All the footage is up now. Thanks for your patience.

There has been much debate in the media about whether Turkey’s İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri İnsani Yardım Vakfı is a charity or a terrorist entity. The IHH, which sponsored the ill-fated Mavi Marmara expedition to Gaza, is said by a number of credible authorities, including the French counter-terrorism magistrate Jean-Louis Brougieres, to have ties to al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. IHH spokesmen say this is an outrageous slur, and point to the group’s charitable works in, for example, Mali, Togo and Chad, where they have sent teams of physicians to treat cataract patients.

Okan and I went to the IHH headquarters in Istanbul to see what they had to say for themselves. Here’s our footage of our interviews.


Interview with the Rabbis of Neturei Karta, Part 1 from NiMBUS PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.

Interview with the Rabbis of Neturei Karta, Part 2 from NiMBUS PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.

Interview with the Rabbis of Neturei Karta, Part 3 from NiMBUS PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.

Interview with the Rabbis of Neturei Karta, Part 4 from NiMBUS PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.


IHH Interview, Part 1 from NiMBUS PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.

IHH Interview, Part 2 from NiMBUS PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.

IHH Interview, Part 3 from NiMBUS PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.

IHH Interview, Part 4 from NiMBUS PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.

IHH Interview, Part 5 from NiMBUS PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.

IHH Interview, Part 6 from NiMBUS PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.

IHH Interview, Part 7 from NiMBUS PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.


IHH Headquarters and Lunch, Part 1 from NiMBUS PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.

IHH Headquarters and Lunch, Part 2 from NiMBUS PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.


The Passengers, Part 1 from NiMBUS PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.

The Passengers, Part 2 from NiMBUS PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.

The Passengers, Part 3 from NiMBUS PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.

The Passengers, Part 4 from NiMBUS PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.

The Passengers, Part 5 from NiMBUS PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.

The Passengers, Part 6 from NiMBUS PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.


The Neighborhood, Part 1 from NiMBUS PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.

The Neighborhood, Part 2 from NiMBUS PRODUCTIONS on Vimeo.

We’ve added a watermark indicating that the footage comes from us, but apart from that we have not edited these interviews at all: not one word has been cut. We are putting all of our footage up on this site—every last minute, even the boring parts—for two reasons: First, we realized pretty quickly that we don’t have the time or the budget to edit it. We couldn’t figure out how to solve this problem. Then it occurred to us that this is precisely what the Internet is good for: crowd-sourcing. There have to be tens of thousands of people out there who will share our view that this footage is important. Wherever you are: Please help us to edit it.

Second, most news footage—particularly where this issue is concerned—is obviously highly and selectively edited, often misleadingly. We thought viewers might appreciate seeing the full interviews, with every quotation in context.

Please feel free—feel encouraged—to use this footage. Edit it, extract it, add commentary, put it on YouTube, add a soundtrack, add voice-over, correct Okan’s translations, correct my Turkish, turn it into a music video: Be our guests. If you edit it in any way that strikes us as interesting, we’ll post the link here. If you find it enlightening or useful, we’d appreciate it if you spread the word about it, and we’d appreciate it even more if you made a donation: Our work is entirely sponsored by you.

Here’s a highlight guide. These are just a few parts of the interviews that struck us as noteworthy; there’s a lot that I haven’t transcribed that’s also extremely interesting. If you’d like to transcribe more of this, or correct these transcriptions, we’d appreciate it and we’ll post it.

(Note: The transcriptions were done in haste, and we can’t guarantee their accuracy. We recommend you check them against the footage before quoting them.)


We didn’t expect to meet these rabbis, but since they were there, we interviewed them. The Turkish press has been very pleased about the solidarity they’ve shown with the Mavi Marmara’s crew.


Claire: What brings you here? Why are you lending your support to an organization that seems to be trying to provoke an actual war?

Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss: With the help of the Almighty, I think that I should be able to convey the Torah. We believe that the identity of Judaism has been hijacked, basically. Just like in the time of Reform. they presented themselves as a legitimate face of Judaism, they presented this with the Rabbinate and so forth, Zionism came along a hundred odd years ago, and they presented itself as the face and the true representation of the Torah, of Judaism, of the Jewish natiom. In truth Zionism is the diametric opposite of Judaism …


Claire: Do you actually support the destruction of the State of Israel?

Rabbi Weiss: We support the dismantlement of the State of Israel. Peaceful and speedy…


Claire: So is your solution sort of like Helen Thomas’s, the Jews should go back to Poland?

Rabbi Weiss: Our solution is simply a dismantlement of the state.

Claire: What happens to the people who are living there?

Rabbi Weiss: You will approach the leaders of every single Arab group, and Moslem group, and you will apologize profusely for the wrong that has been done to them, and work out restitution, and work out a system that they can develop a government the way they want—and most probably they want a democratic government, usually, maybe they want a religious government—if you will go with, in that route, you will find that they will issue fatwas and that they should not hurt a hair of a Jew. Now, that said, I’m not, the Jews, or better put the Israelis, soldiers who carried out interrogations, and prison guards, and things like that, they may be uncomfortable and they may be in danger. So it may be necessary for these people who committed these crimes, that they’ll have to move to the United States, to other places, and that can be worked out.

12: 26

Claire: Do you think that this organization, the IHH, shares this view that Israel should be dismantled?

Rabbi Weiss: I tell you, we’re not politicians, it’s neither here nor there, what view they share, whether they want a two-state solution, or they want a Green line or they don’t. Because we’re not coming from here. We’re not going, we don’t go to Hamas because we are members of Hamas, and we don’t go to the Palestinian Authority because we’re members of the Palestinian Authority or we share their different political outlook, what we go to them is to let them understand that Judaism is not their enemy, Jews are not their enemy, and we want peace and we feel their suffering.

Claire: And what do you say to the Jews whose state you suggest be dismantled? Are you their enemy?

Rabbi Weiss: We are told in the Torah that a Jew who is rebelling against God is our enemy.

16: 55

Rabbi Weiss: If you went to Gaza, and you see the conditions they’re living in, it’s, it’s horrible is not the word, it’s just horrific—

Claire: Do you remember that Israel actually withdrew from Gaza? There was a withdrawal from Gaza.

Rabbi Weiss: You didn’t hear a word—

Claire: A withdrawal—

Rabbi Weiss: You didn’t even hear a word I said! Forgive me. I asked you if you were in Gaza, if you knew about how people are living in Gaza, and you asked about it as if we’re trying to have a debate about what Israel’s politics are, and their PR presentation about why it’s so terrific for the people living in Gaza. If you take a picture of the people living in Gaza and Tel Aviv, I think you’d have to have an IQ of about 50 to decide where you want to live.


Rabbi Weiss: The actions that emanate from the State of Israel, which is forbidden according to the Torah, we are opposed to it. It’s stealing, it’s killing, and we’re feel they’re the root cause of all the bloodshed—

Claire: Would it be correct to sum up to say that you feel there can be no legitimate action from the State of Israel, because you don’t think the State of Israel is a legitimate entity? Is that right?

Rabbi Weiss: That’s wording it in a very, very shrewd matter. We say that the entity doesn’t have a legitimacy to exist, so therefore, all the actions that emanate from it incites people, we want the Palestinian Moslem people to understand that we apologize profusely in the name of the Jewish people, we feel your suffering, and we agree with them, don’t call it the Jewish State, or the Jews, and we want the world to know that the Jews are also being oppressed, in Palestine, we’ll show you pictures here—

Claire: May I ask one question? Are there any other countries in the world that you think aren’t legitimate, shouldn’t exist, should be dismantled?


Claire: Do you support Hamas?

Rabbi Weiss: Do we support Hamas? Again, we are not — we support that the, the cause, what they want. That they want a free Palestine, that’s what we support. We do not support any political group as far as what, each individual political issue.

Claire: Do you support sending rockets into Israel?

Rabbi Weiss: The root cause. Again, the root cause, We say that the cause that they have, that they want a free Palestine, is right. The actions—we never condone violence, we aren’t for violence. We say that the root cause is that they are right in that.

