Atlantic Cities

How Istanbul Became One of Europe's Safest Cities

How Istanbul Became One of Europe's Safest Cities
Reuters

Political observers have recently been trumpeting the Turkish Model, citing Turkey's democracy, its open-minded Islamists and economic zip as an example to newly liberated Arab nations and other Muslim countries.

In the 18th century, however, its capital presented a less positive model. The Istanbul of that era – with waves of migrants, an underclass of servants and unskilled laborers, overburdened housing stock, dirty slums abutting elegant mansions, high levels of petty and violent crime – looked much like Dickensian London.

"The scholarship has kind of put all cities in the Middle East in the category of 'Islamic cities,' focusing on Islamic institutions and drawing a hard-and-fast line between these cities and European cities,” says Fariba Zarinebaf, professor of Islamic studies at University of California, Riverside.

In Crime and Punishment in Istanbul, 1700-1800, Zarinebaf uses court, prison and police records, surveys, imperial orders and a variety of Ottoman narratives to map the city's criminal activity. She also highlights Istanbul's importance as a port, its layered history and its great diversity. "It was so much more diverse than any other European city," she says. "It's the most cosmopolitan city in the Mediterranean world."

To control crime and rebellion (the city experienced uprisings in 1703 and 1730, the latter of which toppled the leadership for several months) the state embraced heavy-handed tactics familiar to contemporary Arab autocrats: planting spies in coffeehouses to eavesdrop, rounding up and exiling foreigners and the marginalized and creating guilds and neighborhood associations to report back on questionable activity.

"What's happening today with the Arab uprisings is just déjà vu," says Zarinebaf, who points out that protest movements in both eras were due in part to simple hunger. "What happens when people rebel? The state cracks down."

Yet the historic Turkish justice system offered a much more enlightened model, mixing elements of Sharia with modern law. With thousands of Albanians, Greeks and Kurds among its population of about 400,000—the same as Paris at the time—18th century Istanbul was about 40 percent Christian and 5 to 10 percent Jewish. "Istanbul was never really a Muslim city," says Zarinebaf. "It had to cater to these various interests and as a result it became far more flexible."

Rather than having his hands cut off, for instance, a man found guilty of pickpocketing was generally sentenced to row in the galleys. Rather than lashed, a woman guilty of prostitution might be banished to Bursa, in Anatolia. If the woman repented, she could choose to pursue rehabilitation. 

In this regard, 18th century Istanbul was more modern than a handful of 21st century states. Saudi Arabia and Yemen still punish homosexuality with death. In Pakistan, women unable to produce four adult male witnesses to their rape are found guilty of fornication and jailed.

As a result of its complex history, 21st century Turkey balances Islam, liberty and a touch of authoritarianism. Alcoholic drink and public brothels are tolerated by the state – political dissent and a free press less so.

In terms of policing, Turkey's vast cosmopolis offers lessons for the developing megacities of today, places like Dubai and Jakarta, Nairobi and Cairo. Istanbul has in recent decades been undergoing a rapid transformation, as urban expansion and modernization remake previously dilapidated and marginalized neighborhoods into welcoming retail and residential districts, often pushing the less advantaged to outlying areas. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former Istanbul mayor, envisions the city as a global hub and world financial center.

It's already one of the safer major international cities, for which Zarinebaf cites layers of law enforcement. Policing principles are drawn from the military. Training and education is essential – 85 percent of Turkish police have undergraduate degrees.

The city sets up police checkpoints at night to monitor movement. An integrated surveillance system connects hundreds of CCTV cameras to thousands of squad cars and scores of mobile stations, keeping an eye on most public areas.

At the same time, a community watch program maintains local vigil, via merchant guilds and neighborhood groups. “Today if I move to Turkey I have to report to the local police and tell them,” says Zarinebaf. “This kind of approach to policing – not only from the top, but also from below, keeping an eye on the neighborhood – this sort of policing is uniquely Ottoman.”

Zarinebaf lives in the Windy City but prefers the former Constantinople, which has the lowest assault rate in Europe. “In Istanbul, I feel safer than I feel in Chicago,” she says.

That should come as little surprise to Chicagoans, who saw their murder rate spike by more than half in January.  Maybe it's time to take a closer look at the Turkish model.

David Lepeska writes about urban issues and the environment for The New York Times, Monocle, and other publications. He lives in Chicago. All posts »

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