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İstanbul’s character as 2010 European capital under spotlight February 15, 2010

Posted by Yilan in EU, European Union, Turkey.
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A fireworks display kicks off İstanbul’s year as a European Capital  of Culture. Çoncerns have been raised over whether Europeans want to  embrace all of Turkey, including its Islamic heritage, as a part of  Europe. A fireworks display kicks off İstanbul’s year as a European Capital of Culture. Çoncerns have been raised over whether Europeans want to embrace all of Turkey, including its Islamic heritage, as a part of Europe.

Some have said that İstanbul’s designation as one of the three European Capitals of Culture this year was the result of much effort, will pave the way for expanding the city’s popularity, especially in Europe, and will change Europe’s negative views toward Turkey.

However, for others, the distinction awarded to the city has turned into an issue closely related to Orientalism, Turkey’s identity crisis and its modernization, along with concerns about the high cost of the celebrations.“It is important how İstanbul is perceived regarding its title as the European Capital of Culture. Does Europe accept İstanbul’s place in Islamic civilization or does it only approve of the modern, Westernized parts of İstanbul? From Turkey’s perspective, does Turkey present İstanbul with all its aspects including its historic importance relating to Islam or does it present İstanbul simply as a part of the European continent?” asked Yeni Şafak daily columnist Akif Emre, speaking to Sunday’s Zaman.

Following a European Union resolution in 1999 enlarging the European Capital of Culture project to include non-member countries, a group of civil society volunteers in Turkey arranged a meeting on July 7, 2000 in order to establish an “enterprise group” that would take the required steps to nominate İstanbul as a European Capital of Culture candidate.

After a long process and attempts by many civil society members, İstanbul was recommended on April 11, 2006 to be the 2010 European Capital of Culture. On Nov. 13, 2006 İstanbul was formally announced as one of three European Capitals of Culture for 2010, along with Pecs, Hungary, and Essen, Germany. One of the characteristics that the EU looks for when choosing a city as a capital of culture is its multicultural nature.

Is İstanbul multicultural?

Commenting on multiculturalism in İstanbul, Sabah daily columnist Engin Ardıç reminded readers of an unpleasant event known as the Sept. 6-7 incidents, which caused the Turkish Greek minority that had been residing in the city for centuries to leave İstanbul.

On Sept. 6-7, 1955, clashes targeting the Turkish Greeks in İstanbul along with the inattentive and indifferent attitudes of the Democrat Party (DP) government toward the violence against some of the non-Muslim minority put heavy pressure on the Greeks to leave the city where they and their families had been living for centuries.

Ardıç stated that the city had undergone a negative transformation stemming from overpopulation and migration, which resulted in the city losing the unique characteristics that created its identity.

“The city residents betrayed [the Turkish Greeks] before they left İstanbul,” said Ardıç, accusing the people of not standing up against the forced migration and unfair treatment directed against non-Muslim residents of İstanbul.

Akif Emre also raised similar objections against the city’s claims to multiculturalism and related this characteristic to the Islamic culture the city had, which he believes allowed minorities to live in peace for centuries: “When İstanbul started to lose its Islamic components, which offered a comfortable and peaceful atmosphere to its non-Muslim residents, the typical characteristics of the city began to disappear.”

From another critical perspective, Zaman columnist Ali Bulaç highlights the Orientalist view toward the centuries-old city and interpreted the distinction as a product of this outlook.

The veteran sociologist underlined that the approach some Western media organs adopted is a degrading and Orientalist way of seeing İstanbul.

“Şekip Avdagiç, head of the European Capital of Culture Agency, stated that İstanbul is a non-European city that has become, for once and for all, a European Capital of Culture,” said Bulaç. Explaining the Orientalist view with an example, Bulaç pointed to the Switzerland-based Basler Zeitung, which stated, “İstanbul has always wanted to be a part of Europe,” when commenting on the city’s becoming a European Capital of Culture.

However, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan highlighted in his speech during the ceremony to mark the launch of İstanbul’s year as a European Capital of Culture that “İstanbul has always been European and will remain so.”

Bulaç rejected Erdoğan’s remarks and claimed that the Islamic characteristics of İstanbul, which dominated the “soul” of the city after the conquest, are what made İstanbul the pearl of the world and what gave the city the multiculturalism it had.

He also drew attention to the concerts organized by the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality to celebrate the distinction awarded to the city, for which the municipality has spent TL 8.5 million. Bulaç said that for him, the money was wasted and could have instead been used to support the city’s infrastructure, which he maintains is not ready for a major earthquake

Agreeing with Bulaç, the leader of main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Deniz Baykal, also expressed his criticism of the extreme expenditures for the capital of culture celebrations in a speech at his party’s parliamentary group meeting on Tuesday.

Proponents have argued that the activities to be staged throughout the course of 2010 will help Turkish and European artisans to come together and know each other better. Furthermore, the cultural festivities in İstanbul will put an end to debates over whether İstanbul belongs to Europe.

When asked whether İstanbul needs to advertise to gain an international reputation, Zeynep Göğüş, culture envoy for the İstanbul European Capital of Culture campaign and a well-known journalist, told Sunday’s Zaman that the need for İstanbul to advertise is clear; however, she urged officials to take steps to eliminate infrastructural shortcomings of the city.

“One of the biggest troubles in the city is the traffic problem. Taxi service is not satisfactory,” said Göğüş, and pointed to Turkey’s lack of experience in the arena of international advertising.

Göğüş brought up another factor which she thinks is a hurdle to the successful advertisement of the country, claiming: “Due to our Ottoman past we are so arrogant that we cannot see branding as a necessity. Our past pushes us to think that others must learn of us rather than the truth that we have to explain our city and country to others.” Explaining the contribution this designation will make to Turkey’s EU bid — providing the European public opportunities to take a closer look at İstanbul and Turkey in general — Göğüş emphasized that İstanbul will be on the agenda of Europe much more in 2010.

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