Claire: What about the proximate cause of the bloodshed? Not the root cause of the bloodshed, but the proximate cause of the bloodshed. Do you think that bears some moral examination?

Rabbi Weiss: You have to explain that.

Claire: Right. Do you condemn sending rockets into Israel from Gaza?

Rabbi Weiss: We condemn the oppression of a people and the stealing of our name in order to cause war and death.


(Sorry about the sound at first, not censorship, but a technical snafu.)


Claire: You know, the French terrorism judge Jean-Louis Brougieres has suggested that the IHH has ties to al Qaeda, and was involved in the millennium attack on the Los Angeles airport. I wanted to know, is that true?

Ahmet Bey: At this rate, they’re going to assign all the guilt for everything in the world that’s happened to IHH.

Claire: But this was at the time of that attack.

Ahmet Bey: IHH is an institution that has been on the scene for the last 18 years. We’re in 180 areas of the world, and the only place we have a problem is Palestine.

Claire: Why were your offices raided by the Turkish authorities? Was that a mistake?

Ahmet Bey: It was in 1997, when freedoms in Turkey were restricted after the takeover in the postmodern coup. During that time a lot of NGOs were raided and they picked IHH as one of the scapegoats.

Claire: Was it true that there was telephone contact between IHH offices and various extremist groups like al Qaeda? That’s just manufactured, that evidence?

Ahmet Bey: Including the period I mentioned, in 1997, we’ve never been officially charged or accused of any of this. It’s only the same columnists and newspapers, and the source is the same place.

Claire: And what is the source of this?

Ahmet Bey: Some people in France, some website.

Claire: It’s France’s best-known counter-terrorism judge, Jean-Louis Brougieres, who’s said unequivocally that IHH is a front organization for Islamist financing of terrorist groups in Chechnya, in Bosnia …

Ahmet Bey: If you’re looking through the glasses of the West, 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.

Claire: Do you consider al Qaeda a terrorist group?

Ahmet Bey: We consider every organization that attacks civilians, that harms civilians, a terrorist organization, and we’ve never had anything to do with them.

Claire: You’ve never had anything to do with al Qaeda?

Ahmet Bey: Never.

Claire: Okay, what about Hamas. Do you consider them a terrorist group?

Ahmet Bey: This accusation is very common because we’re involved in 120 nations and regions in the world, and they include Chechnya and Afghanistan and those that were oppressed by Serbia and Israel, and people can look at it that way.

Claire: Do you think Hamas is a terrorist group?

Ahmet Bey: We don’t consider Hamas a terrorist organization; they’re a political party.

Claire: Do you realize Hamas has targeted civilians?


Claire: What are the connections between the IHH and the AKP. Do you have a relationship with them? What is the origin of the closeness between the IHH and the AKP?

Ahmet Bey: One is a political party and the other is an aid organization. There’s no organic tie. But Turkey is a conservative nation and a conservative people, and the people who donate to the organization, the same conservative mass, votes for the AKP. So basically we use the same public base. Other than that there are no official ties, but since we share the same mass, we’re involved in the same mass, we know each other individually.


Claire: Is it true that 40 members of the IHH boarded separately and without security checks, and established a separate command room on top of the boat? …

Ahmet Bey: The only people who boarded the boat separately were the crew, the people responsible for the food, and the broadcasting crew.


Ahmet Bey: We weren’t expecting such an assault, with gas bombs, sound bombs—

Claire: Don’t you think perhaps you should have expected that, given that you were sailing into the most volatile military conflict zone in the world, and had been repeatedly been warned by the Israelis that you would be resisted by force?

Ahmet Bey: We weren’t expecting anyone to open such careless fire on civilians. We knew we were sailing—

Claire: So you were using—

Ahmet Bey: We knew we weren’t going to be met with flowers.


Ahmet Bey: We had people who ranged from a one-year-old kid to 88-year-old religious man. And we took all the civilian precautions, assuming this was a civilian act, and that’s all we did. How do you think six boats, 700 civilians, and 15,000 kg of humanitarian aid, threatens Israeli security?

Claire: You know perfectly well that if the blockade is broken, that allows Iran to deliver materials for making missiles to Hamas. If the blockade is broken, and that is the precedent you were trying to set, isn’t it?

Ahmet Bey: Everybody from American clergy to European politicians were trying to break that blockade, yes. The people that are risking their lives to bring aid to these people, would they be doing it to aid Hamas?

Claire: Effectively, yes. That is effectively what they’re doing.

Ahmet Bey: The MPs from Europe, from Sweden, the European MPs, were they working to help Iran?

Claire: Let me just back up. You said, “The people who were risking their lives.” That means you knew they were risking their lives?

Ahmet Bey: They knew they were going into a risky area–

Claire: So why were you sending women and children into that situation? If you knew they were risking their lives, so why wouldn’t you send your military, and not your women and children?

Ahmet Bey: They were volunteers, we’re not pulling anybody—

Claire: How can a one-year-old child be a volunteer?

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

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

Ahmet Bey: That kid was the boat captain’s son, the second captain’s son, from the crew.

Claire: And that was the reason you put him into this situation?

Ahmet Bey: 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 him on the passenger list, and that way they got on the boat, because they was on the passenger list.

Claire: 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?”

Ahmet Bey: 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.

Claire: 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?

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

Claire: So you think it has nothing to do with politics between Turkey and Israel?

Ahmet Bey: Without a doubt. But Israel’s trying to politicize it.

Claire: And you don’t think Turkey’s trying to politicize it?

Ahmet Bey: Because Israel has some political issues with Turkey, and through these NGOs we’re trying to get this done.


Claire: Do you support Hamas? Do you think Hamas is a terrorist organization, or do you not support Hamas?

Ahmet Bey: We’re not dealing with them as partners in Palestine. We don’t deal with them. Our partner institutions are in Gaza and the West Bank. We always locate a partner in the places we go it. We work with legally operating NGOs in those areas. If indirectly we get accused because of their ties to Hamas, there’s nothing we can do.

Claire: Do you officially endorse Hamas in any way? Do you have any personal connections, do the senior figures in the organization support Hamas?

Ahmet Bey: If you look on our website, you may find some announcements by our president that may sound political, but they’re not support for their methods, just support for their situation.

Claire: The Hamas charter calls for the complete destruction of Israel. It doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist at all. Is there a sense in the IHH that this is the correct position?

Ahmet Bey: We’re not a political party, we have 150 employees who work with us, they may all think differently. But officially, we do not make any official announcement or give official support for any group. But the guys you met like that, for example [the rabbis], there are people that are anti-Israel in Israel as well. These individuals’ perspective do not concern the institution. We’re not bound by their points of views, so they’re not important to us. Our official stance is apparent.

Claire: Well, I think the individual points of view are quite relevant, because if you’re doing something as provocative as you did, if the individual points of view of many people in that group is that Israel should not exist as a state, and if this is known to many people in the Israeli military and government, of course they’re going to react in a way that’s different than they would if they deeply believed this was a humanitarian—

Ahmet Bey: There weren’t any people on that list, the only names that they had were me and Bulent Bey. [Bulent Yildirim, head of the IHH]

Claire: What list?

Ahmet Bey: There was a list that came out of the commandoes that were beaten up, and the only two names were the people on that list. They were looking for about 25 people on that boat, and only two Turkish names were on it. And Israel never made such accusations until they killed ten of our people. That’s the counter-move they have, accusing people of having ties to al Qaeda and radical groups.

Claire: I just want to be sure I understand. You’re saying it is absolutely untrue that anyone on that boat had ties to al Qaeda or any other radical group, and it was not the position of anyone on that boat that Israel should be destroyed, or—

Ahmet Bey: Absolutely not. We went through the criminal records of all the people that were on board, and we can’t say anything with regard to what was on their minds, but officially, none of them had ties to terrorist organizations. I don’t know what they individually think.


Claire: Do you support Israel’s right to exist?

