On the night of June 29, a group of men went on a rampage, ransacking Syrian-owned businesses in Istanbul, after rumours started circulating about a Syrian man who had sexually assaulted a minor. While Istanbul’s police say this rumor is false, it sparked a wave of violence, fueled by social media and xenophobic statements made by several important opposition figures.
Several videos, which have been widely circulated on social media since June 29, show a group of men gathering in the streets of the Ikitelli neighbourhood, located on the European side of Istanbul. "Get out, Syrians!", one man yells.
After parading through the streets, the men started ransacking shops owned by Syrians, which can be easily be identified because their signage is in Arabic.
A video widely shared on social media shows a man giving an openly xenophobic speech in the street in Ikitelli.
Later in the evening, the police dispersed the crowd using water cannons and tear gas.
The authorities released no information about how many people might have been injured in the violence. The day after the attacks, however, the Istanbul police did say that they had spoken to the minor who, according to the rumours that sparked the violence, had suffered “verbal sexual harassment” from a Syrian. Police reported that she said that the rumour was born of a misunderstanding and called for calm.
"Recently, the racism has gotten worse"
Our Observer, Israa A., is a Syrian engineering student. She lives in a nearby neighbourhood and went to see the ransacked shops the day after the attack.
My parents and I drove into the neighbourhood to do some shopping in the Syrian-owned shops and we immediately saw broken-out windows and damaged storefronts. There was also a large police presence-- we saw trucks, police cars and even a water cannon. The streets were mostly empty and there was a heavy atmosphere. We decided to leave quickly without getting out of the car.
As a Syrian living in Istanbul, I often get comments, especially when I am speaking in Arabic or playing Arabic music in my car. But this is the first time that I’ve witnessed violent attacks.
That said, I know that these attacks are common because I spend a lot of time looking at what people say about us Syrians on Turkish social media and I have the impression that the racism has gotten worse in recent times. Last Saturday, I heard there was an anti-Syrian mob that gathered in another neighbourhood, Arnavutköy, after similar rumours started circulating. The next day, on June 30, two Syrian teens were injured in a knife attack in Fatih, a conservative neighborhood in central Istanbul.
After the attacks on June 29 and 30, a hashtag showing support for the Syrian community #SuriyelilerYalnızDeğildir, which means "Syrians are not alone" went viral on social media.
However, conversely, another hashtag-- #ÜlkemdeSuriyeliIstemiyorum, or "I don’t want Syrians in my country”-- also started circulating. Very often, this hashtag was paired with images reinforcing stereotypes-- like a man smoking hookah on a beach, a family with ten children or photo montages comparing “valiant Turkish soldiers on the Syrian battlefields” with “Syrians enjoying the Turkish beaches” instead of fighting).
Lots of people using this hashtag tried to say that they weren’t being racist. Some shared images of Africans living in Turkey with legends like this:
The hate against Syrians in Turkey is fueled by social media, which is full of false information. The fact-checking site teyit.org has counted 25 allegations against Syrians and only two of those proved to be true.
… and opposition parties
But these allegations take on additional weight when they are shared by political figures, most of them from the opposition.
Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition party, the CHP, said that "[Syrian refugees] are first-class people, while our own people are second class." His ally, Meral Aksener, the head of the other opposition party Iyi, said she wanted to "send Syrians home".
Most of the hate speech against refugees comes from those opposed to Erdogan. Professor of political science Murat Erdogan said, in an interview with Teyit.org, that "most of the discussions and criticism of Syrian refugees is political. Those who oppose the government attack it through the Syrian question.”
In another video showing the attack on June 29, you can hear the nationalist song "Izmir Marsi" playing, probably from someone’s cell phone. In recent years, it’s become an anthem for those opposed to Erdogan’s government.
"The city council banned Syrians from the beaches"
Israa A. continues:
In the past few months, after the municipal elections, more and more politicians have spoken out against Syrians. A candidate from the CHP opposition party in the town of Bolu made it a campaign pledge to cut all support from the city for Syrian refugees. The city council, once again made up of mostly CHP politicians, in a town in Antalya banned Syrians from the beaches [Editor’s note: before rescinding the measure a few weeks later].
I think that the attacks against Syrians recently have been fueled by the unexpected victory of the CHP party in Istanbul. People want politicians to take action against Syrians and so they try to pressure them to act by carrying out these kind of attacks.
Opposition parties made significant gains in Turkey’s municipal elections, taking back big cities like Istanbul and Ankara from the ruling AKP party. The new mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu condemned rumors targeting Syrians on July 1 and suggesting a system that would aim to help women and children, explaining that many people were worried about refugees.
Since the start of the war in Syria, Turkey has welcomed more than 3.6 million Syrians, who are given benefits and access to social housing.
This article was written by Liselotte Mas.