Turkeyʹs Middle East exiles

Istanbul – the Arab worldʹs beacon on the Bosphorus

Istanbul has become a refuge for many Arab communities – including the Muslim Brotherhood – but its cosmopolitan ways are also changing them. By Mohanad Hage Ali

“Istanbul Brings Together Arab Women to Celebrate International Women’s Day”, read the recent headline of an Anadolu Agency article on a recent meeting in the Turkish city that included dozens of Syrian, Palestinian and Egyptian females.

The headline encapsulated Istanbul’s growing role on the Arab political and cultural scene. Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, the city has attracted large communities from major Arab countries who have left home because of repressive regimes or unstable political and economic environments. Istanbul offers an urban space for different forms of political activism and numerous examples of Arab interaction. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis, Libyans, Egyptians and Lebanese are now part of the city’s social fabric. Istanbul hosts a pan-Arab existence with a life of its own.

According to one estimate, nearly 700,000 Iraqis live in Turkey, with Istanbul as their preferred destination. The city hosts five Iraqi schools, out of 27 across the country. Tens of thousands of Egyptians, Yemenis, and Libyans reside there, having established schools, media outlets, and publishing houses. Istanbul today is the Arab world’s largest population experiment, well beyond the role that Cairo played during the 1950s, and Beirut during the 1960s and 1970s.

Support for Arab dissidents

For Arab states wary of Turkish influence, such as Egypt, Istanbul now serves as the headquarters of the various Arab branches of the Muslim Brotherhood and seeks to destabilise states opposing the organisation, as well as the region as a whole.

Yet such a view of the Arabs of Istanbul and their role in the political and cultural spheres of the region is only partly true and goes in one direction. In fact, the city’s cosmopolitan identity and diverse urban experiences are also shaping attitudes among the communities of Arabs residing there.

 A Syrian boy pushes a pram past Fatih mosque in Istanbul, August 2019 (photo: picture alliance/AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Pan-Arab existence in cosmopolitan surroundings: since the 2011 Arab uprisings, Istanbul has attracted large communities from major Arab countries who have left home because of repressive regimes or unstable political and economic environments. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iraqis, Yemenis, Libyans, Egyptians and Lebanese are now part of the city’s social fabric

Istanbul today is indeed a Muslim Brotherhood hub. The Turkish state is investing and supporting the organisation’s branches and, most importantly, facilitating efforts to organise and represent them. Dozens of television stations, mostly affiliated with Muslim Brotherhood branches, attest to Turkish encouragement of these groups.

Even the important decisions within the organisation’s branches are being taken in the Turkish city. Recently, for instance, Al-Islah, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood, voted in Istanbul for a new leader named Salah Batis. The Istanbul-based Batis has been criticised by those who oppose Turkish influence in the region for his connections with Turkey.

Istanbul embodies Turkey’s emerging regional role. This has been visible in its military interventions in Libya and Syria, as well as through its political clout across the region. From this lens, the Turkish government is seeking to shape attitudes in the Arab world through the communities it is hosting.

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