Ahmet Bey: Our institutional perspective is that of the Palestinian people. That is, in the Oslo Accords, they agreed to a two-state solution.

Claire: The Hamas charter—and Hamas is part of the Palestinian people—calls for the complete destruction of Israel.

Ahmet Bey: Different groups can think differently, Islamic Jihad can think differently, Hamas can think differently, Jibril–

Claire: I asked what you felt.

Ahmet Bey: The people who govern Palestine and Gaza are in Ramallah, whatever they want to do, we’re with them—

Claire: Do you think Israel has a right to exist?

Ahmet Bey: If the innocent Palestinian people want to live together with Israel, then anyone outside of Palestine does not have any right to think any other way. We can’t be more Palestinian than the Palestinians. All we’re trying to do is to help them.

Claire: I’m still not understanding. This is a pretty simple question. Do you, personally, think that Israel has a right to exist?

Ahmet Bey: According to international law, which is the United Nations decision 242, Israel and Palestinians and all the nations accept that the Israel state can exist. I go along with that. Whatever the Palestinian people want and have decided, I go along with that.

Claire: It doesn’t sound like you have a lot of sympathy for the state of Israel though, since you’re saying you’ll go along with whatever the Palestinian people want. I’m just wondering: There are many charges that this is a very anti-Semitic group, that the IHH is an anti-Semitic group. Let’s find out. Tell me, do you believe in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion?

Ahmet Bey: That’s a cheap defense of Israel. They label everyone as anti-Semitic.

Claire: I’m not labeling you, I’m asking you.

Ahmet Bey: Israel is, Israel is. If you claim that the embargo is against international law, they label you as anti-Semitic. If Turkey defends the rights of their ten dead people on the boat, then all of a sudden Turkey’s taken a different direction, they’re becoming anti-Semitic, they’re moving against the West. All these cheap accusations …


Ahmet Bey: Zionism and Zionist lobby groups, as you’ll see in the United Nations, are racist. The United Nations has accepted this, so we don’t have the luxury of rejecting this.


Claire: If you’re confused, next time, about whether you’re sending kids into a dangerous situation, give me a call. Because I could have told you that was dangerous. I knew it was dangerous.

Ahmet Bey: The fact that we’re not thinking of sending people over there now does not mean we’re not going to. We’re conferring with our partners, we’re discussing, debating the situation, and who knows? Maybe we’ll even send a bigger one. A bigger flotilla.

Claire: With more kids.

Ahmet Bey: If we go again, we’ll probably take more precautions. If we go again we’ll probably take more precautions. I don’t know, I’m just speculating, it’s not clear. But the embargo has to be lifted. One and a half million people, 900,000 refugees, 70 percent are kids—

Claire: The embargo would be recognized immediately if Hamas recognized Israel and stopped sending rockets over the border. Why aren’t you urging that?

Ahmet Bey: It’s been 17 years since the Oslo agreements. Does it make sense for Hamas to go through the same experience. For the last 17 years Israel has promised to do a lot.

Claire: What are you talking about? Israel withdrew from Gaza, at the price of uprooting a great many people, and immediately the rockets started flying over the border. Do the rockets not count?

Ahmet Bey: We’re going to get into, does the egg belong to the chicken, or does the chicken belong to the egg. If we start that, we’ll have to go all the way back to 1948.

Claire: I agree, which is why I’m saying you’re getting yourself involved in a very complicated political situation under the guise of being humanitarian aid workers. But this is a political and a military conflict, and you’re sending boats in there with women and children. That’s not right.

Ahmet Bey: Why doesn’t Greenpeace get accused for risking their volunteers to save whales? [The tone of voice in which he says “whales” really merits checking this section out, if you need comic relief.]


The IHH graciously invited us to join us for lunch in their canteen. We met Izzat Shahin, who had been detained in the West Bank on suspicion of transporting cash to Hamas under the guise of humanitarian aid. We’ve also got some footage here of the lobby of the IHH. We’re given a document that they say fell out of a suitcase, in Hebrew, pertaining to the erasure of their video tapes. We’ll scan this and post it here.


We met two European passengers from the flotilla. Dror Feiler is an Israeli who emigrated to Sweden; he was on one of the other boats on the flotilla. Dimitris Plionis, a Greek citizen, was on the Mavi Marmara itself.


Mr. Plionis: After 4:00 in the morning, I think it was 4:20, 4:25, they started to attack, first by, there were Zodiacs and quick-launch boats. And they tried to board on the side, but they couldn’t, because people were throwing things to them, you know, chairs, and things like that. And also there were some water cannons, they were watering them. And then right after five or ten minutes the helicopters came, and they landed commandoes on top of the ship, they came out by ropes, fully armed, shooting–

Claire: Were they paintball guns or were they shooting live bullets?

Mr. Plionis: No, they were live bullets, and they were shooting real bullets, and they were throwing bombs, sound–

Mr. Feiler: Shock grenades.

Mr. Plionis: Shock grenades, whatever you call them. There were the Mavi Marmara people, the crew, they were resisting, okay, they had sticks and things like that. They had no guns. This is a total lie that they were armed. They had slingshots. I saw the slingshots. Of course, as soon as they saw resistance of this type, they started shooting people. They not only shot people on the top of the deck, but on the sides. People were shot even from the launch boats.

Claire: Why was there resistance of this kind on the Mavi Marmara, but not on the other boats?

Mr. Feiler: Because there were so many people on the Mavi Marmara. And when you have a great mass of people, they behave another way. …

Mr. Plionis: I believe that people were not willing to be hijacked on the high seas, and they thought, I believe, that it was their duty as sailors, and as people of the flotilla, to not go down just lying on the ground–

Claire: That would make sense to me if it were a military ship, but this is ship full of civilians. Didn’t anyone say, “We’re taking a risk of getting civilians killed?”

Mr. Plionis: You should ask Israel about that.

2:29:56 [Not my finest moment. You want proof that we’re not editing anything out, here it is.]

Mr. Feiler: But let me continue. They took us one by one, to a room. And in this room was sitting an officer. So the soldiers were all in their masks, totally masked, you cannot see. One of the soldiers, he had no arms at all, he was a Mossad guy. He had no arms.

Claire: You mean—he literally—you mean he was an amputee?

Mr. Feiler, Mr. Dror: No! No! He had no arms! No arms.

Claire: He was unarmed.


Mr. Feiler: I was totally deprived all my rights. My lawyer was two days in the prison looking for me, and they were only lying to him—he’s there, he’s not there, we don’t know and so on. In the end, luckily I came out, through the demand of the Turkish government. They said, “Either everybody is out, or nobody out.”

Claire: They said that? They said everyone, or we don’t take our own citizens back?

Mr. Feiler: Yes. They had a very firm decision. They stole everything. If you have time, you should ask IHH to take you to the warehouse, where they have hundreds of empty luggage, laptop cases. The stole hundreds of laptops. From me they stole two cameras, my satellite phone, my regular phone and my saxophone. Why they take my saxophone? Okay, they take my camera. Okay, but why? But it is only—it is unacceptable, it is robbery, I will sue them. Soon I will go to Israel and I will sue them. In Israel, in Sweden, in Turkey in international court. They will regret the moment that they gave us a problem. And they know it.


Mr. Feiler: Many governments have said “this is unacceptable, we don’t want this,” but they didn’t do it. So because of this, we took upon ourselves the responsibility our governments didn’t take. And it shows that it is possible. Now suddenly, everyone, Hilary Clinton, the Swedish prime minister says it, even Tony Blair, and the fact that Tony Blair says it, it shows that the siege will not last half a year.

2:40: 48

Claire: Do you have any anxiety at all that you may have been used by the AKP government?

Mr. Feiler: Absolutely not. Maybe I used them.

Claire: You don’t have a sense that this boat had a bigger reason for Erdogan, for the AKP government, than just bringing humanitarian aid to—

Mr. Feiler: I can’t speculate.

