Gallery attack ignites culture clash in Turkey 

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 center 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 U.N. Security Council summit in New York this week. The Sept. 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 Friday. "We will not accept any provocation just as we will not allow any outlawed behavior."

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 neighborhoods, in the last few years, buoyed by a surge in international interest in Turkish art.

Oya Baturalp, a 58-year-old hotel manager who grew up in Tophane, said the district has some "bullies and tough guys" and that the newcomers were seen as snobbish and disruptive.

"We were neighbors with gypsies, southeastern migrants, Italians and Greeks back when I was a young girl," Baturalp said. "We would hop over the occasional drunkard in our doorway when we left home for school. These people are not new in Istanbul. We have always known how to live together, but there was never such intolerance and a 'you are scum' type of attitude in the elite."

Some residents had complained about alcohol consumption at the galleries, suggesting religious values might have shaped hostility. Islam forbids drinking alcohol. The polarizing topic of religion in Turkey pits a government led by pious Muslims against the waning power of hardline secularists, including the military and top judges.

On the night of the attack, some galleries served alcoholic punch or wine in plastic cups, though at least one visitor was seen with a beer can on the street. At least five people were injured and some windows were broken, and witnesses said arriving police did not intervene in some assaults. The attackers did not enter the galleries.

"It was like a battlefield. They were hitting people constantly," said Dikbas, who said the attitude of the attackers resembled — on a small scale — that of the mobs that targeted the homes and shops of the Greek minority during deadly riots in Istanbul in 1955.

One theory among artists is that political extremists engineered the attack in order to create division, thereby radicalizing Turks. Conspiracy theories prosper in Turkey, where democracy is maturing and many crimes have been attributed to the so-called "deep state," an alleged network of hardline nationalists with links to state institutions.

Yesim Turanli, director of Pi Artworks gallery, said many residents had expressed sympathy after the attack, and that the art community planned to discuss art projects or other measures as a means of promoting neighborhood harmony.

"Maybe it was because I was distant toward them, even though I thought I was integrating well," Turanli said. "We are new to this area and they are learning what galleries are. It's contemporary art. It's different."

On a visit to the galleries, Culture Minister Ertugrul Gunay said the government will seek heavy punishment for culprits in the attack, though gallery owners are watching closely to see if authorities stay involved. Gunay also steered toward the middle ground.

"Nobody has the right to impose their traditional lifestyle in an Anatolian village on Istanbul," he said. "Then again, nobody has the right to ignore and insult the customs and traditions of the people here."

The art on display in the Tophane galleries, some of which explores political themes, has not attracted controversy in a sign that Turkey is, in some ways, more tolerant than in the past.

It remains a crime to insult the memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the national founder and a hero to many Turks, but the law is enforced less strictly these days. A polyester statue in the window of Galeri Non depicts Ataturk as a fallen angel, his head and one wing resting on the floor, the body tilting upward at a diagonal.

The title of the gallery's exhibition is: "I didn't do this, you did."

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