Istanbul Bağdat Avenue's new conservative residents struggle to fit in

The new young residents of Istanbul’s famous Bağdat Avenue and its surrounding neighbourhoods have been voicing their complaints about their cultural differences with the district’s dominantly secular residents, stressing that they found their escape in frequenting firing ranges in other parts of the city.

Bağdat Avenue is one of the oldest and most important streets on Istanbul's Asian side, known for its high-end shops and affluent population. The six kilometre avenue stretches between Kadıköy and Maltape and is at the heart of Istanbul’s elite neighbourhoods.

Like many other places in Istanbul, Bağdat Avenue and its neighbourhoods have undergone an intense urban transformation over the past five years. The neighbourhoods have turned into a construction sites, with relatively older apartment buildings being replaced with new, taller ones.

“Here it is totally a different culture. Whatever is seen as immoral where we came from is the normal here. I haven’t been able to get used to it,” said Hamza, a Turkish boy in his early 20s, who, with his family, moved to a neighbourhood in that part of the city four years ago.

Hamza, along with his newly-made friends Selçuk and Yusuf, who are also relatively new to neighbourhoods surrounding Bağdat Avenue, all come from upper income families. They said that they had noticed after being friends that they all had loved guns and had started going to firing ranges.

“There were always guns in our house. That’s how I wa brought up,” said Selçuk, who is a university student.

According to the Umut Foundation, a Turkish NGO advocating against individual armament, the number of weapons possessed by Turkish civilians is about 20 million, 85 percent of which are unlicensed.

It was after Selçuk’s father refused to buy him a gun that he began going to firing ranges. He prefers to go to ranges in other parts of the city to hide his hobby from his father.

“I feel like I am a man when I’m at the range, firing a gun. Those boys in the Avenue are what we call ‘babies’ or ‘wimps’. They are scared to death when someone talks about weapons. I can’t be in the same environment as them,” he said.

Selçuk said that the girls of the Bağdat Avenue liked guns as they made men look tougher and stronger.

He plans to buy a licensed gun after his father buys him a car. “Which builder’s son doesn’t carry a gun?’’ he asks, ‘’I will not use it, but it is useful to scare people.”

Yusuf, who moved to a neighbourhood around Bağdat Avenue six years ago, is  currently a university student.

“Nobody became friends with me, but I don’t mind that, I don’t have the intention  of being friends with them, either. Sex, alcohol, you name it, is rampant among the young people in Kadıköy. I didn’t grow up this way, not in my family or culture,” he said.

Selçuk supports the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and it’s leader and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He notes that one of the reasons he can’t get along with people living around Bağdat Avenue is their staunch support for the country’s secular opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

“They don’t even speak Turkish, they use strange words,” Şelçuk stressed. “I know that weapons, killing people is wrong unless one is a soldier. As such, it’s for defending one’s homeland, a debt of honour. But my grandfather and father both had guns as men, now my time has come,” he added.

Selçuk likes to spend his spare time in his old neighbourhood, when he is not at a firing range. “I do not like movies, I do not read books,” he said.

Hamza also said that he felt ostracized in Bağdat Avenue. “People here don’t like us. The reasons are obvious, we have money and we vote for Erdoğan,” he said.

Hamza explains that each visit to the firing range costs approximately 150 lira. “It is not cheap, you need to have money. And people who don’t have money shouldn’t visit such places at all,” he said.

Incidents of violence committed with weapons have increased by 61 percent in three years, according to the Umut Foundation’s 2017 statistics, based on media reports. A total of 2,187 people died and 3,529 people were injured, most of them sustaining serious injuries, in the 3,494 cases reported in the Turkish media in 2017.