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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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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.

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