which would not have considered allowing access to head-scarved women until a decade ago. During the first two terms of AKP rule (2002–11), this new mixing in the city was definitely an unintended outcome of state's divide-and-rule policy.


Excerpted from Gaining Freedoms by Berna Turam. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Acronyms xiii

Introduction: The City and the Government 1

1 Between State Spaces and Autonomous Places 25

Part 1 On Neighborhood Politics 39

2 A Neighborhood Divided by Lifestyles 45

3 Affinities in the Zones of Freedom 57

Part 2 On Campus Politics 77

4 Fault Lines on Campus 85

5 New Coalitions in Safe Zones 105

Part 3 On "Ethnic" Neighborhoods 119

6 Kreuzberg's Divided Diaspora 127

7 Emerging Solidarities in Immigrant Zones 149

Conclusion: Unified Opposition to the Divided Supremacy of the AKP 167

Notes 191

References 227

Index 243

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