The murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has fixated global media’s attention on Istanbul. It is not a coincidence that Khashoggi, who fled the pressures of his home country, settled in Istanbul. The figure of Jamal Khashoggi gives away many clues about the sociological structure of nearly two million Arabs living in Istanbul. Productive and free minds from Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, Sana, Tripoli and Riyadh flock to Istanbul, which, like a magnet, draws these independent thinkers. Today, Istanbul deserves the title of “The capital of the Free Arab mind.” In order to shed light on why Istanbul is a hub for such minds, we spoke to various figures to understand the reasoning behind this phenomena.
I visited Istanbul for 20 years for both touristic and business purposes, but I settled here in September 2014. I set up the Egyptian Research Institute here. Since 2014, the institute has operated in Istanbul with a focus on political, strategic and social issues. We thought that this city was the most suitable place for such intellectual activities in our close geography. There are many reasons for this. The main reason is that there is an atmosphere of freedom to conduct such activities in Istanbul. When it comes to the second reason… Even though our institute focuses mainly on Egypt, we also cover regional developments. Istanbul is the best place to follow these events.
Today, Istanbul holds a place in the heart of everyone in the Muslim and Arab communities, because it is a city of great importance in terms of Islam’s history. Over the past 10 to 15 years, everyone has realized that Istanbul is a symbol of Turkey. It has also been noted that many different cultures live together in Istanbul. In fact, everyone wants Istanbul to become a global and Islamic hub, and many are working for this. Of course, Mecca and Medina are different, but the Muslim community has been distanced from them. The latest incident [killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi] caused us to lose a great deal. Muslims, and especially Arabs, are thrilled by a strong Turkey. That is why once Turkey developed, everyone came here. Turkey opened its doors to everyone. Those fleeing oppression in Egypt now only think of Istanbul. Those fleeing from the troubles of Yemen and Iraq come to Istanbul. There is no need to even mention Syria. Syria’s true half is in Turkey. I say true half because since its establishment, since 1947, all the Syrian presidents have had Turkish roots. Their surnames are Turkish. Shukri al-Quwatli, Husni al-Za’im, Hashim al-Atassi, Adib Shishakli. These are Turkish names. People started coming here because Turkey does not make them feel like outsiders. Egypt defended its role as the leader until the 1950s, but lately, it has become a country that is no longer at the hands of Egyptians. Turkey, and specifically Istanbul, is now the hub. The unofficial number of Arabs in Istanbul has neared two million.
We support the strategy developed by Turkey regarding the Arab population that has settled in the country over the last three to four years. The Arabs who settled here act like Turkish citizens, and feel like they’re home. They establish businesses and buy homes. Through these investments, they are declaring that they see their future in Turkey. They do not want to spark a problem or crisis for the Turkish community but rather prefer to make contributions.
The answer to why Arab intelligentsia prefers Istanbul is quite simple. Because Turks prefer Istanbul too. We are talking about a city that hosts nearly one quarter of Turkey’s population. In every aspect, from economy, education and science, Istanbul is the heart of not only Turkey but also the region. I find it rather natural for Arabs, who are not at ease in their own countries, to prefer Istanbul. In which other city can a well-educated Arab find a suitable job matching their qualifications? Let me give myself an example. As a nuclear physics expert, I lived in Iskenderun, Mersin and Adana for a while before I came to Istanbul. But I couldn't find a job appropriate for my qualifications. Therefore, I had to settle in Istanbul. This is actually a great opportunity for Turkey. I think that having such a qualified Arab population in the same city makes it very easy to mobilize.
This needs to be put to good use. The Turkish government has an opportunity in terms of the relationship between the Turkish and Arab communities. Many of the leading businessmen of the Arab world, important scientists, politicians and figures of the art world now live in Istanbul. You need to think about the synergy that they deliver. If these people are given the necessary standing and channeled correctly, an incredible power will be captured.
Another important matter is that the laziness in terms of language of both Arabs and Turks must be overcome. Language poses the greatest barrier in terms of the integration of both communities. Arabs must be more determined to learn Turkish.
Istanbul is a safe city that embraces everyone who wants to feel free. Someone from any Arab country can make whatever art they like here, manage whatever scientific project they want and trade as they please. Just like during the times of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul has become the capital of Arab culture and Islamic civilization. Turkey overall, and Istanbul in particular, has offered us the same opportunities it presents to its own people. I think a year spent here is equivalent to five years of progress. We are talking about a global city open to change and progress. There's a great interaction here. Approximately 10,000 Turks learn Arabic every year. The first reason for this is because there are many Arabs in Istanbul. I think the second reason is because the government has a warm stance toward Arabs and the Arab world. As an educator, I can say that I am very pleased with the interest of Turkish youth in Arabic. In the next decade, I think that the number of Turks who speak Arabic will rise significantly. This situation will affect Turkey in a positive sense, and I believe that this will deepen the country’s position as regional leader.