The Istanbul Project

The Institute for Education in International Media (ieiMedia), a pioneer in journalism education, has been taking students abroad since 2002. It was founded by Andrew Ciofalo, now a professor emeritus at Loyola University Maryland.

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Youth More Suspicious of Islamist Rulers

By Jasmine Dilmanian

Judging from her shiny blond hair and Chanel sunglasses, one would have difficulty
differentiating Yasemin Kaya, a thoroughbred Turk, from a Parisian college student.

New York University student and Istanbul resident Yasemin Kaya, 20, a CHP voter, sits in a chic cafe in the Bosphorous-side neighborhood of Bebek. Kaya laments a culture of modesty and judgment in a post-AKP Istanbul. "I don't mind people wearing a headscarf," she said. "So why should they mind what I wear?" Photo by Jasmine Dilmanian.

Kaya, 20, who lives with her family in a gated community in the elite Istanbul neighborhood of
Yeniköy, studies politics and economics at New York University. Like many other Westernized,
secular Turks, she didn’t even consider voting for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of the
controversial Islamist-leaning Justice and Development Party, AKP, in the June 12th national
elections.

Like a third of young voters under 30, Kaya instead voted for the main opposition party, the
center-left secularist People’s Republican Party, CHP. While she acknowledges that AKP is
presiding over Turkey’s economic boom, a vote for AKP is “not worth risking secularism,” she
said.

Tugay Deniz, 20, drinks tea and smokes nargile with his friends on a warm summer day in Taksim, a busy, modern Istanbul district. He is one of the very few people in the area, and among his friends, who admits to voting for AKP. Photo by Jasmine Dilmanian.

But college student Tugay Deniz voted for AKP. “Before AKP was in power, there was an
economic crisis,” Deniz, 20, pointed out. “Only AKP can further develop Turkey.”

In Turkey’s most cosmopolitan city, the range of political opinions among young people are as
varied as its 15 million inhabitants. Though one would be hard-pressed to find much deviation
from the left and far left on the average American college campus, the same pattern doesn’t
necessarily apply in Turkey.

Bahçeşehir University political science professor Yunus Sözen, 35, says the distribution of
political opinion among Turkish university students is actually moving closer to that of the
general population. The exception is support for the right-wing nationalist National Movement
Party, MHP, which he considers “definitely overrepresented among college students,” and most
appealing to rebel-without-a-cause types.

University student Cuma Bilal Arslan, 23, takes a break on campus. Arslan acknowledges the Kurdish struggle but still voted for AKP because of the party's strong leadership, and because he does not want to vote for an ethnic party. Arslan, who likely comes from a middle class or upper middle class family like most students, has notably different views than many poorer Kurdish Anatolian immigrants. Photo by Jasmine Dilmanian.

About 13 percent of voters aged 18 to 30 chose the extreme nationalist MHP — the same rate as
for the general population. But young voters did more concertedly back the second-place CHP,
and less enthusiastically AKP, with 33 percent of young people nationally voting for CHP (vs.
26 percent of all voters) and 38 percent voting for AKP (vs. 50 percent of all voters), according
to figures from the Turkish Consensus Research Corporation. About 9 percent of young voters
tapped the pro-Kurdish BDP.

According to Sözen, the wealthier and more educated a person is, the more likely he or she is to
choose CHP. Lower-strata Turks tend to vote in larger numbers for AKP, who excel at appealing
to basic desires of the Turkish people – growing the economy globally while preserving Islamic
values at home.

“They are thinking global, acting local,” said recent Bahçeşehir University graduate Kaan
Koç, 23. While Koç described his parents as far right, he voted for AKP, mainly because he
appreciates the party’s work in infrastructure development, its opening of trade floodgates to
Arab states, and its slow unwinding of European Union accession talks. “We don’t need [the
EU], they need us,” he said. “We are manpower.”

Koç is not particularly concerned about government human rights policies, or Kurdish rights
struggles. Sitting next to his best friend and roommate Cuma Bilal Arslan, an ethnic Kurd, he
teased, “I used to joke that the best Kurd is a dead Kurd.”

Ironically, Arslan, 23, also voted for AKP, rather than for the pro-Kurdish BDP. He said he
didn’t want to vote along ethnic lines.

Koç does have suspicions of corruption in the AKP, not on Erdoğan’s part, but rather, on the
municipal level.

“For example, if a road costs $2 million to make, they will spend $5 million,” he claimed.

While Koç’s views on political theory are actually most in line with those of the Communist
party, in a textbook case of strategic voting, he opted for a party with a real chance at victory,
and less esoteric ideals. “Turkey is not ready for the Communist ideology,” he said.

“I don’t like [Erdoğan], but I must admit, he is a good leader,” Kaya conceded.

Young people also differ over what Turkey’s political future holds.

“Saudi Arabia!” 20-year-old Yunus Pekşen exclaimed, half-seriously, when asked what Turkey’s
political vibe would be like in 10 years. Pekşen said that if that day came, he would leave
Turkey for a low-population European democracy – “perhaps the Czech Republic or Poland.”

Though reluctant to leave Turkey for good, Kaya is worried too. “Yeah, sure, we are all Muslim.
But I don’t want this country to turn into Saudi Arabia,” she echoed. “Now, Turkey is an Islamic
republic, and everyone refers to it as such.”

“Religious populism is becoming a trend in Turkey,” said Murat Kaya (who is unrelated to
Yasemin), 26, a Kurdish Communist living in the conservative Istanbul neighborhood of
Ümraniye. He points to an emerging upper middle class religious movement he calls the “green
bourgeoisie.” Led by Fethullah Gülen, a moderately conservative Islamist leader living in
self-imposed exile in the United States, the movement is gaining a stronghold among Turks,
especially in the heartland.

One might be reminded of the Islamic intelligentsia lassoed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in
revolutionary Iran in the 1970s. But experts see significant disparities.

“The Islamist ideology is finished,” Sözen countered. “[AKP officials] are looking from the
vantage point of the state. They are more like a strong conservative nationalist party.”

Sözen sees the AKP’s Islamist bent as more of a base-pandering ploy than a national re-
indoctrination. “In 10 years, AKP will become a hegemonic party. They will stay in power for a
long time . . . even a very strong economic crisis would not make them a minority party.”

Economist and political analyst Atilla Yeşilada points out the main difference between Turkey
today and the Iran of three decades ago. “The religious conservative movement [in Turkey] is
extremely heterogeneous. They quarrel among themselves every day.”

Undoubtedly, the range of political thought among Turkey’s youth is astoundingly varied, and
everyone’s got something to say.

Channeling Marx, Yunus Pekşen contended: “Football and politics are the opium of the Turkish
people.”

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