Özge Genç, Beril Bahadır
In the relationships between state and social identities in Turkey, politicized youth are often times in the forefront as the most visible actors of contentious politics. They come face-to- face with law enforcement during street demonstrations as extensions of conflict processes. Even though they constitute the target of security policies, they do not garner enough attention in the making of future policies. The mentality that views politicized young people as a “problematic group” considers them as players that should be rehabilitated, guided, and directed. Young individuals are invisible during the political and social decision-making processes; they are almost non-existent in politics, parliament, negotiation and dialogue tables, public administration, and policy development. The lack of youth representation at the institutional level and in politics, young peoples’ limited power to have a say in their own lives and make decisions to that end, and the influence of an isolated, closed sense of belonging on the worldviews of some, form the bases of this study.
The Istanbul Youth Mapping Series, conducted by PODEM in partnership with Berghof Foundation, focuses on youth politicized around Alevi, Kurdish, and Sunni/Islamist identities, and looks into their lives, expectations, and relations with their neighborhood, city, and country they inhabit. Not unlike many of the metropoles around the world, Istanbul is a city that leaves its mark on the lives of young people with social problems, such as exclusion, isolation, poverty, social inequality, and drug abuse. The adverse impacts of these problems generally tend to concentrate in the outskirts of the city. On top of these problems, the over- securitization of youth from the peripheral neighborhoods comprises an important problem. As security policies trump social policies, youth may find themselves at a dead-end where they resort to violence, or at least adopt a tougher rhetoric.
The series, of which the current report is a chapter, is a product of several field studies aiming to demonstrate the potential within young people to reinforce social agreement and peace in society. It aims to provide guidance in this regard for adults, legislators, and decision- makers, who view young people as a group that needs to be managed. It focuses on the transformative power of youth on hierarchical, authoritative structures, congregational models, and on gender and parent-child relations. Young individuals are taken into consideration as active subjects rather than passive objects. The political recommendations presented in this report are based on this approach. In the series, the aim was to map out the modes of politicization constructed around various identities. An effort was made to understand what other factors feed such identity- based politicization. Through interviews with young people, the study attempted to examine the connections between their political attitudes vis-à-vis their daily lives, families and friends, relationships with social structures, and expectations from the future. Through spatial analyses too, the study sought to understand why and under what circumstances consolidations and fractures in political attitudes occur. The processes of belief and ideology formation, and the factors that pull young people away from such processes, were also examined. Answers were sought to determine who exactly young people from certain social identities are, what their similarities and differences are, and who embraces these identities, and to what extent. To this end, interviews were held with young individuals who find themselves in spatial vicious cycles, are influenced by social inequality and lack of means to develop, espouse a sense of belonging to a certain political, cultural, ethnic or religious identity, as well as with individuals with strong observations of these youth groups.
As a part of the series, semi-structured, in-depth interviews were held with a total of 23 individuals aged between 17–28 from various walks of life in the Sultanmurat, Fevzi Çakmak, Kanarya, Cumhuriyet and Cennet neighborhoods of the Küçükçekmece district in Istanbul. The interviews aimed to analyze the sense of belonging felt by young people in their own neighborhoods—as well as the subcultures of these neighborhoods—together with the socioeconomic, political, and social aspects of such belonging. Data was collected by means of semi-ethnographic observation at markets, parks, retail stores and coffee shops within the neighborhoods. The interviews were held in August 2015.
An important characteristic of the Küçükçekmece neighborhoods is that those associated with certain identity groups are located next to each other. Traditionally, immigrants from Albania live in Sultanmurat; while Fevzi Çakmak is home to immigrants from Bulgaria. Cumhuriyet and Cennet neighborhoods on the other hand feature a more mixed profile, hailing from the Balkans and various parts of Anatolia. Kanarya residents are mostly Kurds who were forced to migrate in the 1990s from the Eastern and Southeastern provinces of Turkey.
- Communication between Kurds in Kanarya and communities in surrounding neighborhoods is almost non-existent. While encounters take place in common public areas such as schools and markets, they do not evolve into meaningful interaction. The fact that “Turks and Kurds do not attend each other’s weddings” demonstrates the magnitude of the lack of communication between the two communities.
- Young individuals who have managed to intellectually distance themselves from their respective segment/community frequently encounter other identities which they were taught to view as “others.” As a result, they establish relationships with people from different identities through direct communication rather than perception of threat. These young individuals have the courage to face outsiders to their own communities and not dismiss different identities.
- Young nationalist Turks from families who descend from Balkan migrants often marginalize others. These young people, of which some lack any higher education, almost entirely spend their daily lives in their own neighborhood and have no vision for a future outside their respective community. They also tend to use hostile language towards Kurds, whom they hold responsible for the atmosphere of terror associated with Kanarya.
- Still, such hostility is limited to language only; despite the fact that they can use such language, young people’s concerns regarding their safety and that of their workplace in the case of an actual clash, weighs heavily. For instance, when pressed on the probability of a clash, they respond with statements such as “we are storekeepers, we can’t get involved that far, we have to mind our own business,” or, “I have to go home to my family at the end of the day.”
- With a few exceptions, a common denominator among the majority of young people is leaving their neighborhoods to build a different life. The reasons for such a desire among young people vary depending on their socioeconomic status, the way they imagine a good life, and their relationships with their social circles.
- Among young people who are prospective or current college students or graduates who get out and have more access to central parts of Istanbul, individualism is becoming the main determinant in their perspective of individual-community relations. For young people with a developed sense of individualism, life outside their neighborhood denotes an expanded realm of freedom and a heightened self-actualization.
- On the other hand, when it comes to young people involved in trade, such as vendors or small business-owners, the appeal of life outside the neighborhood is based on a desire to attain the sort of living standards that they perceive as higher in the center or in districts surrounding them.
- As for young Kurds, they do not feel safe, especially at the possibility of running into Turkish nationalists in random settings and perhaps being targeted. Some live secluded in the neighborhood and/or want to return to the Kurdish provinces, where they imagine as having an ideal setting that will save them from the feeling of being trapped, which either results from the social inequality in Istanbul, or close-knit familial relations.
- Going to different corners of Istanbul for college or work introduces young people to the diversity of the city in terms of places and communities, making them more tolerant in quite a few aspects. Therefore, there is value in diversifying education and employment opportunities and supporting programs that favor such initiatives, especially for young people of limited incomes, living in neighborhoods with closed subcultures.
- Local administrations can establish a locally effective, inclusive institutional structure where young people of different identity groups from the neighborhood are represented. In these institutions, young individuals from all walks of life, youth experts and social policy- makers can work on sustainable projects that encourage coexistence, which may contribute to the creation of a more reconciliatory culture among young people.
- Creation and support of common social areas such as youth centers, with the help of neutral and independent nonprofit organizations, may, in fact, increase social encounters and interaction among the new generations of different identity groups.
This research presents an analysis of the socioeconomic, social, and ideological states of the young residents from different communities in the Sultanmurat, Fevzi Çakmak, Kanarya, and Cumhuriyet neighborhoods of the Küçükçekmece district on the western periphery of Istanbul. It further seeks to map out the modes of encounters and interactions between the new generations of different communities in the above-mentioned dimensions. Küçükçekmece was deliberately chosen as the location of the research, for it is a cosmopolitan district where social fault lines intersect and the resulting tensions manifest themselves in the daily lives of its communities.
