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A Visit Inside Turkey's Islamist IHH

A journalist's trip to the headquarters of the extremist group that sponsored the Mavi Marmara.

12:00 AM, Jun 21, 2010 • By CLAIRE BERLINSKI
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Istanbul

A Visit Inside Turkey's Islamist IHH

Aboard the Mavi Marmara.

The street outside the IHH, the Turkish organization that recently dispatched the Mavi Marmara to its sanguinary fate in the eastern Mediterranean, suggests a hopeful world of multi-ethnic and religious harmony. Men and women in various forms of secular and religious dress—beards, clean-shaven, headscarves, burqas—walk in and out of the building in urgent conversation with Africans in dashikis, Swedes in stained proletarian-wear, anti-Zionist rabbis sweating nervously in black suits and payot. A gangly teenager strolls by in a T-shirt that reads, “Virgins required: No experience necessary.” It isn’t clear whether he’s off-message, highly ironic, or yet another Turkish kid who bought a T-shirt he didn’t quite understand.

The flags of the world (not the Israeli one) are flapping gaily above the street. The sign above the door reads, “The Fondation (sic) for Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Relief”—in English only. Very few Turks read English, so this sign is not for their benefit. Inside, everything is climate-controlled and glossy and modern, the décor corporate. If ever you’re in Istanbul and down on your luck, just head over to the IHH and announce you’re a Western journalist. You’ll find the standards of hospitality excellent. You won’t see anything that might make the folks back home uneasy—nothing hinting of grim caves in Waziristan filled with raving bearded warlords screaming unpleasantly about Jews and apes and infidels. The PR flacks express some anxiety when we begin filming in the cafeteria; they worry that if we shoot the Koranic verse near the steam tables, “people will know we’re Islamists.” Does it matter, my colleague asks? They consider it briefly, decide it doesn’t, and let us keep filming.

The IHH is part of the Free Gaza movement, an international association dominated by Europeans and headquartered in Cyprus. Last week, I spoke to IHH officials and European passengers on the Free Gaza flotilla at length. My colleague and I videotaped the interviews and put the complete footage on line. Anyone who wishes may consider their comments in their full context.

Israel charges that the IHH has ties to al Qaeda, a claim endorsed by such authorities as France’s top counter-terrorism magistrate, Jean-Louis Bruguière. IHH spokesmen snort dismissively when asked about this: “Israel never made such an accusation as that until they killed ten [sic] of our own people,” says Ahmet Emin Dağ, the IHH’s Middle East Special Representative and the coordinator of the Free Gaza campaign. (Eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American citizen were killed.) Its spokesmen note that the IHH holds special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council; they point to the group’s 18-year history of humanitarian work in, for example, Sudan, Ghana, Benin, Togo, and Chad, where they have sent teams of physicians to treat cataract patients, restoring sight to thousands. They are a charity, they say, not a terrorist group.

After these conversations, I concluded that this debate misses the point, which is that whether or not the group has ties to known terrorists or known eye surgeons—I’ve seen no evidence of either first-hand—it is an important new species of a non-governmental political actor. Its rise to international prominence represents a regional tactical development on the order of the PLO’s pioneering and inventive use of terrorism. To call them terrorists is to muddy the water; if you focus on looking for evidence of this you might fail to recognize what’s truly worrying about them. Although clearly they are Islamists, their chief weapon is not terror, but blackmail. They are indeed a charity, but their charitable works serve as financial and moral cover for a political goal, and that goal is repeatedly to force Israel into a hideous checkmate wherein it must choose between endangering itself and killing the IHH’s human shields.

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