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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.

It’s an old game, but this group isn’t Hamas: It’s more sophisticated, there’s clearly a lot of money behind it, and it’s working with Westerners who are not merely enthusiastic spectators to their campaign, but full, active participants. In a sense it is an analogue to Turkey’s AK party: It represents a sui generis version of political Islam that many in the West find reassuring. After all, it doesn’t look medieval and savage, and it seems to be operating, more or less, in the context of Turkish democracy. But the IHH is determined to keep taking on the Israeli military with ships full of human shields, at the very real risk of provoking an Apocalyptic regional war that the vast majority of Turkish citizens, from what I can tell, did not vote for and do not want. No one in the West should be the least reassured. Even Iran is not this reckless.

The IHH is now one of the more important players in the Middle East, and certainly one of the most influential in Turkey. It is not an elected body, nor an officially appointed foreign policy arm of any elected government, but it has managed nonetheless to rupture the Turkish-Israeli relationship, probably for at least a long while. The crisis it deliberately precipitated has sent Turkey flying into a gibbering, anti-Semitic rage. It has influenced the upcoming Turkish elections in a way that will likely change the course of Turkish history and that of the region. It has dictated foreign policy to the United States and Europe. It looks as if it will succeed in forcing Israel to lift the blockade of Gaza. What happens after that? Peace will shine its light upon the Holy Land, I’m sure. But just in case I’m wrong, the residents of southern Israel might consider moving out of rocket range. 

This group is not endeavoring to cow or alienate the West through terrorist spectaculars. Their strategy is subtler and much smarter. It is attempting instead to stage powerful publicity events that appeal to the traditions of the Western conscience (while bypassing the traditions of Western logic). Unlike al Qaeda or Hamas, it is highly sophisticated in its public relations. Its European collaborators are chiefly those on the Left still enamored with the idea of “direct action,” if not so crazy about the idea of “elections.” It is supported by a handful of Torah fundamentalist rabbis from the Neturai Karta sect, apparently time-warped intact to Istanbul from an 18th-century Hungarian shtetl; they flew immediately to Istanbul publicly to affirm the view that Zionism is an abomination and the state of Israel illegitimate—a view the IHH’s spokesmen note with no shy pride. If among their ranks are people who believe that Israel should be destroyed, they say, this is hardly worthy of remark – it is a view held even by Jews. Those in the West inclined to shrug at the predictable arrival of Neturai Karta on the grounds that everyone knows they’re just nuts may not realize that everyone in Turkey knows no such thing. The Turkish press is positively enamored with them. Photos of them are everywhere. See? Even the Jews hate Israel. No anti-Semitism to see here, just walk on by. 

The IHH has appropriated the language of the Western civil rights movements and deploys it fluently. Whether its members believe what they’re saying when they use this language, or use it because they know it sounds good to Western ears, is impossible to say.  It is a bit too cynical to dismiss the former possibility; after all, the language of the civil rights movement is morally powerful and seductive. That’s why the civil rights movement succeeded. It could very well be that some of the members of the IHH sincerely see themselves as activists in the tradition of Rosa Parks, and if certain aspects of their world view do not add up to a consistent moral picture, who among us can claim to be entirely consistent? 

Its principal figures are highly educated Turks with an excellent feel for appealing simultaneously to the media in the Arab world, Turkey, and the West—in this sense, at least, Turkey is living up to its reputation as a bridge between the Orient and the Occident—and a good (but not excellent) grasp of the notion of “plausible deniability.” They have close, friendly, personal relationships with members of the AKP government, they say, and, as they put it, get their money from the same place and derive their support from the same political base. The AKP, by the way, is in fact orchestrating the recent “spontaneous” public protests here against Israel. They have sent text message after text message to their constituents inviting them to join.

Dağ holds a degree in journalism and a doctorate in international relations from Marmara University. While he preferred to answer my questions in Turkish, his English was excellent. He is obviously conversant with the principles of media relations: Never get angry, don’t be defensive, stick to the talking points, feed the journalists a decent meal. The IHH website is extremely slick and professional, translated into flawless English, French, German, Russian, and Arabic. Only a handful of Turkish corporations have anything like this kind of sophisticated media outreach. This is also characteristic of the AKP, whose media outreach and campaign tactics are vastly more sophisticated—and Westernized—than those of rival parties in Turkey. Indeed, an American political pollster who lives here and works throughout the Middle East and former Soviet Union once remarked to me that she found it hard to believe the AKP was not being advised by top-flight U.S. election consultants. It was the small, professional details, she said, like the way the AKP, and only the AKP, brought plenty of garbage cans to their rallies. (She then dismissed this hypothesis, though, on the grounds that there is no such thing as an American political consultant who can resist bragging about his success.)

The IHH, I too would guess, has been advised by Western media strategists—this look and feel does not happen spontaneously in Turkey—but if pressed they will admit they haven’t much use for the Western political perspective. When I remark to Dağ that the IHH is believed to be a front organization for the Islamist financing of terrorist groups, he does not precisely say what you might expect your standard Western humanitarian aid organization to say (nor does he deny the claim). “If you’re looking through the glasses of the West,” he says blithely, “and you think those people who struggle for independence against Serbia, in Afghanistan during the Russian invasion, in Iraq against the American invasion, Palestinians against Israel, then you can look at it that way, but we don’t consider them terrorist groups.” 