To date, Küçükçekmece has received two main waves of migration— from the Balkans in the 1950s, and from eastern and southeastern Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s. One of the consequences of the migration inflow over the course of decades was the clustering of different identity groups in different district neighborhoods, and the natural emergence of various “communal/identity enclaves” insulated from outside effects. This phenomenon resonates in the way residents name the neighborhoods in everyday language. The Sultanmurat neighborhood, for example, is informally referred to as “Albanian neighborhood,” and the Kanarya neighborhood as “little Kurdistan,” revealing the ethnic backgrounds of their inhabitants. The Kanarya neighborhood was home to clashes between the police and demonstrators over the siege of the Kurdish city of Kobane by ISIS in October 2014. The neighborhood then received media attention with increased security operations in the summer of 2015 (when the research was conducted), following the termination of the peace talks between the Turkish government and the Kurdish political movement.
To the south of Kanarya are the Sultanmurat, Fevzi Çakmak, and Cumhuriyet neighborhoods. Roughly put, Sultanmurat traditionally comprises residents with Albanian backgrounds, while Fevzi Çakmak comprises those with Bulgarian backgrounds. Although from a distance it appears that both communities may share similar experiences of migration from the Balkans into Turkey, each community sees the other as “culturally different.” The Cumhuriyet neighborhood, on the other hand, is more diverse; its inhabitants come from Albanian, Bulgarian, and Bosnian backgrounds or from various Anatolian provinces. In short, Küçükçekmece constitutes microcosms made up of various ethnic identity groups.
Although the local sentiment would be that different ethnic communities have become associated with the respective neighborhoods they had immigrated to by and large, it would be wrong to assume that the neighborhoods are monoethnic in their social composition. As the following section analyzes, while geographically the district of Küçükçekmece is on the periphery of Istanbul, it is not isolated from the forces of the economic transformation and rapid urbanisation that define the center. With increased social mobility, various ethnic communities leave their enclaves and engage with one another today more than in the past. It should be further noted that the urbanisation in the 1980s resulted in mass immigration into many districts of Istanbul, including Küçükçekmece, from rural Anatolia. As a result, though these neighborhoods are associated with certain ethnic communities, they are by no means “homogeneous.”
What sets Küçükçekmece apart from the other districts of Istanbul that also received parallel waves of migration is how its migrant communities are settled in enclaves that are adjacent to one another. The following analyses will show how the particular clustering of the communities in their enclaves leads to the manifestation of varied forms of cross-communal encounters. Increased cross-communal encounters, as a result of more exposure to the city center and greater social mobility, make it easier to observe and understand the attitudes towards the communities to one another. The wealth of interactive dynamics Küçükçekmece offers both “within the neighborhoods” and “across neighborhoods” makes it a productive site for the research.
As a part of the research, in-depth interviews were carried out with a total of 23 people aged between 17–28 in the Sultanmurat, Fevzi Çakmak, Kanarya, Cumhuriyet, and Cennet neighborhoods of Küçükçekmece (see Appendix 1). The sample of interviewees were built by employing a snowball method. Half of the interviewees from the Kanarya neighborhood are Kurdish, while the other half are from families that have immigrated from the Balkans. All the interviewees from the Fevzi Çakmak and Sultanmurat neighborhoods have Albanian backgrounds. Interviewees from the Cumhuriyet and Cennet neighborhoods are from families that migrated there from the Balkans and various parts of rural Anatolia.
Through the interviews, the young residents’ perspectives towards the communities they belong to and the nearby communities, their interactions with their own neighborhoods and the wider environment, their political attitudes, and their expectations for the future were analyzed. Semi-structured interviews were held to better identify those issues that are important to the interviewees and not immediately obvious to the researchers. To create a comfortable, safe space, the choice of location was left to the interviewees (mostly coffee houses, parks, offices). This approach enabled the observation of spatial influences on identity formation.
The interviews were one-on-one to facilitate a sincere, uninterrupted flow of communication. However, in a few cases the friends of the interviewees joined in, leading to group conversations instead of one-on-one dialogues. In group conversations, the interactions between young people of different political convictions could be observed and documented. The interviewees and their friends agreed on or disputed one another on several occasions, and through analysing their dialogue, the points of convergence and divergence in their neighborhoods across key political and social issues were mapped out. The research did not set out to to test a pre-existing hypothesis through fieldwork. Instead, the premise that spatial factors, social settings, familial bonds, and ethical values drive identity formation was accepted, and so the fieldwork was designed loosely to facilitate a process through which the impact of these factors on the identities of the subjects could be observed. With that, it must be conceded that the inferences are not representative— the research deliberately discourages generalized conclusions by its scale and methodology, and promises instead to portray the daily lives and interactions of the young people who share the same slice of Istanbul at a discrete point in their lives.
The first chapter by Rüştü Hacıoğlu departs from an assumption that spatial factors influence identity and offers a spatial analysis of Küçükçekmece with its social transformation over the decades. The following chapters feature the analyses of Beril Bahadır and Nuhat Muğurtay on first, the socioeconomic state and expectations of young people, the opportunities available to them and their preferences, and their interactions with their social environment – this being their attitudes towards their own community and encounters with identity groups defined as the “other.” Young people’s political attitudes and the social behaviors they inspire are also explored. The conclusion pulls together the analytical highlights and discusses several key policy recommendations that could increase the points of convergence in young people’s perceptions
The Emergence of Public Space in Küçükçekmece
Küçükçekmece is part of an ancient commercial route but it became salient more recently as an urban residential neighborhood after being integrated into the urban railroad network in 1950s and the highway network via the Londra (London) Motorway. In 1941, Küçükçekmece was a village with just 780 inhabitants. By 1956, it had expanded to a township and by 1986, into a district of over 100,000 inhabitants. In 2015, Küçükçekmece was recorded to have 740,000 residents.
Küçükçekmece stretches from a plateau east of the Küçükçekmece lake upwards towards a hill. It is a textbook-case urban ghetto, which emerged from waves of labor migration into Turkey’s large cities within the country’s painful journey to modernization. Expanding outward from the central train station, this district, with its smaller socioeconomic and cultural enclaves, represents a microcosm of Istanbul’s peripheral struggles over migration, class, cross-cultural interactions, and politics.
The neighborhoods that branched northward from the old town center developed mostly as “compatriot ghettos,” representing the geographical manifestations of ethnic and cultural identities. With full scale industrialization, labor migrants from all over the country formed the crushing majority of major cities and the peripheral neighborhoods emerged as sites of cultural corruption and hybridization1.
Neighborhoods first emerged as ghettos housing migrants from the Balkans and Thrace, and with deepening industrialization, they came to attract migration from across Turkey. Over time, ghettos presented class mobility opportunities to all due to the availability of space and the likelihood of higher short-term returns to property owners. Thus, before thicker barriers dividing cultural and ethnic blocs could form, larger boundary lines enriched by diverse cultures and the necessity to coexist sketched the route from the ghetto to the city.
It is within this framework that various migrant groups from the Balkans, whose differences were large enough to present challenges to cohabitation, encountered complete strangers— migrants from Eastern, Southeastern, and Central Turkey. These culturally different communities found themselves bottled up as they had to balance the urgency to adapt to urban life and the desire to protect their cultural identities.
The transformation of Küçükçekmece from a workers’ banlieue, divided into ethnic and cultural ghettos, into a cosmopolitan space carries clear signs of hybridization produced by three to four generations of cultural interactions. The architectural style of earlier buildings hint at a lack of aesthetic concern; they were built with a rural mindset and using very cheap building materials. The more recent buildings and public spaces, however, serve as sites through which the characteristics of contemporary social transformation may be observed.