Mr. Plionis: It was not a governmental mission, by the way. IHH is not the government. The government may accept, may have a good relations with IHH, but it was not the government. … this is something different. It’s, it’s non-governmental. We were activists, we had humanitarian help, and also we had the political aim of lifting the siege of Gaza. In the 21st century, you cannot have an open-air prison of 1.5 million people. You cannot bomb them to stone age and let them live in the rubble forbidding the entry of materials of construction.


Claire: Do you have any thoughts at all about Turkish politics?

Mr. Feiler: Yes. I know quite a lot about politics.

Mr. Plionis: We know politics everywhere. We read newspapers everywhere. We’re not morons. But we don’t care. It’s not our field.

Claire: So you are singly preoccupied with Gaza.

Mr. Plionis: Yes.

2:52: 35

Claire: You keep saying that you’re not political. But what you’re doing has political consequences—regional political consequences. You’re strengthening the AKP here in Turkey.

Mr. Plionis: Yes, I accept this.

Mr. Feiler: No. It is a reaction. If they let us go in, there would be no consequences. Israel with its sick policies is strengthening extremism.


Claire: I don’t know if you’re engaging seriously with my question. I’m asking you very seriously, without any attempt to trap you. I just want to know, have you thought about the consequences for Turkey, for all the people in the Middle East, from to Darfur—have you done anything that’s going to make the world better for them?

Mr. Feiler: Yes!

Mr. Plionis: Has Israel thought, what—

Claire: I’m not asking the Israelis, I’m asking you!

Mr. Feiler: I tell you like this. I’m sure we’ve made the world better. We have shown that people can organize themselves, and tell the politicians in front of them, we have succeeded making the Swedish parliament, from left to right, to condemn the attack. 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. They can act between elections.


Outside the IHH headquarters, the neighborhood around Fatih Mosque. You can’t quite make it out, but Okan is explaining to me that they were reluctant to let us film in the kitchen: “If you do that, they’ll know that we’re Islamists,” they said. Okan replied, “What’s wrong with that?” They considered it and decided there was nothing wrong with it. You can overhear Okan and me marveling at Mr. Feiler’s comments about “not having to wait for an election.”

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I discuss visiting the headquarters of the IHH, the organization behind the Gaza Flotilla.

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What we don’t know about the Mavi Marmara incident: just about everything.

City Journal

I live in Istanbul and for obvious reasons have been receiving e-mails and phone calls in the past few days asking what, exactly, is going on in Turkey. The answer is that I’m not sure. This is the only honest answer any journalist can give, unless she has managed to place a listening device in the meeting rooms of the Turkish Cabinet. It’s not, however, the answer all are giving. The events surrounding the bloodletting on the Mavi Marmara have prompted more media coverage, here and abroad, than any news event I can recently recall. Much of it is speculative and polemical nonsense. Journalists proclaim, over and over, that this has become a media war, which would seem to put them in an impressive position on the front lines, though in fact, should the worst come to pass and result in an outright Turkish-Israeli naval war—not impossible to imagine—journalists will, as usual, make no military decisions and will constitute only a tiny fraction of the dead. The media are certainly playing a role in this conflict, but in the end the power is, as it always has been, with those who control the militaries—and they’re saying little.

Here is what we don’t know. We don’t know why the Turkish government allowed the Mavi Marmara to sail. While it’s clear that some indeterminate proportion of the passengers were Islamist thugs, it’s also clear that many of the passengers were naive civilians. (You cannot argue that a one-year-old child is anything but a naive civilian.) We don’t yet know whether there was an active plot, among the thugs, to provoke this confrontation, or whether they decided to attack the Israeli commandos in an access of spontaneous enthusiasm. If the former, we don’t know whether the AKP government was aware of the organizers’ intentions or whether it never seriously considered the possibility. We can speculate, based on known connections between the İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri İnsani Yardım Vakfı, which organized the expedition, and well-known extremist groups, that this was a trap, set deliberately. We can speculate that the Turkish government conceived of the trap or lent it tacit support. But thus far we have no evidence.

Why might the Turkish government have permitted a Turkish boat packed with women, children, stupid people, and Islamic extremists to sail into the world’s most volatile military conflict zone? Why, especially, did they permit this while knowing that the Israeli government had made explicit its intention to stop that boat, by force if necessary? It’s tempting to think that the Turkish government anticipated or desired this outcome, all the more so if one looks at this conflict through a certain prism, to wit: one in which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is an Islamist nut intent upon establishing Turkish hegemony over the Islamic world by becoming the populist champion of the Palestinians, even at the risk of provoking an all-out regional war. I don’t dismiss that possibility.

But in fact, bad decisions can be made in infinitely many human ways. It’s also possible that Erdoğan sincerely believed that the boats had been properly inspected and were free of any weapons, and therefore no serious conflict could occur. It’s possible that he spoke to the organizers of the flotilla and came away with assurances about their intentions; or that he simply thought the Israelis were bluffing; or that his mind was on other things. The latter species of blunder happens all the time. Clearly, President Obama’s mind was on other things—the oil spewing all over the Gulf of Mexico, namely.

Erdoğan no doubt does have much on his mind these days, with the new leader of the CHP posing the first serious challenge to his party since the AKP took power; with Turkish troops dying at the hands of the PKK and making a mockery of his Kurdish opening; with his trip to South America, punctuated by a now-overshadowed diplomatic crisis of its own. It’s possible that Erdoğan’s intentions in permitting the boat to sail were entirely malicious (or designed to distract the Turkish public from these recent events), but it’s also possible—and never a theory to be discounted—that he and his government were simply fatally oblivious and incompetent. Any journalist who claims to know the answer, without possessing evidence of it, is exaggerating his access and overstating his analytic abilities.

Likewise, we have no idea why the Israelis responded as they did. Little about their response makes much sense on the face of it. It seems clear now that the Israelis should have known that a boat with members of the İHH aboard had the potential to turn into a floating riot. But who made the decision to interdict the boat in that fashion, and why? We don’t know. Did the decision-makers fail to consider the possibility that the passengers would attack the commandos? It seems unlikely, but so many things seem likely only in hindsight. The Israelis, too, might well have been thinking that the boat had been properly inspected, and that there was no serious possibility of violence. Perhaps they received private assurances of this from the Turkish government.

Nor could any member of the media possibly know that the Israelis wanted a violent outcome, whether (as it has variously been hypothesized) to establish Israeli deterrence, to distract the world from Israel’s activities in the Persian Gulf, or to provoke Erdoğan into an overreaction that would at last discredit him in the West. None of the journalists offering speculation about Turkish or Israeli positions claim to have even an anonymous source or a secret document in their possession. Their speculations tend to conform with perfect precision to whatever line about Turkey or Israel they’ve endorsed before.

We also don’t know whether the Israelis received intelligence, real or faulty, about the nature of the goods being shipped on the Mavi Marmara. We don’t know whether they were told—by an honest source who believed it or by a corrupt one trying to make mischief—that the boat was another Karine A. We don’t know what really happened before the violence broke out or why the accounts conflict. It’s possible, of course, that they conflict because one or both sides are wicked propagandists, but eyewitness testimony is notoriously confused in the aftermath of traumatic events. We don’t know why the Israelis stopped the boat in international waters or whether they seriously considered disabling it by other means. We certainly don’t know what the Obama administration is doing about all of this, because it is either doing nothing, or doing something so quietly that it very much appears that way.

This much I do know, firsthand: the event is dominating the Turkish media. It’s on every television and radio station. Much of the media, the Islamist press in particular, is disgusting and utterly irresponsible. The Islamist fringe is running headlines that are not, to say the least, calculated to encourage confidence about Turkey’s future. Yeni Şafak, an Islamist rag favored by the prime minister, described the Israelis as “Hitler’s Children.” An AKP Deputy Chairman, Hüseyin Çelik, has speculated (without evidence) that it is “no coincidence” that in the past week, a PKK attack claimed the lives of seven Turkish soldiers in İskenderun. The more reputable Islamist papers, such as Zaman, reported this claim uncritically. Few Turks read English and almost none read Hebrew, so the Turkish public is not exposed to a wide variety of opinion. The Turkish media is not helping matters.