They do not consider Hamas a terrorist group, either—it’s a political party, they say—and to speak to them is sense that the events that led to the imposition of the blockade, to wit, the launching from Gaza into sovereign Israeli territory of nearly 10,000 rockets, are in their view trivial. While they don’t approve of suicide bombings, adds Dağ, “given the situation the Palestinians are in, we see it as a normal, natural result of the situation imposed on them by Israel.”

Zionism, affirms Dağ, is racism. “The United Nations has accepted this,” he adds, “so we don’t have the luxury of rejecting this.” The state of Israel, he allows, “can exist,” given that this seems to be the consensus in Ramallah. “I go along with that. Whatever the Palestinian people want and have decided, I go along with that.” But when I mention the Hamas Charter, which calls for the destruction of Israel—and note that Hamas, too, claims to speak for the Palestinian people—his reply is only that “different groups can think differently, Islamic Jihad can think differently.” This group of free thinkers, as I assume he well knows, is completely in control of Gaza.  I can't see how any reasonable person could spend a day at this place and conclude that Israel had no good reason to insist upon inspecting the cargo of a ship laden by the IHH and bound for Gaza. It would have been madness—or at least insanely negligent—to have permitted it to arrive without scrutiny.  

The IHH does not explicitly say that it is their policy to hide behind human shields, but they don’t much try to conceal it, either. Dağ’s explanation of this at least has some comic value. “Everybody from American clergy to European politicians were trying to break that blockade,” he said. “The people that are risking their lives to bring aid to these people, would they be doing it to aid Hamas?”

I interrupted him. “That means you knew they were risking their lives?”

“They knew they were going into a risky area–”

“So why were you sending women and children into that situation?” I ask.

“They were volunteers, we’re not pulling anybody—”

“How can a one-year-old child be a volunteer?”

“We announced the campaign around the world, and thousands of people applied, and they did go through a selection process.”

“And how did you decide a one-year-old child would be an appropriate candidate to send through an Israeli military blockade?”

“That kid was the boat captain’s son, the second captain’s son, from the crew.”

“And that was the reason you put him into this situation?”

“He brought all his family with him. Normally it’s illegal to bring along your family, if you’re the captain, but what he did was put them on the passenger list, and that way they got on the boat, because they were on the passenger list.” 

And no one said, ‘This is a dangerous operation, we’re about to run a blockade, an Israeli-Egyptian blockade, about to do something that’s a military provocation, perhaps we shouldn’t bring the kids along?’”

“We announced we were going to break this blockade, this blockade that’s against international law, and we set some health and legal criteria, and those people that fit the criteria got on the boat.”

“If you wanted to break a military blockade, why didn’t you leave the job to the military of the elected government of Turkey, instead of doing it yourself with civilian human shields?”

“It’s not a matter between Israel and Turkey, this was a human mission to break the blockade.”

No one we speak to denies that the Mavi Marmara passengers attacked the commandoes with everything they had on hand. They only offer the justification that this was perfectly normal: “Imagine that you were sitting at home, in your living rooms, and people that you don’t know come into your house with guns and weapons,” Dağ explains. (Israelis who were literally attacked in their homes by Hamas rockets were, in the view of one passenger, just whining about a bunch of "flying garbage cans" that would only kill you if they hit you directly in the head.)

“They tried to board on the side,” explains Greek citizen Dmitri Plionis, who was on the Mavi Marmara, “but they couldn’t, because people were throwing things to them, you know, chairs, and things like that.” He mentions the passengers’ use of sticks, slingshots, and water cannons. They had no guns, he insists, which he seemed to think an essential point. I’m not sure why. Dual-use objects deployed with malice can be perfectly lethal enough, as the 9/11 hijackers illustrated.

Notable are the European passengers’ indifference to two things: the foreign policies of their elected governments and any political issue in the world, save Gaza. We took upon ourselves the responsibility our governments didn’t take,” says the former Israeli and now Swedish citizen Dror Feiler. “We have succeeded in making Sarkozy, and Berlusconi, and Ashdown, England, everyone, even Obama yesterday evening, to say the siege in Gaza cannot continue. The people have spoken. The people don’t have to wait for the next election.”

When I ask whether they have considered the consequences of their actions for the region as a whole, they shrug. “We know politics everywhere,” said Plionis. We read newspapers everywhere. We’re not morons. But we don’t care. It’s not our field.”

“So you are singly preoccupied with Gaza?” I ask.

“Yes.”

Comments like this may be taken as evidence that the activists are not anti-Israel, but anti-Semitic, given that they single out the Jewish state for unique and disproportionate criticism. The evidence is unnecessary.  It should be enough that they single out Israel for unique and disproportionate criticism, whether or not they are motivated by something recognizably or traditionally anti-Semitic. It is no great thing to be motivated by fashion, illogic, or zealotry, either, especially if it leads you to the conclusion that running a military blockade with a ship full of civilians in the world’s most volatile conflict zone would be an excellent idea.

You do not need to exaggerate the malice of this group to recognize that it is bent on lighting matches in a tinderbox. Nor do you need to judge them as terrorists and anti-Semites to be alarmed. What they are—in their own words—should be more than enough for the West to get worried.

Claire Berlinski is a freelance journalist who lives in Istanbul. She is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author, most recently, of There is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters. Her writings about Turkey may be found at “The Orient Express.

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