Places of worship are among the first public places constructed in the process of ghettoisation in Istanbul. Considering the centrality of religion and local custom to the lifestyles and culture of rural migrants, which make up the majority of the residents in the banlieues, it is no wonder that mosques were among the first public sites to be constructed. Not backed by public authorities initially, mosques in ghettos were built using the funds raised by members of the community through religious associations. With formally set-up religious associations coming under state jurisdiction and oversight, mosques and their congregations became legitimate and open to civil society participation. This way, organically-grown communities of practicing Muslims emerged around mosques. While neighborhoods are divided across ethnic and cultural lines, mosques served a unifying purpose and staged the earlier interactions between different communities.
Places of worship help communities restore their connection to life when facing basic existential tragedies such as death, and maintain collective memory (local and canonical ties to the ancestry and rituals that reinforce a sense of community). Finally, places of worship serve as common ground through which social solidarity emerged to help communities cope with the unsettling condition of being migrants. For older and retired members of the community, mosques offer socialization opportunities that homes for the elderly cannot provide without creating a sense of estrangement. For children, mosques are places for religious training. As such, mosques transcend ethnic and cultural lines to facilitate exchanges, sanctioned by the oldest and most revered members of families, and initiate the transition from an eroding rural culture to a hybrid urban culture.
As communities that were seemingly not prepared to cohabit initially were compelled to socialize with one another within the confines of the banlieue, they eventually developed the ability to tolerate one another. Faced with the shared experience of modernity, residents of urban ghettos learned to explore, interact, and engage one another to deal collectively with the uncertainty of their situation. Particularly younger generations that engaged with their peers from various other communities in shared public spaces experienced new forms of cultural syntheses.
In the locale selected as the site of the research, there were several manifestations of modernity in the public space: a shopping mall, a shopping street accessible to pedestrians only, and a lakeside path for recreation which hint the diversification of demand from past to present. Together, they are also clear signs of the residents’ ability to foster a sense of shared urban culture.
Whereas until recently, the experience of the urban scene – gained via weekday excursions into the city center for business – was a popular weekend activity for families from the suburbs; more and more families prefer to experience the “urban” through its newly-erected replicas in the suburban environment. It is through these replicas that the suburban communities come close to experiencing the urban scene en masse.
The pedestrian-only shopping streets and shopping malls are fairly new additions to the suburban scene and have already come under fire for outcompeting smaller businesses. However, their critics fail to acknowledge that these new suburban spaces enable communities in the ghettos to experience urban culture. These modern public spaces attract people from all communities and facilitate interactions and “learning” for them. They are like social laboratories for suburban communities to explore and test out various urban forms of clothing, home décor, cuisines, as well as social diversity and behavior.
Though the suburban shopping malls and pedestrian-only shopping streets are designed to replicate their urban origins, suburban residents transform how these public spaces are enjoyed through their influence in the forms of the food and entertainment offered. In the ghettos, some older communal traditions fell out of use and were gradually abandoned while others thrived in these modern public spaces, and became vehicles for cross-cultural interaction.
The research, which traced down the modes of interaction between youth and public space, shows that in the eyes of suburban youth, city center remains more developed, increasingly diversified, and attractive. Young people interviewed identified a freer environment in urban spaces for maintaining relationships with the opposite sex. Bearing in mind that in traditional communities, social norms are applied most stringently on the relationships between men and women, it is worth pointing out that young people today, different than generations before them, choose to move away from tradition by treating their personal judgment above social norms. Young women express their desire to enjoy the urban space on equal terms as men. These transformative trends are becoming more visible in the suburban context with the proliferation of places for socialization.
Until recently, women’s participation in the labor market was a rare phenomenon, except among members of the Bulgarian migrant community. Today, many women are employed and their participation in the labor market is widely accepted as “normal.” Roughly 35 years ago, Bulgarian migrant women faced severe judgment from other communities for accessing education, the labor market, and public space. That is no longer the case. The extent to which women today escape public scrutiny for entering the public domain freely is determined by how their own communities moved away from rigid tradition and towards a more hybridized culture.
In the past, suburban women (except Bulgarians) could only socialise in private, for example at friends’ homes, in weddings and other special occasions, and farmer’s markets. Nowadays women roam more public spaces, i.e. shopping malls, parks, and recreational areas. Moreover, modern and mixed-gender park side cafés are replacing traditional coffeehouses for men.
Besides public spaces, in a similar fashion, we observe transformations in community housings as private spaces. These transformations reveal that the hybridization trend, accelerated by close cultural encounters, is prone to be quickly internalized by suburban communities to produce diverse communal relationships. In neighborhoods that were formed by gatherings of communities akin to isolated “clans” down to three or four generations, community housings clearly bore the signs of the more rural patterns of socialization. In suburbs, behind the tall walls that provided families with seclusion away from the streets, isolated cultures could be better protected from outside effect. Nowadays, more and more people live in apartment buildings with shared communal areas and in closer daily contact with others. Of course, one should not also disregard that these changes are shaped by socioeconomic developments of the temporal context.
Reconstructed culture of the first generation of migrants, who moved into the city for its vast economic opportunities, provided these people, besides sheltering, conditions for “feeling safe and esteemed” which became a psychological need under those circumstances. Coffeehouses, kinship associations, and foundations were other physical spaces that helped migrants cope with the struggles of living in a social environment in which they feel not only estranged, but also incapacitated due to their lack of urban knowledge. These communal areas functioned in producing rituals of mutual understanding and respect, and subsequently in maintaining a certain level of self-confidence in the lives of these migrants, whose interactions with like-minded friends became an incentive for socialization.
Contemporary youth, whose awareness of subjectivity – individuality exceeds those of preceding generations, on the one hand, is in a process of evolution from communal culture to societal culture. The difference between community and society needs to be highlighted here to better explain the course of the transformation that young people in the suburbs are experiencing. Individuals relate to society as part of a rational and legitimate division of labor to perform various roles and responsibilities. Society does not directly take part in the process of providing emotional space for individuals in ways that communities do. In communities, individuals who choose not to partake in the division of labor that society demands are not reprimanded through some form of emotional isolation. In fact, when one fails in forming a functional relationship with the society, the community assumes the role of securing the individual via emotional bonds.
Save for a few exceptions, our interviews with young people revealed that they were most keen to assume their roles and responsibilities in society by joining the workforce. In terms of building friendships outside of their own community, it can be observed that differences in ethnic and cultural origins becomes less of a matter of concern in the case of contemporary youth. They are as interested in the economic growth opportunities that a career would provide as the opportunities for building new social relationships. In the statements of the young interviewees, it is noticeable that the potential social exploits of a respectable career holds as much a value as the prospective economic income it would provide.
We conclude, therefore, that young people care as much about their past and their traditions as sources of identify formation as they are about new, alien, and different experiences that their future will provide. Unlike the more isolated generations before them, younger people in the suburbs are seeking to build confidence through openness and greater exposure to the world outside their own community.
We conclude, therefore, aside from partaking in retrospective cults for the purpose of retaining the perception of “agency” and reconstructing the “self,” obtaining the codes for active engagement with the future holds a significant place within the social milieu of the contemporary youth. The new generation, in that regard, has a self-confidence, that the introverted older generations lacked, cultivating a society more receptive towards the dissimilar.
