Update Istanbul

IstFutI would very much like to thank Erika Leuteritz, talented and passionate member of our Cultural Detective community, for sharing this guest post:

Am I competent to write something about Istanbul? I’m German, I live and work in Germany. I love Istanbul, and I have been traveling to Istanbul every year for the past decade. I’ve been taught to be a Cultural Detective in a three-day course — in Istanbul. I have Turkish friends in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Antalya and some smaller towns. Some are real friends, some are Facebook friends — acquaintances would be the old-fashioned word.
 These are normal women and men between 28 and 55. Usually they post photos of their children, their holidays, of flowers, insects, cats, information about books, music, quotations, cartoons, soccer … sometimes a political statement.

Last Friday night, I noticed that something must have happened. 
Nearly ALL of them were posting photos and videos of demonstrations, of drastic police violence. I know the area around Taksim Square. I was shocked. I asked one of my friends what was going on, and I checked German and British media. 
The following day, several of my friends asked me to help spread the news to the world because Turkish media remained silent. Since Saturday, I’ve been looking at videos, photos, information — since I don’t speak Turkish, I had to check German and English media as well.

These are the facts:
 A small group of demonstrators wanted to stop the government from felling over a hundred old trees in a park near Taksim Square for a shopping mall. They were few, they had a small camp, they were peaceful. The police disrupted the camp with tear gas and water canons. I’ve corroborated this with friends, Facebook, German and English media. This triggered, as it would in any country, a huge demonstration against police violence and against the government. These demonstrations have been continuing in Istanbul and have spread to about 50 other cities in Turkey — with police violence. More than 1700 people have been arrested, more than 2000 have been injured, per German and English media.

These demonstrations were triggered by some comments by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. He called the demonstrators extremists and looters. In the German and English media, I couldn’t find any reports of looting.
 PM Erdogan has emphasized that he has been elected three times by the majority of the people, and that therefore the demonstrators are just a small minority.

It is true that Erdogan had been reelected several times. His conservative Islam party, AKP, has paved the way for the largely conservative, religious, rural majority to better education and job opportunities.
 The mainly secular and well-educated urban population has always feared that Erdogan wants to create an Islamic state.

Here we have a division along culture lines: Islamic – secular, more rural – more urban. This may be the underlying current of these demonstrations. But usually things don’t tend to be so simple.

Only last week, the AKP majority passed a law forbidding the sale of alcohol between 10 PM and 6 AM.
 In some of the demonstrations people deliberately drank alcohol. The Erdogan administration has in past years put massive pressure on the media: There are more journalists imprisoned in Turkey than in China! 
And there’s also the headscarf issue … German and English commentaries say that people are getting increasingly fed up with Erdogan getting more and more authoritarian. They say that these demonstrations could for the first time pose a serious problem for him.

I perceive that people who formerly nursed their differences are uniting in these demonstrations. There was a photo on Facebook saying that Turks, Kurds, Alevis and Sunnis are uniting
. In the 2007 election, a lot of the (religious) minorities voted for Erdogan. They felt sure that Erdogan and his AKP, sice he had been a political minority in a secular state, would be good for and good to other minorities as well. I was on a study tour in October 2007 and had the chance to meet representatives of some of these minorities. 
One of the main charges the demonstrators hold against Erdogan is that, in the end, he’s not paying any attention to minorities …

On the videos and photos I don’t only see young people, women and men, but people of all ages — though the younger ones are predominant
 — and the three big soccer teams of Istanbul (Besiktas, Fenerbahce and Galatasray) have all united as well!
 THAT really is cross cultural competence!!!

There is support: at least one of the big hotels at Taksim is offering food to demonstrators, as is a cultural center. Not only hospitals and universities but also mosques are looking after the injured. In the night, women clank pots on their balconies in support of the demonstrators.

Now what about Erdogan’s majority? My friends are all secular — though I don’t believe such a condition really exists. Common sense and my training tell me that there is no such thing as black and white, as two granite blocks: “secular” and “religious.” The other day, there was a a photo on Facebook showing women with head-scarves at a demonstration — Devrimci Müslümanlar. I asked a friend about them. She told me that they are a (small) group of Muslim socialists who openly counter rumors of demonstrators attacking women with headscarves and demolishing mosques.

Yes, it is a question of values, but not (only) of secular and religious, but of freedom — freedom of speech, for instance.

Here is a news report that I trust may help explain the situation.

The Turkish Spring

Bosphorous Bridge ProtestI woke up with a message from Istanbul: “Mai! We are having a Turkish Spring!”

