In a recent piece for Lapham's Quarterly, Bernd Brunner, a German writer based out of Istanbul, engaged the question of cosmopolitanism in Turkey's largest city. "Istanbul's re-emergent cosmopolitanism has been hastened by people fleeing war and chaos," he observes. "These new immigrants test the Turks, who remain famed for their warmth and generosity."
Since the Syrian civil war began, the soaring number of refugees has been at the heart of a particularly heated debate in the country. Time and again, opposition leaders and others have launched populist tirades about refugees stealing Turkish jobs and causing other calamities including rent hikes. In response, government officials have sung the praises of the nation, which has shown an amazing strength of character in trying times. With the violent conflict across the country's southern border still lacking a visible end, the national conversation at the intersection of foreign policy, human tragedy and ideology continues.
At this point, however, the challenge that immigrants present does not primarily relate to low-class concerns, but a deeper problem: That several decades of secular-nationalist authoritarianism, which began with the Kemalist nation-building project and reached its zenith between the Greek pogrom of 1955 and Turgut Özal's own brand of perestroika in the mid-1980s, has let the memories of the empire of difference, as Columbia University historian Karen Barkey famously called the Ottoman Empire, fade.
The signs of social change became particularly visible in the 2000s when the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) ran on a liberal platform to win the 2002 general election and proceeded to implement structural reforms in order to create a hospitable investment climate and ensure economic recovery. From a strictly social perspective, the outcome of the resulting boom has been the influx of Westerners into the country, most of whom occupied managerial posts in multinational businesses.
At the same time, a stronger economy meant that Turkey, which traditionally served as a transit route for third-world immigrants with European dreams, emerged as a popular destination for the world's impoverished. Meanwhile, the government's decision to legalize the sale of property to foreigners led to the emergence of a sizable community of wealthy Arabs in Istanbul and elsewhere. Finally, the nation welcomed approximately 2 million refugees from Syria and Iraq seeking shelter from a range of threats including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons and the deranged herd of fanatics calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Further complicating the situation has been the end of denialism toward non-Turkish ethnic groups, most notably Kurds. Turkish society, to say the least, has rediscovered its multi-ethnic, multilingual, multi-religious origins.
Currently there is a lot of chatter about the legacy of the AK Party, which seems to have survived a potentially devastating leadership change undamaged. Proponents believe that future generations will remember the AK Party era as the formative years of the "new" Turkey. Others challenge this view, suggesting that its leaders, once ousted, will be promptly discredited. Regardless, the impact of this particular period on society will be lasting.