1 Corruption is a natural or forced erosion of the true nature or characteristics of something.
Socioeconomic Observations from The Neighborhoods
Against the backdrop of the fast urbanization process of one of Istanbul’s peripheral neighborhoods in the last 20–30 years, we explored what this socioeconomically transformative process of integration with the center meant for the youth today and how they viewed their experience differently from the urbanization experience of older generations. Our interviews targeted young people only and therefore our data does not allow for comparisons with the perceptions of the older generations based on the accounts of their experience. Then again, our interviews featured discussions on the socioeconomic transformation of the neighborhood with its young residents so we were able to generate insights into the experience of the youth and their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
Until recently, the socioeconomic statuses of peripheral neighborhoods were determined according to how their residents valued education culturally and whether they were employed formally or informally. Two generations ago, residents of peripheral/suburban neighborhoods prioritized finding formal, full-time jobs with health insurance packages. They sought professional employment that offered regular pay and benefits to secure their livelihoods and access to education of their families. They associated a good life with one where they were able to “bring home the bacon.”
With the acceleration of urbanization in the periphery in the 1980s, the generation of our interviewees’ parents delved into commerce as the next frontier of economic mobility and adaptation to urban life. Residents of Küçükçekmece back then chose to establish small businesses in the busy shopping districts and arcades in central Istanbul. Those who were new to the city became oriented quickly by immersing themselves into the marketplace. The generation of their parents still believed in the importance of education as an instrument for social mobility however, they were also glad to see their children’s generation earning a living as small business owners. The current generation conceptualizes a good life very differently than older generations.
Perceptions of a good life and future
To investigate how value systems change in relation to socioeconomic transformations, we asked the young people we interviewed what sort of a future they wished for their hypothetical children. Without exception, all young people we interviewed expect first and foremost that their children will receive the best education. For university students or newly graduated young people, their future children’s education outranks any other expectation they might articulate.
Two generations ago, communities in Istanbul’s periphery associated having a steady job with insurance as living the good life; one generation ago starting a small business and engaging in commerce to adapt to city life was the critical path to success. Today, getting the best education attainable is perceived as the conduit to securing a good life.
Young people may have similar views about how far their children will pursue their education but they express dissimilar opinions about their own future paths. Their socioeconomic background often determines their chosen path for the future. College students imagine having a positive social impact, commanding respect, and expanding their personal freedoms by, for instance, going into the legal profession. Young interviewees from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds who may or may not be able to afford to pursue university degrees plan to drive their family business in the future.
In our interviews, we observed the nuances in young people’s imaginations of a future emerge as we steered away from the socioeconomic and towards their sociopolitical positions. A group of young interviewees, who positioned themselves as the preservers of the neighborhood’s culture and traditions, declared that they would like their future children to adopt their political and religious views. For example, a young interviewee from the Albanian migrant community said, “My child should be pious. I wouldn’t wish for my children to ever lose their faith in Allah. I wouldn’t want to see them betraying their country either.”
Security was also another priority area for the young people we interviewed. For instance, a few interviewees reflected on the fighting between protestors in Istanbul’s Kanarya neighborhood and security forces and declared that they would “work day and night to keep (my) children away from scenes like that.” Another interviewee admitted that he would love for his children to grow up to become public servants and police officers to ensure their neighborhoods were safe. We concluded therefore that a yearning for security is a common thread for some of the young people we interviewed in Küçükçekmece.
For those young people who were able to distance themselves from the insular cultures of their neighborhoods and to venture out through their participation in higher education, we observed a yearning for independence instead of security. As young people move away from their neighborhoods, their conceptualization of security might be changing vis-à-vis their peers who do not venture out as often. A young female university student we interviewed said, “I would want my child to share anything he/she is doing or seeking with me, openly and to not feel like he/she has to hide something.” Young people with this type of a mindset believe their pursuit of happiness and self-realization as individuals would ultimately count towards their positive contribution to society.
A young interviewee from a practicing Muslim community also expressed his desire for his children to lead their lives freely however, when probed further he offered a caveat: that his children would enjoy freedoms that did not conflict with or override the values of their family. This young interviewee added that anyway, would raise his children in an “appropriate fashion” to ensure that they would not consider stepping outside of their family’s value system. Those with a stronger sense of community imagined more concrete boundaries to the freedoms that their future children would enjoy.
The neighborhood and its commercial relationships
To explore the relationship to the city centre that the shop owner youths in peripheral neighborhoods have, we asked whether they would consider moving their shop to a more central location or opening up a new store in the city. Most of these young people did not express an interest to grow their business; instead they were keen to made do with what they had and to articulate their “gratitude.” Often, we heard statements like, “I would not consider leaving our neighborhood to open a store somewhere else, like in a shopping mall.”
Young shop owners, who took over the management of small businesses such as hardware stores, convenience stores, or barbershops, were motivated to live within their means. We sought to understand the absence of an entrepreneurial spirit and investigated their relationships within their own neighborhood and with society at large. Those youths that believed they were tasked with protecting and preserving the neighborhood were interested in limiting their economic and cultural interests to what their own community offered. Most admitted to not commuting to the city centre unless it was for business or to spend their downtime in the neighborhood coffeehouses.
Young people who choose to keep their economic and social lives confined to their neighborhood show that their resistance to growing their small businesses outward is not just rhetorical. They seem to have taken over the management of their businesses from their parents but also adopted their values and traditions too. Though there are now differences in the expectations of these generations with regard especially to education and employment, these young people prioritize “not being perceived as idle and earning a living” and “becoming noteworthy men.” Young people that have pursued or are still pursuing university degrees hardly ever utter such statements.
As our research progressed, we narrowed our focus from commercial relationships between the center and the periphery to commerce between various different neighborhoods within the periphery. We found that young small business owners did not apply their political or cultural perspectives or identities to their commercial relationships. For instance, when probed whether they would do business with a Kurdish resident of the Kanarya neighborhood, a Turkish nationalist resident of a peripheral neighborhood replied, “Yes, of course. I wouldn’t go that far,” indicating his negative sentiments towards Kurds stop where commercial relationships begin. An ideal commercial relationship, to them, has a specific moral framework that transcends ethnic or cultural boundaries and involves universal behavioral codes such as credibility and honesty. A practicing Muslim resident, for example, said, “I trade with shop owners from the Gazi neighborhood (a ghetto densely populated by Alevis). Gazi traders are all well and good but when political tensions rise, we experience some problems.” Instead of their political positioning or identities, most of our interviewees identified the discipline with which payments are being paid or released as the key basis on which they pass judgment on their business counterparts.
Economic opportunities and class divisions
Life in the Küçükçekmece district’s poorest neighborhood, Kanarya, revolves around minimum wage labour performed by Kurdish textile workers. Young residents of Kanarya cannot picture a professional life to replace their current employment in textile workshops. Textile workshops represent the Kanarya neighborhood youth’s collective sense of being stuck. For instance, one interviewee from Kanarya said, “workers step down into the underground textile workshops in the morning and do not leave until it’s dark out. They cannot imagine what the outside world feels like.” He added, “Kanarya is a ghetto. People are stuck here and cannot escape. Women are confined to the neighborhood and cannot venture out alone, even to go to a hospital.” The parallels between young people’s accounts of textile work and life in their neighborhood demonstrates the various layers of emotional constipation.
Reflections on economic hardship are more frequently expressed by the young Kurdish residents of the Kanarya neighborhood than the residents of any other neighborhood observed. Where young people focus their criticism of economic hardship and how they choose to channel their frustration were the two most interesting observations we had. In this regard, we have observed that the reactions of the Kurdish youth to the perceived economic inequalities of society are not directed towards an ethnic “other” but rather towards class divisions that cultivate this structure of inequality. A young interviewee who is employed by a textile workshop criticized the approach that his bosses (in his words, the “rich Kurds”) took regarding the Kurdish issue: “My bosses are Kurdish and they live in villas. They have no fears no concerns and no losses.” Young people feel that upper-class Kurds with industrial businesses look down upon lower class Kurds and their desire to serve the homeland, and they think that underneath this condescension lies the feeling of responsibility that the “rich Kurds” lack. This opinion is shared by many Kurdish residents of peripheral neighborhoods and shapes how they perceive socioeconomic mobility.
