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The Rise Of The Mega-Mosque In Turkey


Now we go to Istanbul, the ancient city known, among other things, for its breathtaking views, especially at the city's highest point a thousand feet above sea level. That idyllic scene is now punctuated by construction cranes building a massive new mosque - the largest in Turkey. It's part of an aggressive building spree that's stoking both pride and resentment across the country. Borzou Daragahi lives in Istanbul, and he's been writing about the construction boom for Buzzfeed News, and I asked him about the mosque on top of the city's most splendid hill.

BORZOU DARAGAHI: This is a place called Camlica Hill, and it's quite a famous spot on the Asian side of Istanbul. It's a very, very important recreational space where people would go to get some relief from the summer heat. It affords exceptional views of Istanbul and its environment.

MARTIN: Well, tell me about the mosque - how big is it?

DARAGAHI: It's about 160,000 square feet. I mean, that's the size of a stadium. It's very large. And it will be able to accommodate about 37,000 worshipers. They'll also include library, a museum, a cultural center, conference hall and, of course, an underground parking lot.

MARTIN: Well, that's not the only one though, right? There are other mosques being built - other large mosques being built. Can you give me a sense of how much building is going on?

DARAGAHI: There's literally hundreds of new mosques that have been built over the last few years. Many of them are these huge recreations of the famous Ottoman-style mosques. Sometimes they're just plopped in the middle of a new development or new housing development. And every single city, every single town in the country seems to be getting these new mosques.

MARTIN: Is there a need for new worship spaces? I think many people might remember that, you know, Turkey has accepted thousands of Syrian refugees. So is what's motivating this mosque building within Turkey a population boom and a need for more worship spaces or is there something else going on here?

DARAGAHI: I mean, that's the thing, it's hard to tell completely whether Turkey really needs these mosques. On the one hand, the population has increased dramatically over the last few years. On the other hand, many of the mosques, except for on Friday during Friday prayers - afternoon prayers - many of them are rather empty. So it's hard to tell whether they're needed. It was definitely a campaign promise of Turkey's Islamist party since the 1990s. The president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his supporters, see this as a great era in Turkey's history. It's sort of linked to the reemergence of Turkey, in their eyes, from it's sort of sleepy years. For decades, it was very inward-looking. Now it's looking out at the rest of the world. They're not just building these mosques in Turkey; they're also building them abroad. They're building them, for example, in Romania, and they're in competition with the Saudi's to build the new mosque in Havana, in Cuba. So there's some really interesting sort of geopolitical, as well as domestic symbolic aspects to this mosque building.

MARTIN: So Borzou, before we let you go, what's been the reaction in Istanbul - where you live - to this building spree?

DARAGAHI: I think a lot of people really welcome it. A lot of people see this as very cool, and they're happy that these mosques are going up. But there's other people, including the preservationists and student activists and so on who see in these mosques an attempt to impose religious values and religious atmosphere on neighborhoods that don't really want it. And, you know, there's some really fierce attempts to fight these with whatever tools that are at people's disposal.

MARTIN: That's Borzou Daragahi joining us from Istanbul, where he works as a correspondent for Buzzfeed News. Borzou, thanks so much for speaking with us.

DARAGAHI: It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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