In full public view, a long struggle over urban spaces is erupting as a broader fight over Turkish identity, where difficult issues of religion, social class and politics intersect. And while most here acknowledge that every Turkish ruling class has sought to put its stamp on Istanbul, there is a growing sense that none has done so as insistently as the current government, led by Mr. Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party, despite growing resistance.
Edhem Eldem, a historian at Bogazici University in Istanbul, has criticized the government for undertaking large-scale development projects without seeking recommendations from the public. “In a sense, they are drunk with power,” he said. “They lost their democratic reflexes and are returning to what is the essence of Turkish politics: authoritarianism.”
The swiftly changing physical landscape of Istanbul symbolizes the competing themes that undergird modern Turkey — Islam versus secularism, rural versus urban. They highlight a booming economy and a self-confidence expressed by the religiously conservative ruling elite that belies the post-empire gloom that permeates the novels of Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate and most famous writer.
Mr. Erdogan’s decade-long rule has dramatically reshaped Turkey’s culture by establishing civilian control of the military. It has broken down rules of the old secular order that now permit the wide public expression of religion, seen in the proliferation of women wearing head scarves, by the conservative masses who make up the prime minister’s constituency. His rule has also nurtured a pious capitalist class, whose members have moved in large numbers from rural Anatolia to cities like Istanbul, deepening class divisions.
The old secular elite, who consider themselves the inheritors of the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey’s secular founder, have chafed under these transformations. So, too, have liberals, who do not label themselves Kemalists and are tolerant of public displays of religion. But they object to Mr. Erdogan’s leadership style, which they describe as dictatorial, and are put off by many of the development projects on the grounds of bad taste, a view imbued with a sense of social elitism.
At 87, Dogan Kuban is perhaps Istanbul’s foremost urban historian. He has written numerous books and worked with the United Nations on preservation issues in Turkey. He complained that he has never been consulted by the current government. “I am the historian of Istanbul,” he said. “They don’t consult with anybody.”
He criticized the government for ignoring the country’s pre-Islamic history by not protecting certain archaeological sites and structures, an issue he cast as highlighting Turkey’s turn away from Western culture under Mr. Erdogan’s rule. “The only things being preserved are mosques,” he said. “Preservation is a very refined part of the culture. It’s very much a part of European civilization.”
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