Victorious Islam opts for fundamental civic virtues: Istanbul's Muslim rulers steer clear of city's secular tradition

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The Independent Online
IF SEEING is believing, the first orders given by the new mayor of Beyoglu seem to show that the 10 million people of Istanbul may have more reason to be hopeful than fearful of their new Islamist administration.

The orders concerned an obscure corner of a dirty backstreet district, where a small group of curious Turkish chair- makers gathered in the sunshine to watch the unusual goings-on around the Greek Orthodox church of Evangelistria.

The men from the municipal cleansing department were clearing away junk that had accumulated for years beside the church. 'They said they'll come back tomorrow and every day from now on,' said a Mr Dimitriades, one of a few thousand ageing ethnic Greeks who cling to their drowning heritage in a city they still call Constantinople. 'We'll just have to wait and see if they do.' It is the strategy of Nusret Bayraktar, the new Islamist mayor of Beyoglu, that is being seen in action. The district started out as a Genoese Christian colony, before the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and for centuries its 50 churches and synagogues were a symbol of multi-denominational, multi-ethnic coexistence.

But its new and essentially Muslim identity was suddenly affirmed in last Sunday's municipal elections, when Mr Bayraktar's pro-Islamic Welfare Party won with 32 per cent of the vote.

The energetic 43-year-old businessman faces a huge task. He must not only overcome the suspicions of Turkey's secularist majority and fiercely hostile media, but also control the frightening excesses of the Islamic fundamentalist fringe.

Many Turks have been horrified by much-exaggerated reports of harassment by men in Islamic fundamentalist garb, who have, in isolated incidents, forced women off mixed buses and attacked unveiled women in the street. On Friday night a historic Armenian church burned down in the Kadikoy district of Istanbul, and few Christians are likely to believe preliminary explanations about an accident.

Mr Bayraktar is, however, the model of a modern Turkish Islamist, a type better described as a Muslim democrat than the rider in a fundamentalist Apocalypse. He is a successful engineer, and his aides with their pocket telephones look markedly more professional than the often shabby municipal employees in overstaffed offices.

Still embedded in the woodwork above Mr Bayraktar's desk was the frowning death-mask of Kemal Ataturk, the relentlessly anti-religious general who founded Turkey's secular state 70 years ago on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Since the Welfare Party's victories, Islamist stalwarts have held showy motorcade processions past his mausoleum in the capital, Ankara.

'We do want people to respect our beliefs. But we do not intend to touch the beliefs of Christians, Jews or even atheists,' the mayor said.

The promise of cleaner air and better living conditions was the key to the Islamist victories in Istanbul, Ankara and a swath of big-city municipalities in Turkey last Sunday. Many or dinary people said they thought the Islamists were worth a try, as able-looking, honest ad ministrators who could succeed where the left-wing parties had failed.

Most foreign visitors know Beyoglu as 19th century Pera, with smart shops in a newly restored pedestrian precinct, ornate palaces and the Pera Palace Hotel, whose visitors arrived on the Orient Express. Behind this facade are crowded alleyways of sordid night-clubs, warrens of cheap brothels and grimy streets.

Mr Bayraktar said his votes came not only from ordinary people upset by such places, but also from rich businessmen worried that the area was dying.

'Why does everybody see us as some kind of threat?' asked a manufacturer of light fittings. 'We breathe the same air, pay the same taxes, do the same military service. We don't want (Islamic) sharia law.'

Suspicion of an Islamic agenda is strong, however, even though the only evidence of it is a stated desire to build a great mosque near the central Taksim square. At any rate, liquor and brothel licences and much else are still controlled by the state, and the governor, Hayri Kozakcioglu, has warned that he will not allow interference with tourists or the social fabric.

On the old Grande rue de Pera, women in headscarves are still rare. Newsstands display everything from Islamic tracts to porn imports from the US.

'Those people can't change anything here,' said a middle- aged prostitute, taking off her lace bra and dragging the Independent on Sunday correspondent off the special back street of legal brothels.

A BOMB exploded in Istanbul's covered bazaar yesterday, killing two tourists - a Tunisian woman and a Spanish man - and injuring at least 13 people, Anatolian news agency said. In the past 10 days, two similar explosions aimed at tourist areas have been claimed by a group linked to the Marxist rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party.

(Photograph omitted)