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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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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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