I’ve seen street protests at Taksim, but not elsewhere; the protesters seem to be mainly young men, as to be expected, waving Palestinian flags. Apart from that, the mood is generally calm. People seem more anxious than angry. “We don’t know what’s going on,” said my Muay Thai teacher. “No one knows what’s going on.” Everyone at my gym, which I suppose politically represents a fairly random sample of Istanbul, seemed to agree that they did not want war. Many have voiced to me a suspicion that they are being manipulated.

I have about 500 Turkish Facebook friends, most of whom I’ve never met; we’ve come into contact through our shared interest in causes or hobbies—martial arts, rescuing animals, improving Istanbul’s construction codes. Of these 500, about three have clearly gone mad, posting insane anti-Israel diatribes, full of vulgarities, in capital letters. About 50 have posted something angry about the incident or joined a group devoted to denouncing it. The vast majority have done neither, and some have spoken out strongly against Islamism and anti-Semitism. I’ve spoken to a few people who say they don’t care about the Mavi Marmara. “I didn’t know them, what were they to me?” said one computer programmer. His friend, a chef, agreed: “Why should I care about the Palestinians just because they’re Muslims?” From these comments I can firmly conclude only that Turkey is not monolithic, and that if indeed Erdoğan provoked this crisis deliberately to buttress his popularity, he may well also provoke a backlash if it spins out of his control.

These are modest observations, to be sure, but I’ll conclude with an immodest suggestion: it would be best for this region if journalists contained their observations to what they do, in fact, know. A media war is actually quite different from a real one. Whatever is really happening, however little of it we understand, is obviously minatory and extremely dangerous. The best thing journalists can do under the circumstances is to stop playing with fire unless they have something real to report.

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The Wall Street Journal

Last fall, having observed that few women in Istanbul took martial-arts classes, I conceived the idea to work with local instructors on creating a women’s self-defense initiative. My project met with initial enthusiasm, particularly among women concerned with the high rate of domestic violence in Turkey. But other martial arts instructors in the city grew uneasy, sensing a plot to swindle them out of their small pieces of the martial-arts pie. Istanbul quickened with lunatic rumors that the initiative was a conspiracy to disparage the other instructors’ martial prowess and steal their students. Martial-arts cliques consumed themselves with plotting and counter-plotting. Secret tribunals were held, covert alliances formed, poison-pen letters sent, friends betrayed. I gave up in disgust.

No one familiar with the prominent role of conspiracies and paranoia in Turkish social and political life will be surprised. Last month, more than five dozen military officers were arrested and charged with plotting a coup. The detained stand accused of planning to bomb mosques and down Greek fighter jets as a pretext for toppling the government. Whether it is true, I don’t know. But either way, the country is drowning in persecutory theories.

Turkey’s strategic and economic significance to the West is massive—and American-Turkish relations took a turn for the worse earlier this month when a U.S. congressional committee recommended the full House of Representatives take up a vote on a resolution condemning the slaughter of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide.

Turkey is a rarity in the Middle East, a democracy with a secular constitution. It has the second-largest army in NATO; it provides a crucial energy route to Europe. The Incirlik air base is a crucial staging point for the US military. Turkey has made a sizable contribution to the coalition forces in Afghanistan. It has a seat on the U.N. Security Council, and could be a vital diplomatic partner—or a vexed antagonist—to America throughout the Middle East and Islamic world.

The West, understandably, is concerned about the trouble in Turkey. Particularly disturbing is the growing anti-Israel animus of Turkey’s foreign policy and its growing intimacy with the most extremist regimes and parties of the Islamic world. Turkey’s trade with Iran is galloping. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the first international figure to host Hamas. He has called for the expulsion of Israel from the U.N. while offering diplomatic support for the denial of genocide in Darfur.

Turkey has seen three military coups in the past half century—by definition, you can’t have a coup without a conspiracy. The military, which conceives itself as the guardian of Turkish democracy and secularism, has intervened, most recently in 1997, to unseat prime ministers who have veered too far off the secular rails.

The ruling Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, came to power in 2002. Its senior figures rose from the ranks of virulent—and banned—Islamist parties, but the AKP claims to be moderate.

Almost everyone in Turkey subscribes to one of two conspiracy narratives about this party or its antagonists. In the first, the AKP is a party of religious deception that seeks to bring all elements of the government under its control. Its hidden goal is the eradication of the secular state, the wrenching of Turkey from the West, and, ultimately, the imposition of Islamic law. In this narrative, the specter of the sect leader Fethullah Gülen, who has undefined ties to the party and has taken exile in Utah, arouses particular dread. His critics fear he is the Turkish Ayatollah Khomenei; they say that his acolytes have seeped into the organs of the Turkish body politic, where they lie poised, like a zombie army, to be awakened by his signal.

The second version holds that the AKP is exactly what it purports to be: a modern and democratic party with which the West can and should do business. Mr. Gülen’s followers say the real conspirators are instead members of the so-called Deep State—what they call a demented, multitentacled secret alliance of high-level figures in the military, the intelligence services, the judiciary and organized crime.

Neither theory has irrefragable proof behind it. Both are worryingly plausible and supported by some evidence. But most significantly, one or the other story is believed by virtually everyone here. It is the paranoid style of Turkish politics itself that should alarm the West. Turkey’s underlying disease is not so much Islamism or a military gone rogue, but corruption and authoritarianism over which a veneer of voter participation has been painted.

The system does not look too undemocratic on paper. Turkish political parties are structured, in principle, around district and provincial organizations. There is universal suffrage, but a party must receive 10% of the vote to be represented in Parliament. Party members elect district delegates, district presidents and board members. Yet Turkish prime ministers have near-dictatorial powers over their political parties and are not embarrassed to use them.

It is the ​party members, not voters, who pick the party leader. Members of Parliament enjoy unlimited political immunity, as do the bureaucrats they appoint. The resulting license to steal money and votes is accepted with alacrity and used with impunity. Corruption and influence peddling are the inevitable consequence. Business leaders are afraid to object for fear of being shut out.

Conspiracies flourish when citizens fear punishment for open political expression, when power is seen as illegitimate, and when people have no access to healthy channels of influence. They give rise inevitably to counterconspiracies that fuel the paranoia and enmity, a self-reinforcing cycle. Throughout Turkey is the pervasive feeling that no one beyond family can be trusted.

The common charge that the AKP is progressively weakening the judiciary and the military is objectively correct, as is the claim that this concentrates an unhealthy amount of power in the hands of the executive branch. Yet the prime minister and his intimates insist that their actions are defensive. “For 40 years, they have kept files on us. Now, it is our turn to keep files on them,” AKP deputy Avni Doğan has said.

Their enemies voice the same worldview. “When you look at Turkey today, it is as if the country has … fallen under foreign occupation,” the leader of the opposition CHP party Deniz Baykal has said.

Paranoia is inevitably also grandiose. When the House Committee on Foreign Affairs passed up the recent resolution to describe the massacre of Armenians in the First World War era as a genocide, Suat Kiniklioglu, the spokesman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Turkish Parliament, explained Turkey’s outrage thus: “I think the Americans would feel that same if we were to pass a resolution in our parliament talking about the treatment of [native] Indians in this country.”

Mr. Kiniklioglu speaks fluent English; he has spent years in the West. Yet he is blind to the most obvious of facts about American culture: No one in America would give a damn.

Meanwhile, discussion of Turkey’s most serious social and economic problems—corruption, poverty, unemployment, and a legal system held in contempt even by its attorneys—has been eclipsed. Reports of economic miracles under the AKP have, as everyone now understands, been exaggerated by statistical legerdemain. This is all too easy to do, because Turkey has one of the largest underground economies in the world, worth somewhere between one-third and two-thirds of the country’s GDP. Every major economic sector in Turkey is largely off-the-record. No one can say confidently whether these sectors are growing or shrinking, and even officially, Turkey now has the second-highest rate of unemployment in Europe. This is hardly the mark of an expanding middle class.

