He threw me out of the taxi. It was the first day of Ramadan and he objected to me not fasting. I was lucky that our quarrel ended without physical violence.
However, at around the same time there were some other people who were not as lucky as I was. A few university students at Gazi University in Ankara were stabbed for the simple “crime” of eating something during Ramadan. I do not know what the political affiliations of that taxi driver were, but we knew those vandals who were terrorizing university students at Gazi University in the name of “religion” were actually ultra-nationalist “grey wolves.” Back then neither this current government was in power nor was the Ankara municipality being run by them.
If anything happens in today’s Turkey that somehow resembles a kind of religious intolerance or shows a conflict between different ways of life, there is a tendency to attribute it to this government. Some would like to see a connection between any kind of narrow-mindedness and the fact that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which is conservative and consists of mostly devout Muslims, is in power.
Intolerance and violence, however, have a very long history in Turkey. And these two attributes are not unique to any group, whether they are leftist or conservative, religious or secular. I gave two examples that seemingly resemble a kind of “religious” intolerance in order to show that this particular attitude has a long history in Turkey.
Vandals in Tophane
This Wednesday a terrible incident took place in İstanbul’s Tophane neighborhood. Turkish and foreign art lovers who were visiting art galleries were beaten severely by some local vandals. At least 30 visitors were hospitalized but luckily no one was killed. The attackers seemed to be quite organized, carrying pepper spray, clubs and sticks. The number of the attackers is estimated as 57 and apparently they were preparing for this attack for a long time via Internet communications.
There are various accounts explaining how and why this attack happened. But they all boil down to one thing. There has been a serious clash of lifestyles between old conservative residents who have been living in this slum for a long time and the newcomers who have just started to open art galleries. Apparently the tension has been building up for a while. Some art gallery owners say that they were warned not to have receptions in front of their galleries. And some locals also explained that people were attacked because they were drinking alcohol in the streets. The area’s old inhabitants attacked the newcomers because the newcomers are changing the environment of their district. The poor confront the high society in fear of losing their neighborhood. Whatever the sociopolitical explanation of this event, what the perpetrators did is simply barbarism and they deserve serious punishment for the terror they have caused.
As has happened on many occasions, some people will tend to read this “clash” as a result of having a conservative political party in power. I do not agree with them at all. These kinds of violent conflicts happen between old and new habitants of neighborhoods in any corner of the world. I do not think it has anything to do with this government or Turkey becoming more conservative or anything like that. However, the government does have a serious obligation as a result of this incident. They should show everyone that they take this incident very seriously and they will not tolerate violence by anyone, whatever religious or traditional values they cite as an excuse for their behavior. I urge the AK Party government to take this incident very seriously, to investigate it thoroughly and to do everything in its power to make sure the perpetrators get the just punishment they deserve.
The Turkey we wish to see
I would like to finish this article with an anecdote. Almost a year ago, as a delegation from Today’s Zaman, we went to Washington. The delegation consisted of myself, Lale Kemal, İhsan Dağı, Yavuz Baydar, and the editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman, Bülent Keneş. Baydar and I are wine lovers and we did not want to miss the opportunity to sample the quality wines offered in Washington’s fancy restaurants. I enjoy wine but I also have a great deal of respect for religious beliefs. All our expenses were being paid for by Today’s Zaman. Thinking that paying our alcohol bills might be a source of irritation for our devout Muslim friends, Baydar and I offered to pay for the “extra expenses” ourselves. Our offer was immediately refused by Keneş. He paid for our wine wherever we went. While we were enjoying our wine, he and Ali Aslan, Zaman’s Washington representative, were discussing amongst themselves whether the dish they were about to order would be cooked with wine. They were trying to eat “halal food.” We, two different faces of Turkey, were co-existing there in such a warm harmony and peace. I think this picture of us is the picture of Turkey that holds the key for 21st century: A Turkey that welcomes differences and in which people have the pleasure of sharing the same country with others who have different lifestyles than their own.