Despite Turkey's repression, Istanbul still home for Muslim exiles - Guardian

While domestic opposition to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tends to be met with severe repression, Istanbul has also become a refuge for many persecuted people across the Muslim world, the Guardian said on Saturday.

In Istanbul, Uighur refugees can practice their faith, Saudis and Iranians can escape the restrictive social repression of their countries, and exiled Arab Spring activists can find a relatively safe home. 

The city is increasingly becoming the dominant centre of culture and politics in the Middle East, eclipsing Cairo and Beirut, especially with the rise of Turkish television and the hosting of refugees, the Guardian said.

“Turkey is increasingly looking eastward, away from its NATO partners, to its old sphere of influence during the Ottoman Empire,” Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, told the Guardian. 

“Its cultural influence can be seen all over the Middle East today: there are new Arabic translations of Turkish poets, and novels about the city coming out in Arabic. Over the last two decades we’ve seen a strong cultural bridge form.”

Istanbul, a city of 17 million people, is now home to an estimated 2 million Arabs, the Guardian said – including many Syrians, but also prominent Yemeni and Egyptian figures.  

“Istanbul revitalised the Arab Spring in a way no other place could,” Labib al-Nahhas, a senior member of the Syrian opposition told the Guardian. “The city has provided Arabs and Muslims the opportunity to meet face to face and freely share their experiences, hopes and visions.”

Yet, there are also risks for those seeking refuge in Istanbul. Foreigners also often struggle to integrate into Turkish culture, racism against Arabs is widespread, and violence and assassination of prominent figures still remains a risk – as demonstrated by the murders of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and Iranian dissident Masoud Molavi Vardanjani last year.

“Istanbul’s cultural and political melting pot is a novel experiment, and while Turkish cultural influence is a good thing for the Turkish state, they only have so much control over it,” Hage Ali told the Guardian. “We will have to wait and see the impact the ‘Istanbul effect’ will have on the region.”
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