politics : culture : economics

Religion, money and violence: the attack in Tophane

In Islam, Society, Turkey on September 27, 2010 at 4:20 pm

It seems to me that two aspects of last week’s attack on a number of galleries in Istanbul’s Tophane neighbourhood warrant attention: the reasons behind the violence and the violence itself. (For a first-hand account of the attack, see Jen Hattam’s blog, while there are some typically informative comments to be found on Jenny White’s site.)

Many of the responses to and analyses of the attack in the days that followed focused on the reasons rather than the violence. A widespread initial assumption was that the attack was a flexing of conservative religious muscle. Whether prompted by alcohol being consumed on the street, or by alleged insults directed at women from the neighbourhood, the suggestion was that the attack was a response to the galleries’ perceived disregard or disrespect for the religious sensibilities of local residents.

For many, this religious explanation for the violence was to be understood politically as much as culturally. The attack came in the wake of the government’s referendum victory, which opponents had warned would lead to increasing assertiveness on the part of the AKP and its religious constituency. Many of those who voted ‘no’ in the constitutional referendum saw in the Tophane attack the realisation of their worst fears about the trajectory this country is on.

Quite quickly, however, an alternative account emerged, which stressed socio-economic factors more than socio-religious ones. On this reading, the attack wasn’t so much about asserting or restoring a religiously grounded moral order in Tophane as it was a reaction against the process of gentrification—against well-heeled newcomers who were undermining the the area’s character as a residential community by driving up prices and turning the neighbourhood into a waypoint for Istanbul’s tourists and arty types. This was urban economics in action rather than pious aggression.

This gentrification account is puzzling and a little disconcerting. I can see how it might flesh out more cultural or religious explanations, but I’m not sure that it necessarily challenges them. The immediate pretext for what happened still seems to have been alcohol consumption rather than rent inflation. Which suggests that it’s not gentrification per se that riled the community, but rather (or also) the values that new money brought into the neighbourhood with it. Maybe another way of putting this is to wonder whether the same response would have been elicited had the gentrifying wealth coming into the neighbourhood been religiously conservative in character rather than artily Western. I do not know.

The disconcerting aspect of the gentrification argument is the sense one gets from some of those advancing it that it casts the night’s events in a less troubling light. As if, to put it bluntly, economic hardship is a ‘better’ reason for violence than religion would be. This is a fruitless, and potentially dangerous, line of thinking.

What makes last Tuesday night’s events so disturbing isn’t just that different elements of Istanbul clashed. Nor is it the specific reasons for the clash. It’s the nature of the violence of the clash. It remains to be confirmed precisely who carried out the attack. Whether it was locals or outsiders is clearly of significance. (So too is the police response.) But for a mob to descend on the galleries and their visitors with blunt instruments and pepper spray shouldn’t only be viewed as the symptom or expression of an underlying issue, whether that issue is religious or economic in character. The violence itself is a fundamental problem.

One doesn’t have to condone the use of violence to note that it has its different registers and intensities. What really shocks about the Tophane violence is its immediate extremity. There are various ways of gauging this. First, the attack was premeditated. This wasn’t a case of tempers fraying, with, for example, harsh words on the street leading to pushing and shoving which might then have led to worse. No, a decision was taken to attack the galleries, and men gathered for that purpose. Second, however, the mob didn’t only attack the galleries. This was an attack not just on property but on persons too. Third, it wasn’t only the gallery owners who were attacked, but visitors to the galleries. These were people with no direct role in (or, presumably, awareness of) whatever tensions have been playing themselves out in a changing neighbourhood.

Understanding the precise dynamics—religious, economic or otherwise—that led to the eruption of the violence is important. Of course it is. But more urgent is the need to respond to the violence itself. Turkey is riven by political, religious, cultural and economic cleavages that will be a source of tension and conflict for many long years to come. If violence is allowed, even tacitly, to remain among the repertoire of possible responses to these tensions, then we can look forward to grim times indeed. Violence has a way of taking on a life of its own; turn a blind eye to it in one context and it may well emerge in another. There are few things on which everyone across the social and political spectrum in Turkey can agree. But the importance of rejecting the Tophane violence and bringing the law to bear upon those who carried it out ought to be one of them.

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  1. […] being flippant, but not that flippant. Responding to criticism in the wake of the Tophane attacks some weeks ago, Turkey’s prime minister, Mr Erdoğan, said the following: “Sivil […]

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