Social Life in the Neighborhoods
The manifestations of limited opportunities in the neighborhoods upon social life hint at vital aspects of the dynamics between the individual, community, and society. An Albanian youth living in the Sultanmurat neighborhood and deeply connected with family, friends, and community members may hold different views politically from a Kurdish youth in the Kanarya neighborhood but they have a great deal in common socially. Most peripheral neighborhoods have similar spatial and temporal characteristics that yield a shared social experience for their residents. Young individuals’ interactions with their communities are impacted by a series of factors including the following: the places where young people can hang out such as the main street or the seafront, the textile workshops which employ mostly young people in Kanarya neighborhood that are located in the basements of buildings, and crowded extended families spending most of their time together.
Young individuals spend most of their social life in close contact with their families, relatives, and in the case of Kanarya neighborhood, members of their own clan. Some young people are able to distance themselves from the social pressures applied by their own community and to develop their individual identities. These youths frequent the city centre more often in order to better grasp the opportunities for education and employment that Istanbul provides. They are thus in more contact with the larger society and its various elements. In contrast, the less-educated, shop-owning, and poorer members of peripheral communities possess deeper ties to their own communal structures. These youths express their frustration with the erosion of their perception of solidarity and harmonious community that is protected from the outside world.
The dimensions and speed of individualization varied according to the family ties and socioeconomic backgrounds of the young people we interviewed but the experience of individualization was shared. Individualization also has the potential to lead to the proliferation of social spaces that house different communities and foster the development of distinctive identities. Young people who undergo a process of individualization choose to socialize in non- discriminatory and inclusive public spaces that are closer to the city centre and that allow for them to meet members of other communities rather than spending time in the limited social spaces of the periphery. We therefore posit that new social spaces in their own neighborhood could also contribute to young people’s individualization journeys by constituting new opportunities for socialization.
Existing outside of the neighborhood
Some youths raise their objections to the social pressures their families, relatives, and clan ties present by dreaming of moving away from the neighborhood. During our fieldwork, we often heard statements such as, “I don’t spend a lot of time in the neighborhood. I hang out in the Cennet neighborhood or Florya because there, no one cares about what anyone else does.” Those who can afford to spend time in the more dynamic neighborhoods of Taksim, Beşiktaş, and Kadıköy in central Istanbul. Economic opportunities (or the lack thereof) largely determine whether young people could build their lives independently and away from their families and relatives.
Even among young people, who have closer relationships with members of their own neighborhood, we observed a yearning to venture out of the periphery. An Albanian youth said, “I’d like to move away from a place like this one (Kanarya) where bigoted people live.” Another interviewee quipped, “If I have children, I will not raise them in Sefaköy. I’ll move someplace else. In a more civilized setting, my children will be able to attend the same class as children from Tunceli (an Alevi/Kurdish-majority city in eastern Turkey).” Even in the minds of nationalist Turkish youths, the status of urban citizenship is a supra-identity that is large enough to encompass even people from Tunceli.
Young Kurdish residents of the Kanarya neighborhood, on the other hand, feel entrapped within and outside of their own neighborhood. Not unlike young people in other neighborhoods, Kurds in Kanarya want to move out too but their dream destination is not a more central location in Istanbul; it is Kurdish provinces. They are motivated more by potentially enjoying greater freedoms in the Kurdish provinces than withstanding “difficulties here.”
The majority of young people – except small store owners – dream of leaving their current place of residence for better livelihoods. Those that express their desire to leave as an extension of their frustration with their neighborhood seek greater personal freedom. Those youths that engage in commerce, e.g. managers of small retailers, are attracted to the city centre because they associate the urban scene with affluence. Kurdish youths in Kanarya wish to escape to the Kurdish provinces because they expect to better serve their people there than in the peripheral neighborhoods of Istanbul. As will be discussed later in this chapter, young Kurds also perceive their potential departure as breaking away from all-too-powerful family and clan ties.
Family ties in the neighborhood
Young people with stronger attachments to their communities also have powerful connections to their families. For instance, Albanian youths that are very attached to their communities express their consent to being married off to spouses chosen by their families – a traditional practice. An Albanian store owner we interviewed claimed that he would prefer marrying an Albanian woman. More individualistic-minded young interviewees, on the other hand, claimed that they wouldn’t necessarily marry within their own community.
In Bulgarian-majority neighborhoods, Albanian families are less strict about following tradition. Bulgarian migrants, on the other hand, represent a community perceived very differently across various national contexts: in terms of their family traditions and lifestyle choices, Bulgarians are thought of as “conservative” by other communities in the ex-Soviet countries in the Balkans whereas they are viewed as more “lax” in Turkey. Kanarya emerged from our fieldwork as the neighborhood that houses families with the strongest ties. Social dynamics enmeshed with the conservative family traditions attributed to Kurds presented difficulties for women especially.
By extension, most Kanarya families disapproved of the individualization attempts by younger members of their community. For instance, a young interviewee from a Kurdish family reflected on the diminutive impact that her family ties had on her individualization attempts, not unlike the kind of barriers presented by political movements. Young people who attempt to assert their own identities do so with a sizeable burden of guilt. The Kanarya youths we interviewed expressed their yearning to “go to the Kurdish provinces” as an extension of their desire to part with the burden of family and clan ties.
To our interview question on the greatest political influencer in their lives, young residents of peripheral neighborhoods replied that they developed their political views on their own or that their fathers or families inspired them. Kurdish youth in Kanarya are particularly influenced by their families’ political views. Most of the Kurdish youth in Kanarya belong to families that have “paid their dues in service to the Kurdish cause” in Eastern and Southeastern Turkey: the so-called “veteran families.” These youths form their political views in response to their families’ experience with political struggle. Whether they agree with Kurdish politics today or not, they ultimately side with the Kurdish movement as an expression of their allegiance to their families. This shows the impact that the social fabric of a space and family ties has on politicization.
Being a woman in the neighborhood
Individualization for women is often coupled with a breaking away from traditional forms of behavior. Therefore, women born into more traditional and conservative families find it harder to pursue individualization and experience the sense of being stuck more powerfully than men. Women living in various peripheral neighborhoods confront the social pressure against acting in ways that might trigger the orthodoxy: “people will talk.” Especially the female high school or university students we spoke to confessed to preferring to socialize outside of their neighborhoods to escape persecution over the way they experienced their friendships and romantic relationships with the opposite sex.
As we identified above, we observed in the Kanarya neighborhood the tighter noose of Kurdish conservative family traditions around the female members of this community. Two young women residents of Kanarya reflected that they did not feel free anywhere. They explained that their lack of freedom had to do with their gender and their Kurdish ethnicity in the urban environment.Women of Kanarya felt repressed within their neighborhood for being members of a “lesser sex” and outside of their neighborhood for being Kurdish. With that, they are deeply critical of the Kurdish political movement’s approach towards their sex. One interviewee voiced her critique by suggesting that, “hypocrisy is rampant in the community.” She continued, “When we go to our local (political) association, we come across older men only. There is no one we could trust and seek counsel of as women.” Gender equality, typically an important agenda issue in Kurdish politics, is seen lacking by young women in their neighborhood.
