Gallery attack ignites debate in Turkey

It highlights Turkey`s struggle to mend sharp differences within society.

Istanbul: The gang of several dozen men with sticks and pepper spray moved methodically from one art gallery to the next, assaulting overflow crowds that had spilled into the streets during the joint opening of several exhibitions in the centre of Istanbul.

"You don`t want us, so we don`t want you," Nazim Hikmet Richard Dikbas, an artist, recalled one of the assailants saying. Hikmet was struck on the head with a club, and received several stitches at a hospital for a hairline injury.

Half a dozen suspects were detained in last week`s brazen attack, which has yet to be fully explained. Such outbursts of mob rage are rare and Istanbul has a relatively low rate of violent crime, but the gallery beatings highlighted Turkey`s struggle to reconcile sharp differences in a society marked by extremes of rich and poor, modern and traditional, secular and Islamic, democratic and authoritarian.

Once shackled by crisis and conflict, Turkey has emerged as a regional power, evident in its high-profile role at the UN Security Council summit in New York this week. The September 21 attack in Tophane district, however, recalled a dark world of impunity and vigilante justice that hindered Turkey`s modern development, and that the nation`s leaders have sought to consign to the past.

"Those who present the incident in Tophane as a panorama of Turkey are engaged in an extremely stale game," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday. "We will not accept any provocation just as we will not allow any outlawed behaviour."

Still, Tophane, a cluttered area that slopes down to the Bosporus Strait separating the Asian and European continents, hosts two entirely different ways of life, side by side. Bearded men with prayer beads sip tea at sidewalk tables. Some women wear traditional shawls; a few have Islamic veils. Then there are the young artists and collectors, urbane denizens of Tophane`s 10 or so galleries. A chat in German — tourists on a tight budget — flowed from one doorway.

These two worlds, roughly defined as conservative and liberal, occupy a cluster of narrow streets where privacy is scarce. Many galleries sprouted in Tophane, one of Istanbul`s oldest neighbourhoods, in the last few years, buoyed by a surge in international interest in Turkish art.

Bureau Report