Among the most serious of Turkey’s problems, ignored in the constant din of mutual accusations, is the grave seismic risk to Istanbul. The city’s position on a highly active fault line and the prevalence of shoddy construction make it not only possible but probable that it will be the world’s next Port-au-Prince. The death and displacement of half a million Turks in an earthquake would clearly be the end of any hope of stability and peace in this region.

The failure to prepare for this predictable event is a betrayal of trust, like so many the Turkish people have suffered. Each deepens the paranoia. Each citizen believes that to survive, he must lie and conspire. Everyone assumes everyone else is lying and conspiring against him because he himself is lying and conspiring.

Turkish Ambassador Namik Tan recently said that the West “must understand that in this region, two plus two doesn’t always equal four. Sometimes it equals six, sometimes 10. You cannot hope to understand this region unless you grasp this.”

Psychiatrists are typically advised to attempt to form a “working alliance” with the paranoid patient, avoid becoming the object of projection, and provide a model of non-paranoid behavior. This is also sound advice in diplomacy.

​But paranoia is known to be a particularly intractable disorder. Those who experience it do not trust those trying to help them. The West should keep this, too, in mind, for the paranoid spiral here could easily do what spirals are known to do: spin out of control.

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The National

ISTANBUL “Hell no, angrily no,” says Galeri x-ist art director Kerimcan Guleryuz when asked if excitement about Turkish contemporary art exceeds the supply of real talent here. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s not hype.” By “they” he means the collectors and gallery owners—and there are many—who are wondering if the Turkish art market is being set up for a fall.

There’s a tulip-craze feeling in the Turkish art world, to be sure. The market is notable for its “dramatic growth,” says Ali Can Ertuğ, Sotheby’s senior vice-president for strategic business development in the Middle East. “There’s a great deal of excitement around its emergence on the international art scene,” he adds, calling Istanbul a “prime candidate” for Sotheby’s expansion plans.

Sotheby’s opened an office in Istanbul last February and launched its inaugural sale of Turkish contemporary art last spring, devoting a whole department to it. In October, Christie’s included what it billed as the “most important selection of Turkish art ever offered at auction” in its modern and contemporary sale in Dubai.

The Istanbul Biennial in September generated still more attention, as did the naming of Istanbul as 2010’s Cultural Capital of Europe. Turkish artists are hot commodities in galleries abroad, with Selma Gürbüz at the Tate Modern and Kutluğ Ataman shortlisted for the Turner Prize. Turkey’s AKBANK is now sponsoring an exhibition of Turkish contemporary art in Dubai, at the Cuadro Fine Arts Gallery, featuring major works by Haluk Akakçe, Nazif Topçuoğlu, Selma Gürbüz, Taner Ceylan and İnci Eviner.

The prices reported at auctions, above all, are eye-raising. Burhan Doğançay’s “Mavi Senfoni” (Blue Symphony) recently sold for more than two million dollars, the highest price ever paid for a work by a living Turkish painter. The value of the domestic Turkish art auction market, it has been reported, has quadrupled in the past eight years.

Notable, however—and odd—is that since the recession began, the art market elsewhere has been in deep trouble. Sotheby’s and Christie’s have laid off employees. Arts circles are full of chatter about a buyers’ market. In most of the world, prices are going down. Why should Turkey be the exception?

“Turkish contemporary art is still relatively affordable and young, in comparison to other collecting categories,” says Ertuğ. “Turkey has a strong and diverse economy and a notable concentration of wealth. It has a young generation with an enthusiasm for and a desire to acquire art.”

Aylin Seçkin of Istanbul Bilgi University, an economist of art and culture, largely agrees. “The recent developments in the Turkish art market should be examined in view of the macroeconomic dynamics,” she says. “Turkey has a growing young-investor population with increasing incomes. They invest in art as well as in stocks. I don’t think the Turkish art market is over-hyped. It’s still a relatively cheap and promising market for foreign investors.”

But other collectors and consultants have doubts—big doubts. According to Isabella Içöz, an independent art consultant who advises Sotheby’s on their Turkish contemporary art collection, “You can’t take auction results at face value. When you read that a work has sold at auction at a certain price, you have to ask, ‘Has it actually sold? Who sold it back?’ A sale didn’t necessarily take place.”

Içöz describes the way auctions are conducted here as “not technically illegal, but possibly unethical. The prices may be artificially driven up to drive someone’s reputation or boost a collection. It happens more often than it should. Auto-consignment isn’t illegal here. So someone might have 20 works by an artist, he puts one up, it sells high, the other 19 go up in value. I think it’s a very dangerous game they’re playing. You’re looking at a very inflated figure overall. You can get accurate figures from Sotheby’s and Christie’s, they’re very transparent. That, plus figures from the major galleries, gives you a better idea what’s going on. But no one really knows.”

Içöz worries about the long-term implications of this game. Foreign collectors, she notes, have a tendency to “buy up for two years, rape the market, then go elsewhere. Only a handful of true international collectors are coming here and looking at the market in a mature, sophisticated, deeper way.”

On the one hand, she says, “this is normal, organic and typical. Turkey is in a much better position than China or India, because it has longstanding galleries that have been around for 25 years.”

But on the other, “The responsibility of a gallery and a collector is to the local art market. Inflating prices with no real research is not responsible to the artists’ careers. Where is it going to go? To a big crash to their reputations. We’ve seen that in India, China, Iran. It’s not responsible to collectors who have invested for the right reasons. Every day articles are written about how so-and-so painting sold for record-breaking prices, but not one articles asks, ‘What’s going on below the surface?’”

Many collectors, she suspects, “will wake up in ten years and realize they’re sitting on a lot of rubbish.”

Guleryuz, on the other hand, who founded Galeri x-ist to promote young Turkish artists who do not yet have a wide audience, argues that the rumors of hype are themselves over-hyped. “In reality, the market is getting cleaner and better. Some of the foreign consultants might be naïve about what it used to be like.”

The enthusiasm, he says, is justified by Turkey’s position as a center of globally relevant artistic innovation. “It makes so much sense that Turkey should be the next big thing. It’s not an accident. We have the key to the issues the world is going to be struggling with for the next 25 years. We’re the remains of an empire, the residue of this humongous problem the world is going to have to come to grips with. It’s East versus West at its fundamental core. This is not a coincidence. This is not a passing fad.”

Içöz’s reservations, however, are widely shared by other gallery owners and art consultants in Istanbul. One of the great éminences grises of the Turkish art world, Haldun Dostoğlu of Galeri Nev, agrees that “manipulation and speculation is very dangerous for the art market—and it’s risen dramatically in the past year.” He wonders just who is buying this art at these prices. “The people who are buying right now, I don’t know them. It’s obvious that they’re speculating. It’s easier to manipulate the art market than the stock exchange.”

The sales statistics noted in the news, agrees corporate art consultant and BoltArt.net editor Károly Aliotti, “are ridiculous.”

“Everything about the process is wrong,” says another prominent gallery owner. “Behind the galleries are certain rich people. They’re the partners of the galleries, and they’re the ones who are buying. Some are involved in money laundering, smuggling. There’s 50 billion dollars worth of narcotics flowing in from Afghanistan, Iran. You can’t put that money in the bank, but you can put it in art. Fifty percent of the money in this business is dirty. They don’t even open the package, they just put it in the storage room.”

Yahşi Baraz of the Baraz Gallery, who has been in the sector for 35 years, also asks just who is buying these works from Sotheby’s and Christie’s. “Usually,” he says, “after a sale, we know who bought the painting within a year—we see it hanging in someone’s salon. But now people are buying stuff, and we’re not seeing it.”

This is, perhaps, because the works are not hanging anywhere. “The majority of people are buying for investment only,” says Içöz. “The stuff is going into warehouses.”

