How İmamoğlu betrayed Istanbul

Ekrem İmamoğlu was still basking in the glow of his victory in the Istanbul mayoral race when he declared that under his leadership a new, united democracy would emerge, not just for the city but for all of Turkey. 

“A new generation of social unity will prevail in Istanbul,” he told the crowd in Maltepe, a district along the Marmara Sea on the city’s Asian side. "During my period, all different voices, colours, faiths would be regarded as an opportunity rather than a risk for the city."

That rally was in April, two weeks before the March 31 result was annulled and two months before İmamoğlu, of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), significantly extended his margin of victory, beating his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) opponent by some 800,000 votes in the June 23 rerun. 

Yet within days of that win, even before he had taken office, İmamoğlu had broken his promise. 

“The issue of refugees is a severe trauma,” İmamoğlu said last Wednesday, adding that the new arrivals threatened people’s income. “There are many Syrians that work unregistered. We have to protect our people’s interests. They cannot change Istanbul’s colour recklessly.”

For a man who rode a campaign based on “radical love” to victory not once but twice, and who had promised a new era of unity, diversity and opportunity, this was a betrayal. 

Yes, Turkey’s crime rate has increased and the number of crimes committed by Syrians has increased six-fold in the last five years. Yes, a 2017 survey by Istanbul Bilgi University found 86 percent of respondents wanted Syrians to return home when the war ends. And yes, Syrians have colonised certain sections of several Turkish cities, including Istanbul, and clashes with locals have increased as Turkey’s economic troubles have deepened. 

It's understandable that many residents of Istanbul and other cities see Syrians working for low pay and blame the refugees for their own lack of employment. But in dismissing a significant portion of his city’s residents via rhetorical exclusion (“protect our people”), a mayor risks fanning the flames of social unrest. 

And sure enough, a few days after İmamoğlu made his refugee comments, residents of Istanbul's Küçükçekmece district attacked Syrians and smashed Syrian-run businesses in response to a rumor, later proved false, that a Syrian refugee had assaulted a local girl. 

Some social media users rallied to support the Syrians, posting solidarity messages with the hashtag #suriyelileryalnızdeğildir (“Syrians are not alone”), which became a trending topic on Twitter in Turkey. Yet another hashtag, which used rough language to tell Syrians to go home, also started trending on Turkish Twitter. 

Here, in the hours and days following the Küçükçekmece incident, with tensions running high, is when Istanbul’s new mayor had an opportunity to step forward, curb the animosity and bring the city together with words of wisdom and understanding. He did no such thing. 

In a television interview on Monday, he began by denouncing the increasingly common sight of Arabic script in some parts of the city. “You cannot read the signboards in some quarters,” he said, apparently ignoring the fact that many of the world's great cities have migrant-heavy districts. “This is Turkey. This is Istanbul.” 

This comment echoed the shouts often made by Turkish men as they attack Syrians on the streets, as in February in Istanbul’s Esenyurt district, when locals chanted: “This is Turkey, not Syria!”

If you had told an İmamoğlu voter on June 23 that within days their new mayor, Turkey’s emerging political star, would start sounding like a racist thug, or like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the campaign trail, you would have been met with disbelief. But here it was, and he wasn’t done yet. 

İmamoğlu was asked about the clashes over the weekend. “Our citizens are restless, our citizens are on the streets because they couldn’t find a place of safety,” he told his interviewer. 

“We will not be an administration which does racist acts, but this situation cannot carry on like this," İmamoğlu added. "A refugee must be isolated in a camp if it’s necessary, or he must be re-educated.”

It sounded a lot like Istanbul’s mayor was defending those who had taken to the streets to “re-educate” Syrians by beating them and destroying their businesses. When the interviewer told İmamoğlu his comments were dangerous, the mayor disagreed.

Syrians have become an integral part of Istanbul and other Turkish cities. They have in the past few years helped launch more than 15,000 new businesses in Turkey, employing nearly 100,000 people, according to the Trade Ministry. Thousands of those businesses are in Istanbul, and many employ Turkish citizens. 

And it’s not just Syrians. Last year, The Economist described Istanbul as an emerging haven for Arabs of all stripes. “There they treat us like slaves,” a Lebanese education consultant said after moving from Dubai to Istanbul. “Here we belong.”

Ankara is said to be considering granting citizenship to Syrian refugees in Turkey. Would they still not be “our people” then, Ekrem? 

The reality is that İmamoğlu has less to complain about than some other mayors. Turkey’s most populous city is home to some 16 million people, including about 550,000 Syrians, or 3.4 percent of the population. In Hatay province, Syrian refugees represent nearly 27 percent of the population, in Gaziantep, 23 percent, and in Şanlıurfa, 21 percent. 

In fact, Syrian refugees represent nearly 5 percent of Turkey’s overall population. Though some areas of the city are undeniably dense with Syrians and other refugees, Istanbul has gotten off relatively easily. If those southeastern cities are able to find ways to integrate all those new arrivals, surely Turkey's largest city can do the same. 

At that April rally in Maltepe, İmamoğlu sounded like the leader Istanbul needs right now. 

“I will oppose those who benefit from the weak and unprotected citizen,” he vowed. “As a new generation politician, I will be in love, not fear. I will serve by embracing and uniting, not dividing, separating.”

It’s time for the mayor to live up to his promises.



© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

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