How Istanbul won back its crown as heart of the Muslim world

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A ruined yali, or Bosphorus mansion, is still standing on the shore of the largest island of the Istanbul archipelago. The roof is long gone, but in better days it was the magnificent home of Leon Trotsky, who fled to Constantinople after his exile from the Soviet Union in 1929.

Trotsky arrived during the turbulent birth of modern Turkey. The new republic sought to rid itself of Armenians, Greeks and other “undesirable” populationsbut Istanbul was opening its arms to White Russians, disillusioned Bolsheviks and African American jazz musicians. Later in the 20th century, intellectuals and dissidents from Germany and the Balkans would add to the diversity of a city that has always stood at the world’s crossroads.

A similar dynamic is playing out in Turkey today. On the one hand, domestic opposition to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government is met with disproportionate force, and journalists, human rights activists and Kurdish politicians languish in prison on terrorism charges. Yet on the other, Istanbul has become a beacon of safety for persecuted people across the Muslim world. Here, Uighur refugees practise their faith freely; young Saudis and Iranians dance the night away; and Arab activists displaced by the Arab Spring still raise their voices against the regimes they fled at home.

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“Turkey is increasingly looking eastward, away from its Nato partners, to its old sphere of influence during the Ottoman Empire,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “Its cultural influence can be seen all over the Middle East today: there are new Arabic translations of Turkish poets, and novels about the city coming out in Arabic. Over the last two decades we’ve seen a strong cultural bridge form.”

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