Few here agree with Sotheby’s Ertuğ that the driving force behind this acquisitional frenzy is “enthusiasm for art.” “Turks follow fashions and trends,” says Içöz. “So what’s popular in New York and London is replicated here. Art’s a status symbol. Your friends know you’ve made it if you’ve got art on your wall, it cements your place in society. The Turkish art market is still much more about collectors than artists. It’s still about ‘Who’s buying what?’ If you buy something and you’re well known, then twenty others will do it.”

“To play in art is fashionable now,” agrees Dostoğlu. “It’s a trend—‘Oh, I was in Miami!’” In part, he suspects, this is because the Turkish stock market is comparatively stable. “Interest rates have decreased, so people want to play in the more volatile areas. They need a new investment arena. In art there are no controls, no regulation, no policing.”

One consultant believes the hype has its origins in a strategic decision, by Sotheby’s, to promote the Turkish art world in the hopes of tapping a larger Islamic market. “The Moslem world adores Turkey,” he says. “So Sotheby’s decided to plug Turkey because that’s where it’s at—It’s catchy, trendy, Turkish! The potential clientele turned it into an ‘emerging market.’”

“Sotheby’s and Christies,” agrees another major gallery owner, “are involved in monkey business in this country.”

But if there are clearly elements of exaggeration and faddism here, equally clearly there is a genuine and growing public interest in art. Recent years have seen the opening of new private museums such as the Sabancı Museum, Istanbul Modern, Pera Museum, and Santral Istanbul. Television and radio channels have introduced programs presenting popular artists, and a growing number of magazine and newspaper editorial pages are now dedicated solely to art.

Despite her reservations, Içöz too believes there’s much worth looking at here. “Turkish art appeals to collectors because a lot of work is very international in outlook. It’s exciting for someone in the US to realize that people here are experiencing the same questions as they are,” she says, noting the dominance of themes, in local works, that raise universal questions: “What is the role of the artist in society? What does it mean to be gay in a country that’s predominantly Moslem? Feminism? The role of the military? Problems with terrorism?”

“I’m passionate about this art,” she says. “I just want collection to be done in a responsible manner.”

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ISTANBUL Some of the writers who gathered on Tuesday evening to read selections from their work at the D& R bookstore on Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s main pedestrian boulevard, had trouble understanding one another. The reading was one of dozens of events held city-wide as part of the four-day long, inaugural Tanpınar Literature Festival, organized by Istanbul’s Kalem literary agency. The festival, billed as the city’s first international event of its kind, attracted some 90 writers from 32 countries. It featured readings, debates, book signings and lectures on topics ranging from “Being European,” to “Trends in International Publishing.” But translators were in scarce supply, with predictable consequences: Turkish and foreign authors found each other mutually incomprehensible. This was the very problem the festival was meant to redress.

Named in honor of the modernist 20th-century Turkish poet, essayist, and novelist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, the festival’s official theme was “City and Time,” an allusion to Tanpınar’s best-known novel, The Time Regulation Institute. The poignant unofficial theme, however, was Turkey’s literary isolation, both from its own past and from the rest of the world.

Hava Pinhas-Cohen, an Israeli poet, was among the guests who could neither fully understand the readings nor make herself fully understood. Turkish literature, she says, generally suffers from this problem: The paucity and poor quality of translations from foreign texts into Turkish “has kept Turkish literature from fully developing.” Turkish modern literature, as a consequence, “is very young—only about twenty years old. Very few poets are really writing modern Turkish poetry. Most is still connected to pathos, nationalism.”

Nor are Turkish writers widely translated into other languages. Nermin Mollaoğlu, the founder of the Kalem agency and the festival’s organizer, conceived of the festival as a way of raising the profile of talented Turkish writers who are not known or translated outside of Turkey—most of them, in other words. “We’re reading garbage authors from contemporary French and American literature,” she said. “But they’re translated into Turkish. We have authors who deserve to be translated and read worldwide.” Directly behind her, although politely ignored by those who had come for the reading, stood a tall stack of Dan Brown’s latest novel, translated into Turkish. To judge from the size and prominence of the display, the book is very much in demand.

Only a handful of Turkish writers are widely known in the West, the most obvious of them being Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. There is a growing awareness of Turkey in overseas literary circles: The country was featured as a guest of honor in last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest literature event. But many Turkish writers of considerable talent remain largely unknown to readers abroad. Ayfer Tunç, for example, one of Mollaoğlu’s clients, has recently written, in Mollaoglu’s words, “a modern 1001 Arabian nights.” So far no foreign publisher has bitten. Tunç’s previous work has been translated into Arabic and six Balkan languages—but not into English, French or German.

Mollaoğlu is determined to remedy this. She corners foreign editors at the Frankfurt book fair and forces them to read Turkish writers. “I tell them, ‘You don’t know Turkey. I’m telling you that you have to read this book. Just read the first page.’” She has had some unlikely successes, too. Despite the infamously grim publishing climate in America, she recently sold Istanbul was a Fairy Tale, an 800-page novel by a third-generation Jewish Turk, Mario Levy, to the American publisher Dalkey Archive. The book, Mollaoğlu says with pleasure, is “just perfect.”

But this is the exception, and if people overseas don’t read Turkish literature, says author Çiler Ilhan, who on Monday read from her collection of short stories, written in the magical realist tradition, they will fail to understand Turkey. “They’ll only get to know Turkey through TV and newspapers and the filter of politics. They’ll only see what politicians want to show them.” There is more to Turkey, she says, “than the Kurdish question, than the oppression of women.”

Ilhan’s work is not available in translation.

If it is sad to think that so few of Turkey’s writers are read outside of Turkey, it is an even sadder to think that so few of Turkey’s writers are read in Turkey, either. There are few large bookstores outside of the big cities; in the countryside, there is little access to books at all. At least 80 percent of Turkey’s 70 million population is literate, but according to Turkish Education Ministry statistics, only four percent occasionally read a book. Those they do read are more often than not written by foreigners: At least half of the books published in Turkey are translations from the English, German, and French. “Even Turkish authors don’t really read other Turkish writers,” says Ilhan.

If Turkey is alienated from its own literary tradition, this is certainly not because that tradition is not rich. Quite the contrary. But literature—like everything in Turkey—has been subordinated to the political imperative of wrenching Turkey from the East and aligning it with Europe.

In particular, with the establishment of the Turkish Republic, the Turkish language was ripped apart and re-engineered. The elite of the Ottoman Empire conversed and wrote in Ottoman Turkish, a mixture of Arabic, Persian and Turkish. Persian, not Turkish, was the primary language of high Ottoman literature; Ottoman Turkish borrowed entire expressions and syntactic structures from the Arabic and Persian. Atatürk’s goal was to produce a modern Turkish, a language that would sever Turkey’s relationship with the Islamic world and orient the infant Republic to the West. In 1928, the Grand National Assembly approved the new Latin alphabet. The language was purified of “foreign influences.” Arabic and Persian words were expunged from the dictionary, leaving Turks permanently estranged from their literary past.

Like most Turks, Mollaoğlu celebrates Atatürk’s reforms, which in her view were both necessary and salutary. But it meant, she says, “deleting all your memories, history, emotions. You start from the beginning. It is a very significant thing in our literary history.”

Turkish literature, adds Ilhan, has since this period been “very driven by politics … The first Turkish writers, in the new alphabet, were commissioned by the state to explain the Republic. The effort to educate the public dominated Turkish literature for at least the Republic’s first twenty years. Some of these books were very good, despite their political purpose, because they were talented writers.” Nonetheless, they were above all political books.

Military coups, in 1960, 1971 and 1980, were followed by waves of arrests and bans on artists and writers. Talented writers were often silenced; untalented writers elevated to celebrity only by virtue of their martyrdom. The years after the 1980 coup, Ilhan says, in a sentiment other writers at the festival echo, were from a literary point of view “lost years.” Mollaoğlu points out that during periods of military rule, the percentage of books published in Turkey by foreign authors rose—because Turkey’s own writers were silenced.