Bosphorus Bridge was captured with thousands of protesters flowing across the bridge that links Asia and Europe. My friend is probably among those people who are angrily demanding that Prime Minister Erdogan respect the will of his people instead of silencing dissidents, Islamizing Ataturk’s legacy, and blaming social media as the “the worst menace to society.”

With a population almost 100% Muslim, for me, strangely, Turkey has never felt like an Islamic country. Probably because the bedrock of this nation is firmly Greek and Roman, and because Istanbul used to be the pride of western civilization. Today the country is a meeting point of two powerful flows between East and West, presenting to the world a wonderful concert conducted by the elements of two most terrific symphonies: Asian and European cultures. The Bosphorus Bridge, glamorously lit up with colorful lights every night, connects the two continents and stands as a symbol for that reality.

Of course, living up to expectations is not always easy. A perfect balance is not always the case, especially when contrasts, sometimes radical contrasts, seem to be the very points that make Turkey attractive. For my friend, she is acting to gain back that balance. The protests at the moment are about that momentum as well, balancing ideologies, adding on, taking off, gaining and losing here and there to keep that balance of contrasts to the point that it does not topple the whole system, but rebalances it safely and interestingly enough to sustain itself and continue to attract people.

I dug up a picture of the Bosphorus Bridge in its peaceful times, sending a message to my friend with a quote from none other than Napoleon himself, who put his Parisian pride in the back room and declared to everyone: “if the world was a country, Istanbul would be its capital.”

Using Social Media to Rebrand Culture

What's the story...?

What’s the story…?

This is the sixth in a series. (#1#2#3#4 and #5 are here.)

Stories can be made to say what we want them to say. I went shopping this evening and, at the checkout, the cashier, seeing the bandage on my nose, asked what happened to me. To her horror, I explained it this way: “A couple days ago, I had an encounter with a young man, who had me held down and cut me with the blade that he had in his hand.”

Her reaction naturally changed to one of amusement and empathy, the moment I mentioned that the young man in question was my surgeon, and the immobilization was being strapped to the operating table! There is no untruth in the first story, but the discourse it calls forth depends on who the listener is, and evokes a substantially different discourse with the omission or addition of a few details. Had I told the same to my policeman neighbor, I’m sure a different automatic discourse would have sprung up for him, and he would have started to ask different questions, though, knowing him, I am sure he would have had a hearty, guys-will-be-guys laugh at the end. The key to the ultimate meaning of stories is intentionality. I was taking advantage of my strange appearance to lighten my pain and have a little fun. Understanding intentionality is the key to cultural competence, not just recognizing difference and learning to adapt behaviors to the situation.

How can new media be used to shape discourse and create culture?
We are forever telling stories, in old as well as new media. So, let’s move on from the question we discussed last time about what messages new-media themselves may bear. Let’s turn our attention to the second question, namely, how we use these media, deliberately or unconsciously to create, change or maintain certain forms of discourse as cultural building blocks. Can, for example, the interactivity of social media play an important role in reshaping cultural discourse and cultural identity? What has been done, accomplished, what is being done to create the stories that articulate today’s and tomorrow’s cultural realities?

Creating stories to do this is not new. We’ve created identity stories throughout history and we do it all the time. Recently a friend of mine sent me a photograph of mother dog instructing seven puppies, with a story which ends: “…and then the mean old kitty stole all of the doggie treats and ran down the street, and that is why we chase cats to this day.”


This doggy story is humorous, because it is so true. Patriots and dictators, oppressors and the oppressed each create their own story, not only of who they are but of how they are defined in reaction to others, usually seen as “the bad guys.” They expect mothers and teachers to pass it on. In the USA, when the Berlin wall came tumbling down and the Communist bloc shrank, after a brief period of euphoria, we started to need a real enemy to feel good about ourselves. There had to be some bad guys, some rustlers out there. Though it is not essential, identity myths pick up currency by emphasizing superiority, whether racial, moral, military or cultural as well as by identifying outside threats.

Branding a Nation
Nonetheless, to discuss what is being done, or what we might do with contemporary media in this respect, it might be instructive to look at a classical case of rebranding, not of a product, but of a nation, something that occurred at a time when mass media could largely be described in two words: newspaper and radio.

Dr. Hatice Sitki, a colleague in Australia, has done impressive work on the marketing and branding of national identity. If you think marketing is not relevant to cultural identity, think again. The whole idea of marketing is to create a discourse, which people take as their reality, a discourse that usually deals with them, sometimes with them as citizens, but more often today as consumers. Using a national example can tell us about commercial branding as well. What Hatice did was study the mythology, the brand, the discourse of Turkish identity, and connect it to the search for European identity, a topic that has been surfacing from time to time since the creation of the European Union—usually in times of stress, like the current financial crisis.