Political and Ideological Affiliations of the Youth
Some young residents of the neighborhoods housing migrants from the Balkans play on social or political stereotypes about the residents of other neighborhoods. For instance, most Albanian residents of the Sultanmurat neighborhood declared that the Bulgarian migrants living in the Fevzi Çakmak neighborhood were “mostly Republican People’s Party (CHP) supporters and leftists.” However, when we studied election results from Fevzi Çakmak over several election cycles, we found that the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) and CHP competed head to head, with the former raising more votes in the last two elections than the latter (see Table 1). In contrast, most Bulgarian residents of Fevzi Çakmak see Albanians as having exceedingly developed feelings of community, and as such, “resembling Kurds.” Various migrant groups in the periphery are very prone to invent physical and behavioral categories to identify one another. It should be noted however that these stereotypes do not cause intercommunal strife.
An exception is the brutal labeling of Kurds in Kanarya by the inhabitants of other neighborhoods. Kanarya residents are often portrayed as ethnically and politically homogeneous. An analysis of election results however reveals just the opposite about this particular neighborhood. Up until the 2015 elections, the AK Parti had outcompeted its political opponents; similarly, the CHP had acquired a sizeable share of the votes (see Table 1). Kanarya is not just home to Kurds – besides, its Kurdish residents do not represent a homogeneous political community. One Kurdish youth explained the situation with the following statement: “everybody thinks only nationalists and PKK supporters live here, when in fact every resident is more concerned about staying afloat and fighting for a living. This place just has a certain reputation.” Peripheral neighborhoods are not really the political and social caricatures that they are made out to be.
No matter how fast the process of individualization takes over the sense of collective responsibility inspired by close-knit community cultures, residents of various peripheral neighborhoods still cling to traditional norms when perpetuating stereotypes about one another. Delving deeper into those stereotypes we find that these imagined categories cover many opposite realities. The tendency to generate stereotypes reaches new political heights against the Kurdish residents of Kanarya, takes a hostile tone, and enters into the territory of “exclusive recognition.”
While sociologist Cenk Saraçoğlu has coined the term “exclusive recognition” to refer to the middle class urban communities’ perspectives towards Kurds2, we found similar features in the behavior towards Kurds also in peripheral communities with lower incomes. In particular, in districts that have received forced migrants in the 1990s, a distinct perception towards Kurds emerged. The denialist attitudes of older generations towards Kurds are being replaced by a combination of exclusion and recognition. In this context, “recognition” means various ethnic communities acknowledge the existence of one another. “Exclusion” means the space occupied by the excluded community is kept strictly beyond the boundaries of a public space enjoyed by the excluding community.
A principal feature of exclusive recognition is to recognize a community or group only when its members conform to norms dictated by the exclusive recognizer. One of our interviewees appropriately said, “Kurds have their own nationality and they want to live as a separate nation! They ought to live according to the rules here. The mother tongue here is Turkish.
They should accept that first before we start respecting their traditions.” In addition, we heard statements such as “I would not be friends with a supporter of People’s Democratic Party (HDP)” that demonstrated how restrictive a framework of acceptance and rejection that the non-Kurdish residents of peripheral neighborhoods adopted. For those Kurds that were somehow deemed acceptable, non-Kurds uttered statements such as, “they are our brothers,” “I have Kurdish friends too,” and “there are good Kurds also.”
We should note that only a fraction of our interviewees attached discreet conditions such as “conforming to various norms” to their acceptance of Kurds. There the youth represent the children of migrants from the Balkans who have upon resettlement adopted strong Turkish nationalist sentiments. University students or graduates, on the other hand express contrasting views. Young people who want to leave the confines of their neighborhood to breathe in other social circles, to study, and then to become financially self-sufficient are more open to recognizing communities other than their own unconditionally. Among these youths, some are more inclined to broader social reconciliation as they are of the opinion that “Kurds are being discriminated against and they ought to have the right to access education in their own tongue.” Overall, these more open-minded youth are not impacted as much by the discourse of “exclusive recognition” than their peers who have stronger attachments to their communities.
The reaction to “exclusive recognition” in Kanarya is withdrawal and introversion. Some of our interviews with Kurdish youth demonstrated how reclusive they have grown in reaction to the discrimination they faced and how their politics left no room for reconciliation. These young people are critical of and seek to undermine the individualization attempts of other youth in their community.
2 Cenk Saraçoğlu, Şehir, Orta Sınıf ve Kürtler (The City, Middle Class and the Kurds), İletişim Publications, Istanbul, 2014
Perception of threat and the tolerance threshold
The majority of the young people interviewed perceived local problems (e.g. drug abuse) as issues of national signicance. Assigning a national scale to local problems is a trait that Turkish nationalist youths in Sultanmurat and Fevzi Çakmak neighborhoods used also in their approaches to the Kurdish residents of Kanarya. This particular group of youngsters perceive the Kurdish issue, as an extension of their reading of the Kanarya neighborhood as an “incorrigible criminal haven.” Thus, their ideal resolution to the problem with the Kanarya neighborhood via securitized means aligns well with their securitized approach to resolve the Kurdish question— they are disinclined to accept any Kurdish demands for rights, and veer towards securitized solutions only.
Though not a sizeable community, Turkish nationalist youth who cannot leave their neighborhoods for economic and personal reasons often resort to defensive and sometimes hostile discourses against Kurds. When probed how they see the street demonstrations and clashes with the police in Kanarya since 2014 unfolding, they responded in ways that associated a resolution with violence: “let’s shoot and kill them all… if we could help resolve the situation, we would enroll and finish them off… the Kanarya neighborhood ought to become urbanized too… we could bomb the situation to an end… when we launch bombs on them, their calls for more rights would cease.” These young people describe the scene in Kanarya unanimously as “inhumane.” When asked what they meant by “humanity,” they said that being prone to violence does not fit in with their conceptualization of humanity. One Turkish nationalist interviewee echoed this by saying, “They love violence; why else would they partake in fighting on mountains (as guerillas) or streets?”
In sum, Turkish nationalist youths’ approach to Kurds brings together their prejudices towards Kanarya across a triangle of ignorance – terrorism – drugs. These young people explain the menacing impact of drug abuse in their neighborhood with the presence of the “other.” A store owner in Fevzi Çakmak, for instance, told us “drugs pour into our neighborhood from Kanarya. They feed us drugs so that we cannot raise soldiers from within our community.” Another shop owner in Sultanmurat said, “Black market cigarettes are supplied by Kurds. The Kanarya neighborhood is the source of bonsai (a conventional chemical drug). All drugs come from Kurds.” A young Kurdish interviewee from Kanarya, on the other hand, claimed that the Turkish state supplied the neighborhood with drugs to pacify the Kurdish resistance. As these dichotomous accounts demonstrate, young people with strong community ties tend to place blame for drug trafficking and abuse on the “other.”
Then again, we should underline that young people adopting a hostile discourse towards Kurds are a minority. This offensive discourse would most likely fail to find greater resonance and spur action against Kurds. More importantly, we observed a reluctant acceptance towards Kurds motivated by the daily pains endured by young Turkish nationalists who have not received higher education and work in small, family-owned businesses. Through the course of our interviews, we discovered that young people closely attached to the Turkish identity and their neighborhood seldom considered acting on their negative sentiments towards Kurds. They articulated their submission with the following statements: “We are store owners after all and would rather remain nonaligned”; “We have a family at home excepting us back in one piece”; and “Even the state fails to end the violence, how could we?” They expressed their economic safety and personal security concerns when questioned about their intentions to act on their resentment against Kurds.
