INTERACT fellow Saskia Schaefer discusses upcoming April 18 event on Islamic Urbanism in Jakarta and Istanbul


Saskia Schaefer, 2013 – 2014 INTERACT Postdoctoral Fellow in Modern Southeast Asian Studies at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and part-time lecturer in Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, compares the dynamics between Islam and urbanism in Jakarta and Istanbul. On Friday, April 18, 2014, the Weatherhead East Asian Institute and the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life will present a full-day event, organized by Shaefer, that is dedicated to the topic “Islamic Urbanism?: Space, Consumption, and Development in Istanbul and Jakarta.” It will take place from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM in Knox Hall 509. 

 When the Gezi Park protests broke out last summer, I was teaching a class on Islam and Democracy at Humboldt Universität in Berlin. My students discussed the media coverage of the events. The Economist dedicated an issue on the protests, carrying the title: “Democrat or Sultan?,” and observers stressed the cliché schism between Islam and democracy. The more interesting question remains what the protests mean for a politically divided society. As a Southeast Asianist, I was also intrigued by something else: Why is there protest in Istanbul, but not in Jakarta? Public space is shrinking in most cities of the world; formerly public and often neglected areas are turned into shiny private houses, hotels, or business complexes. Whether I am in Istanbul, in Kuala Lumpur, or in Jakarta, schools seem to be moving out of the city centres, and parks seem to be turned into shopping malls. Ironically, the word ‘mall’ was once used for broad, tree-lined promenades. In Jakarta, a concrete jungle of more than 10 Million people, publicly accessible parks are rare. Rather than on tree-lined promenades, wealthy Jakartians take their weekend strolls along the air-conditioned tunnels that link the city’s network of glitzy shopping malls. They browse through silken headscarves and handbags that cost as much as whole houses in the outer islands. They often pay with supposedly Sharia-compliant credit cards. The poorer population feels lucky if they get to work as security personnel or cleaners in these places with their filtered air-systems. When the malls close at night, you’ll see that parts of the city’s pavements are home to those who are even poorer. They are shut out from the consumerist tunnels, and shut out from the gated communities that are mushrooming everywhere. Why then, I wondered, are there no protests in Jakarta?

Last fall, I had the chance to discuss this question with Karen Barkey, the Director of the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life here at Columbia. We were intrigued by the disparity of protests and by the phenomena of Islamically-themed public spaces, such as in the form of Muslim gated communities. To learn more about the dynamics between Urbanism, Islam, and newly emerging middle classes, we invited a group of experts on the two cities to hold a panel discussion together. We want to look at the following questions:

Who are the main actors and engineers of current urban developments in major Indonesian and Turkish cities such as Istanbul and Jakarta? What visions of the cities’ futures drive them? Who are the protesters contesting these visions? How are Islam and consumption interconnected with regard to urban space? Who benefits and who suffers from the recent economic growth; what new elites are arising? What are the religious, ethnic and gender dynamics of the new middle classes?

In the full-day event with anthropologists, geographers, historians, and sociologists from Canada, France, Germany, Malaysia, Turkey, and the US, we will address these issues in two panels, one on Urban Planning, and one on Muslim Urban Lifestyles. Throughout the day, there will be ample opportunity to ask questions and to participate in the discussions.

The International Network to Expand Regional and Collaborative Teaching (INTERACT) is a pioneering program at Columbia University that focuses on developing global studies in the undergraduate curriculum through a network of postdoctoral scholars focused on cross-regional, trans-regional and interdisciplinary teaching. Through innovative courses and active involvement in all dimensions of campus intellectual life, the INTERACT scholars seek to improve global literacy among Columbia students and equip them to be leaders in a globalizing world.