The most interesting part of Hatice’s work was the description of how Kemal Ataturk (literally so renamed as “Father of the Turks) selected from the myths the stories of origins and heroes that existed in Ottoman lore, and recombined them, rephrased them into a discourse, which gave a “real” national identity to Turks. There had been a tribal identity, an ethnic identity for Turks before this, but in the Ottoman Empire there was no sense of a specific Turkish nationality or citizenship. One belonged to the Empire. It was just that way.

So Hatice took a look at the marketing of identity not only historically, but also in terms of the future potential of marketing to the EU. She went on to explore how some of the current myths could be rebranded, so that the discourse about Turkey not being really European might be shifted, even integrated with the myths and discourse of European identity. After all, if one really looks at the Ottoman Empire in European history, it’s played a powerful role. It was frequently an ally of European countries against each other. World War I was only the tragic final act in this drama. Yet today Europeans are struggling with, “Can it be a part of Europe? “Can it join the European Union?” European resistance to the idea, among other factors, seems to be fueling a return to stronger Islamic identity after three quarters of a century of existence as a proud secular republic in the Islamic world.


When I first explored ideas about the flow of culture in a webinar addressed to a study group of the Project Management Institute, one of the participants from India remarked, “I think there’s a hidden morale in this presentation. At the PMI we need to understand the cultural difference, find common ground for all stakeholders to work as one.” How true, because if we think about image of the river, it’s carrying, integrating all these different waters, from all their different sources into one powerful flow toward the sea, and if we think of ourselves as collaborators in an organization, the diversity that our colleagues bring, whether personal, ethnic, or wherever it originates, as a resource.

The metaphor of the river is valid for understanding organizations as well as for exploring group and individual identity. Training multicultural teams to work in global environments, many of whom work almost entirely virtually, requires not only constant exploration of cultural discourse but efforts to shape a “third culture,” the agreed set of discourses by which team members will collaborate. Cultural Detective: Global Teamwork is an example of a tool that was developed by a virtual team to help teams identify and meet the key challenges of virtual collaboration. While such teams often have their own platforms, it is not uncommon for members to use social media to explore and solidify their connections with each other. In an academic context, it happens not infrequently that while students are provided with online tools by the university, many will eschew these for Facebook and other social media when they actually get down to working together on a common project, creating their group culture together on such sites. While we tend to think of deep culture as enduring and resurgent, we should not turn a blind eye to the functional but transitory cultures that are easily built as well as dismantled by new media tools. Even here it is a matter of sharing and shared discourse. If anything, impermanence may be a hallmark of much digital culture where the object of new media utterances is not to “build a monument more lasting than bronze” (Horace, Ode 3.30) but to learn habits that enrich the everyday with timely discourse for what we do to best meet our needs.

The river of discourse is a rich, rich resource. We need to know how to tap into its fullness. If not, the likelihood is what I described toward the end of the Culture’s Flow poem. It will flood over us, wash us away. I often think of colonialism and now rampant globalization as the human, cultural equivalent of burning down the rain forests. Most of us only see the destruction of environments from afar, but at the micro level what is going on is the extermination of species or discourse that will not return, resources that might play, in fact, very important roles in our well being.

We know that humans have created some very dangerous, even genocidal cultures, discourse about others that enables us to kill them en masse. Yet these realities and their consequences stem from our constructed discourse. Once we realize that we are enmeshed in all of these worlds of discourse, it asks us, how can we look at this, how should we look at what’s real, and, what’s really real may be simply our capacity to recognize different discourses for what they are, stories created in time to serve a purpose, hopefully to serve a good purpose, hopefully to help us succeed and survive in our environment. But so many of them have been dangerous; have been deadly, so it’s about getting the point that realities are ours to create.

What do new media bring to this challenge? A great freedom to question. Unparalleled contact with the diversity of others. A great liberty to seek out new discourses of identity. A vast universe of opportunities in which to discover, engage and enroll kindred souls. A limitless playground for new ideas and a place to grow up, space for our discourses to be questioned, to be reshaped, and to be created in unprecedented ways. The opportunity to create a critical mass of discourse that might just change some of the seemingly endless games we have been playing. The tools are there to shape our primitive discourses in ways that will humanely and constructively prevail. This will not happen by itself, nor will the media per se deliver this message. Rather it is we, the storytellers and our intentions, that will make a difference. Do new media guarantee change? Certainly, but not without risks. It is up to us, to our intentionality and our ability to share it that will determine the direction and results of that change.

This post originally appeared in the blog of the Center for Intercultural New Media Research and is provided with the assistance of its editor Anastacia Kurylo.