We stipulated therefore that the perceptions expressed by Turkish nationalist youths in the Sultanmurat and Fevzi Çakmak neighborhoods against the clashes in Kanarya would be shared by non-Kurdish youth living in Kanarya and experiencing the strife more closely. Above all, we knew that unlike their peers in other neighborhoods, these young Kanarya residents were everyday witnesses to the clashes between protestors and the police.
In August 2015, when we conducted our fieldwork in Kanarya, there had been a few days of quiet in the neighborhood. We asked our interviewees how they saw daily conflict impacting their lives. Turkish nationalists initially declared that daily conflict did affect their lives directly; however, they then cited secondary sources of information such as social media shares or accounts they heard from their relations to describe their experience of conflict.
They confessed that they would “never step foot again in Kanarya” once they secured an out and they spoke of the drug trafficking, racketeering, and mob-related incidents in their neighborhood as if they had firsthand experience of all these crimes.
We concluded that young non-Kurds living in Kanarya did not experience the neighborhood’s troubles personally; however, they formed their opinions based on prevailing stereotypes. Non-Kurdish residents of Kanarya declared that their lives were restricted due to the security situation in their neighborhood, e.g. they had to follow some form of curfew, however they did not blame their situation on Kurds. Surprisingly, non- Kurdish youths in Kanarya did not adopt an aggressive tone of Turkish nationalism because they directly experienced the tension in their neighborhood. Instead of reacting to the daily street clashes, they focused on security problems that impacted their lives more closely and complained of the rising polarization within their neighborhood.
First of all, the non-Kurdish young residents of Kanarya were in constant contact via their families and friends with the “other” and thus formulated deeper thoughts on the various dimensions of the Kurdish issue that were not necessarily informed by their immediate experience in their neighborhood. A young person we interviewed in Kanarya explained, “We acquired a new consciousness through our daily experience here. Cennet (enjoying a higher socio-economic status and a major shopping destination) residents call Kanarya residents “Kurdos, hijab-wearers, arsonists” however we feel differently. Of course, there are also those among us who adopt similar sectarian approaches.” Another interviewee of Thracian descent living in Kanarya explained the clashes in Kanarya as resulting from poverty and ignorance: “We need to empathize with them; we need to find solutions that would not harm people.”
This reconciliatory tone is adopted not only by the non-Kurdish youth in Kanarya but also by residents of other neighborhoods. We hypothesize therefore that beyond exercising empathy after experiencing conflict firsthand, these reconciliatory remarks might also be inspired by young people’s individualization journeys. The more attached young people are to their community and nation, the broader they perceive threats from outside of their immediate space. Young people who gaze outward through the limited lens of their own communal identity differ sharply from young people who are able to generate their perceptions independently. For instance, a non-Kurdish youth from Kanarya declared that he didn’t care that he held divergent political views from his friends and said, “I am aware of what my friend does in the evenings (taking part in street demonstrations) but we end up in the same classroom the next morning.” Young people accustomed to coexisting despite their differences do not allow heightened perceptions of threat to dominate their thinking.
Our aim in this section was not to assess the credibility of threat, its trajectory, or manifestations. Our objective was to understand how objectively young people from different backgrounds and of diverse narratives approached threats and to decipher what shaped their perceptions of threat. We concluded that for young people who are able to interact more with the “other,” the demonization of an unknown other becomes almost impossible. In environments defined by prejudices and discriminatory approaches, on the other hand, young people who are able to part from polarization and empathize with others carry the greatest potential for acting as agents of social peace.
Sites of confrontation with the other
Many young people from various communities and political backgrounds pointed towards miscommunication and the resulting polarization as the most pressing problem they (and Turkey) faced. For instance, in the district Albanians do not attend Kurdish weddings and vice versa. For communities known for traditionally large and well-attended weddings, this form of polarization suggests how deeply the lines of communication are severed.
Communities interact not just at large gatherings like weddings but also daily at school, on shopping trips, and on recreational spaces. While they inevitably share the public space and acknowledge each other’s presence, these communities cannot build healthy lines of communication and at times experience moments of tension.
Tension rises over valuable and sometimes even sacred symbols for these diverse communities. A public demonstration by a crowded group of Kanarya residents to celebrate with flags and drums to show their support of the PKK on a busy shopping street in the Cennet neighborhood was not well received by members of other communities. Though their discomfort did not escalate to an all-out conflict, the experience of this type of daily interaction, which shatters a sacred symbol for one side and reaffirms a sacred symbol for the other, enhances polarization.
In the absence of any real dialogue, social media serves as yet another platform for limited interactions across identity-based symbols. All our interviewees used social media one way or another and they engaged in confrontations online that translated into their offline, daily interactions. Some young interviewees declared that when they saw a friend or acquaintance on social media share/post a type of content that betrayed their own sacred symbols, they unfriended that person, shunning them online and offline. This fluidity between the virtual and the real is prone to cause serious confrontations between residents of opposing communities. For example, a high school student mentioned to us a fight in the schoolyard between a Turkish and a Kurdish student who had initially engaged in a brawl online. In polarized societies, social media facilitates the fast demonization of the “other.”
The state’s and society’s perception of justice
Trust or lack of trust in the state emerges as a major influencer of young people’s perceptions towards politics. For young people with stronger community attachments, almost all of whom come from migrant families, the state is untouchable, unquestionable, and represents a higher form of authority that merits everyone’s respect. Bulgarian and Albanian youth repeatedly refer to the state as “the grand Turkish Republic.” More individualized young interviewees do not revere the state as much and see it as a reproachable agent that has “committed injustices in the past.” Young Kanarya residents perceive the state as an enemy. There, the state represents the driver of the repressive security machine.
Besides young people from Kanarya, most young people believe that there is not a section of society that is categorically marginalized. Headscarved women, for instance, are no longer viewed as victims and disenfranchised members of the society as young people have no memory of the past struggles associated with the headscarf issue. Their older peers do retain that memory of struggle. One pious store owner from Sultanmurat told us, “The other day, as a family we visited a place which did not permit entry to headscarved women in the past. Now we can roam about freely. Thank God, those problems are of the past.”
Shifting the focus of the perception of justice to the problems and demands of the Alevi community, we found that most young people were completely unaware of the Alevi issue. Their oblivion was due to the fact that not many Alevis lived in their neighborhoods and they were not exposed to Alevism and its manifestations. We were able to collect meaningful insights only after we posed more detailed questions to our interviewees, asking them to comment on Alevism, the relationship between Alevism and the Directorate of Religious Affairs and the status of Alevi places of worship, the cemevi. Some Turkish nationalist youth that exert their Sunni identities when it comes to debating Alevism demonstrated exclusionary and discriminatory attitudes towards Alevis. Young people who did not express any sectarian identities confessed that they witnessed various forms of discrimination against Alevis.
Young people who associated with a Sunni identity professed that Alevism could not be governed by the Directorate of Religious Affairs because this institution was mandated to oversee Islamic affairs, against which Alevism was “differently placed.” These youth, empowered by their conscription to the dominant sect, looked down upon Alevism as they refused to equate it to Sunnism. A Sunni youth who was dating an Alevi told us, “That my girlfriend is Alevi is totally fine by me though my family might object.” He did add though that he found Alevism to be meaningless and believed Alevis were deliberately left uneducated. He said he would expect to raise his children in the Sunni tradition. In contrast, another young interviewee who does not have strong sectarian tendencies supported that cemevi were given official public status equal to mosques and confessed that he failed to see why this was not already the case.
When we moved our focus on the perception of justice to Kurds and their problems and demands, we found that young Turkish interviewees expressed their lack of knowledge about Kurdish demands. Those that had a better idea of what Kurdish demands might be found such calls illegitimate. This common thread in their thinking is often articulated with the statement, “We gave Kurds everything they could possibly need. We fail to understand what more they want.” The Kurdish youth in the Kanarya neighborhood, on the other hand, posited that Kurds were a marginalized people and faced injustice particularly in accessing their language and human rights. Those young people from neighborhoods outside of Kanarya that have an interest in history and were preparing to become or already were university students declared that they believed Kurds faced injustices in the past and presently.
We then asked young people what they thought about the cessation of the peace process in the summer of 2015. Young people across the neighborhoods we conducted our fieldwork in disbelieved the genuineness of the opposing side in the peace process. Turkish nationalist youth from migrant neighborhoods commented that acts of terrorism canceled out any real sentiments towards peace building. Kurdish youth from Kanarya shared their disbelief in the peaceful intentions of the Turkish state. With that said, there are Kurdish youth who believe that the Kurdish political movement works as hard as the Turkish state to undermine peace. In short, there is a consensus that both sides of the peace process are not genuine and that the mutual lack of commitment led to the demise of the peace process.
Motivations for political activism
Studies on the political behavior of young people in general offer insights into the motivations for Kurdish youth activism in Kanarya. Research suggests that political activism is often motivated by 1) the difficulty that victims of forced migration experience to adapt to urban life and their propensity to share their burden with their children/the younger generation; 2) persistent and continued marginalization of migrant communities; 3) the disintegration of ties that bind the migrant community, such as family traditions and the emergence of a new pursuit of identity.3
Our interviewees from Kanarya, who articulated their proximity to mainstream Kurdish politics, expressed sentiments that align with the three key motivations outlined above. Two young Kurdish members of the Kanarya neighborhood whose families migrated from Batman said: “Kurds in Istanbul feel embattled. Neither are they enjoying a social life nor do they dream of a pleasant future”; “Every day in Istanbul passes with satisfying my biological needs to survive and then falling asleep. Time is slowly rotting away… We are literally modern-day slaves.” Another young Kurd from the neighborhood told us that she had always wanted to be a journalist but gave up on this career goal when she lost a close relative and his brother to conflict – an experience she called “things piling up, one after the other.”
The disbanding of structures like families that create, support, and nourish identities lead to traumatic experiences that encourage young people to gradually adopt parallel epolitical views. Children of parents who have fought for a political causes and “paid their dues,” are born into broken families and adopt their parents’ political battles.4
3 Véronique Dudouet, “Violent mobilization of youth gangs by political parties,” Understanding a new generation of non-state armed groups, United Nations System Staff College/zif,
4 Leyla Neyzi ve Haydar Darıcı, “Generation in debt: Family, politics, and youth subjectivities in Diyarbakır,” New Perspectives on Turkey, 2015, 52: 55–75.
In this research we attempted to present the socioeconomic states, social mobility, interactions with the outside world, and ideological approaches of young people in various neighborhoods of Küçükçekmece. One common thread that we investigated across all of our lines of inquiry was how our subjects positioned themselves individually against communal forms of identity.
Young people who have internalized their own community’s traditions and behavioral patterns appear to be the drivers of nationalism within their neighborhood too. In the neighborhoods associated with migrants from the Balkans, Turkish nationalist youth form their perceptions of Kurds and the Kurdish question by observing the Kanarya neighborhood. Their perceptions of Kurds therefore are shaped by relationships across the axis of ignorance, terrorism, and drugs. With that said, they encounter their nemesis, Kurds, daily on the streets, in shopping districts, or at school. These encounters are short-lived and the interactions very limited. Because of the level of threat perception and concern, the shared public space does not help bring these communities together.
In the Kanarya neighborhood, on the other hand, young people react to the stereotypes they are assigned by holding on tighter to their Kurdish identities. That is not everyone, however. For instance, Kurdish youth express their anxieties at the prospect of crossing paths with Turkish nationalists and being targeted/persecuted. Their anxieties do not trigger a defensive impulse, however. Rather, they articulate a willingness to migrate to a new place that they consider to be ideal—such as the Kurdish provinces.
In all daily dynamics within these peripheral neighborhoods, we observed that young people were placing greater emphasis on individualism. Their inclination towards individualism triggers a political centrifuge. Among our interviewees were young people who have already processed and moved past their community’s infraidentity by opting for individualism. These young people would therefore disregard stereotypes built around various identities within and outside of their community. These positions set them apart from the rest of their own communities. In contrast, we found little to no grounds for reconciliation in the more insulated communities such as Sultanmurat, heavily populated by Albanian migrants, and Kanarya, home largely to Kurds.
As a result, young people who could resist being absorbed culturally by their own community also reject defining their identities with references to their neighborhood, discriminating against outsiders, and confining themselves socially to their habitat. They search for ways out. Young people who attached themselves more closely to their own community, on the other hand, find individualist tendencies to be dangerous and try to contain such tendencies. Most residents across these various neighborhoods feel that everyone “has their own separate agenda” and that there is no longer a strong sense of community. Their articulation of this as a problem goes to show how a section of these communities are not comfortable with the ascent of individualism yet.
As we observe the positive impact on society from the gumption of the more “tolerant” youth – in other words, those young people who seek to become more productive and respected members of the larger society through pursuing higher education and careers – we conclude that enabling youth access to the conditions through which they achieve tolerance and a higher sense of purpose could help facilitate better dialogue, interaction, and reconciliation across communities.
One step in that direction would be through increasing education and employment opportunities for young people in the peripheral neighborhoods by supporting initiatives that work towards those goals. When young people, who have previously not ventured out of their own neighborhoods unless absolutely necessary, start college, their commute takes them to a whole new part of the city, exposing them to the diversity of the urban environment. This sudden exposure has positive implications for their future employability, too. It is oftentimes young people from migrant communities who have not attended university and moved instead into jobs within their family’s business that use most of the discriminatory language towards the “other.” Young Kurdish residents of the Kanarya neighborhood know that a career in the harsh conditions of textile manufacturing awaits them and most express feelings of being stuck. Diversifying their options for employment will not only deliver economic benefits but will also help them engage more with other sections of society, which will likely yield positive social results too.
In addition, policies to build on the availability of social spaces for young people to enjoy could deliver the quickest positive results. Young people who more easily interact with the larger society prefer to spend their leisure time in shared public spaces away from the periphery and its limitations. By way of non-aligned NGOs in these peripheral towns, new social spaces for young people could be created and maintained, increasing their opportunities for cross- communal interactions.
Finally, locally effective and inclusive institutions could be established by local governments to represent the various communities to which these young people belong. These new institutions could bring together young people, experts who study youth, and social workers to co-create projects that support and enrich life in the periphery, facilitate and sustain cohabitation, and foster a culture of collaboration among the youth.
AUTHORBeril Bahadır Nuhat Muğurtay Rüştü Hacıoğlu
About Berghof Foundation
This study is published in the context of a joint project of PODEM and the Berghof Foundation, an independent, non-governmental and non-profit organisation that supports sustainable peace through conflict transformation. With the mission of “creating space for conflict transformation,” the Berghof Foundation works with like-minded partners in selected regions to enable conflict stakeholders and actors to develop non-violent responses in the face of conflict-related challenges.
The opinions of the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Berghof Foundation.