Since 2000, however, says Ilhan, there has been an opening of the literary climate. Books “about Armenians, Kurds, real stories” have been published. Still, Turkish writers remain isolated. The new Turkish alphabet may look European, but Turkish remains a particularly inaccessible language for Europeans, and European languages, likewise, are particularly difficult for Turks. Turkish belongs to the Ural-Altaic language family, which has almost nothing in common with any of Europe’s major literary languages. The number of Turks who can read any foreign language to the level required really to enjoy reading a book in it is miniscule. Some, perhaps, can struggle grimly through a book written in English or French, but few could take much pleasure in it.

Turkish writers have therefore spent most of the past century working in a vacuum, reinventing the wheel. And those who do have access to foreign literature, by virtue of a rarified education, can’t refer to it without making their own work inaccessible to most Turkish readers. Serdar Özkan, for example, another writer who read his work at the festival, recently became the one of the most-translated novelists in the history of Turkish literature, exceeded in popularity only by Pamuk and Yaşar Kemal. But the inscription prefacing his first novel, The Missing Rose, is from William Blake’s famous poem, The Sick Rose—famous, that is, among English-speakers. The novel is woven throughout with references to sick roses, but only a tiny handful of Turkish readers would recognize this allusion. Ironically, the theme of the book is the Turkish propensity to give excessive weight to the opinions of others, and the rose, clearly, is used as a metaphor for Turkey.

The problem of bringing Turkish writers to the world’s attention is not limited to translation. Another obstacle, says Mollaoğlu, is Turkish authors’ reluctance to publicize themselves, even to the extent of having a website. Literature here “is still considered the highest level of intellectuality,” she says. While writers on the one hand want to sell their books, on the other they are reluctant to think of themselves as “commercial.”

The Turkish reading public reacts to this attitude, predictably, by viewing writers with suspicion. Cihan Akkartal represents Pupa Publishing, which focuses on the acquisition of books from the neighboring regions around Turkey. The marketing problem, she says, “is significant, because Turkey doesn’t have a big reading culture.” Literature, she notes, is seen as something “elite and esoteric.” The Ministry of Culture runs 1,400 lending libraries, but does little to make them attractive: “People don’t know they’re there,” she adds, and if they do, view them as grim and forbidding.

Yet other foreign writers at the festival were impressed by the passion and engagement of Turkish readers. Andrej Blatnik, a Romanian author whose short stories have been translated into Turkish, receives letters from Turkish readers, many over Facebook, in numbers that surprise him. “I don’t usually accept friend requests from people I don’t know, but if I get one from Turkey, I accept it, because I know it’s from someone who read my book.”

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In Beyoğlu, north of the Golden Horn on the European side of Istanbul, it is almost impossible to walk down the crowded streets without passing a film crew. But this is not a world of ripped abs and bronzed silicon starlets. These Turkish filmmakers are wan and drawn, desperately earnest, deeply preoccupied with Turkey’s rapid social transformation. The one thing they have in common with their Hollywood confreres is a sense that the film industry is a good place to make money. About that, they are right.

Thanks to economic liberalization, the growth of private education in Turkey, and government funding, Turkish cinema is thriving. Last year, 75 feature-length films were made in Turkey. This week there are five Turkish films in the cinemas. Istanbul’s cinema luminaries are now attending the Golden Orange film festival in Antalya, which has been growing rapidly in prestige and attendance. The International Eurasia Film Festival, introduced in 2005, immediately achieved international acclaim. Turkish films now regularly excel Hollywood at the local box office, and they have gained an art-house fan base abroad. Big budget films, too, have been flourishing, although few have received critical acclaim and one in particular, Kurtlar Vadisi Irak (Valley of the Wolves), was an international embarrassment for Turkey, given its anti-Semitic obsessions. (It was a major box office hit, however.) Turkish audiences have returned en masse to the movie theatres, and film departments at universities throughout the country are packed. Despite the global economic crisis, the Turkish film sector last year expanded by ten percent.

Whether they are mainstream or independent, says producer, director and actor Ali Pınar, the in-house director of the boutique production company Corpora Productions, “Turkish filmmakers are experimenting with different styles and contents to attract the attention of viewers, critics and international festivals. Their common point is ‘experimentation.’ The drive to experimentation is lending great motivation, emotion and dynamism to the industry and the viewer.” Pınar recently produced Ada (Island), a zombie genre film.

The Turkish film industry appeared, in the 80s and 90s, to be dead, or at least profoundly moribund. This was not always so: From the 50s to the 70s, Yeşilçam —Turkey’s Hollywood—churned out some 300 movies a year. (Yeşilçam refers both to a street in Beyoğlu where production houses were located and to the industry’s production and distribution system.) The movies, generally, were awful: Those that were original were not good; those that were good were not original. Many were plagiarized wholesale from American movies. Still, the industry made money—indeed, Turkey was the world’s third-largest film producer.

Then television killed the film star. Its arrival in the late 1960s nearly put Yeşilçam out of business. The industry couldn’t keep up with the cost of transitioning to color. The number of films produced dropped dramatically. Turkish art films of the period were so closely modeled on European ones that Turkish audiences found them incomprehensible. The Yeşilçam district fell fallow; the cinemas there began showing soft porn. By the mid 80s, fewer than 10 Turkish films were produced annually.

The liberal economic reforms of Prime Minister Turgut Özal were initially another blow to the industry. The Law on Foreign Capital, passed in 1988, eased restrictions on foreign investment, permitting the Hollywood majors quickly to move in and seize turf from local production and distribution companies.

But the recent renaissance also has its origins in the rise of television and these same liberal reforms. The television sector was denationalized and deregulated in under Özal, and the mid-90s saw an efflorescence of private stations. Directors became popular talk show stars and used the proceeds from television advertising to finance their films. The investment in the television advertising industry is now the basis of Turkey’s filmmaking infrastructure and technical expertise.

The rise of private universities during the Özal years played an important role, too. Sezin Kıpsak, a research assistant at the Plato Film school and a cinema doctoral student at Marmara University, notes that “cinema education has really increased at the universities. The private universities are leading the way, and Bilgi University is the most important. All of the major directors are from these cinema schools.”

The rebirth also owes a great deal to financial support from Europe and the Turkish government. In 1997, Eurimages, a powerful European film fund, began a scheme to support the Turkish film industry. The films produced under its aegis have been shown at major international festivals, applauded by critics, and awarded prizes.

“The influence of globalization, modernism, postmodernism—all have contributed to the renaissance,” Kıpsak says. But the most important factor, she adds, is state support. “In the past five or six years, the government has been giving money, a lot of money, to directors. All of the big directors are making films with this money.” The pace of the revival quickened when director Nurge Bilge Ceylan took the best film prize at Cannes in 2003 for Üç Maymun (Three Monkeys). “The government realized that everyone in the world saw this,” says Kıpsak, “and so they understood Turkey better. It put the image of Turkey out there, it introduced Turkey to the world. The government saw this and thought, ‘If the filmmakers had more money, they could do even better.’” In 2005, the Ministry of Culture begun providing substantial funding to the movie business. It has invested about 17 million lira (11.59 million USD) annually since then.

This raises an obvious question: Does this money come with conditions? “Directors seem to be quite free,” says Kıpsak, “but yes, there seem to be conditions—I have many friends who have gone to the government and said, ‘I want money,’ but they can’t get any. But this doesn’t mean that difficult subjects, or projects that show social problems in Turkey, aren’t being made. Quite the contrary. The support the government has given to Kurdish directors has really opened this subject up.”

Filmmaking, certainly, has benefited overall from the loosening of the control of the military over the state, the growing acknowledgment that there are, at least, Kurdish-speaking citizens in Turkey, and the softening of political censorship. According to Pınar, “There’s no censorship, compared to the past. In the beginning of the 1980s, after the military coup, it was very hard to do movies about social realism, ethnic problems. Now you can do films about Kurds.” A surprising number of films are made by Kurdish directors and treat Kurdish themes. In 2004, Uğur Yücel’s Yazi Tura (Toss Up), won Best Turkish Film at Antalya. It depicted the wounds, literal and psychic, suffered by Turks conscripted into the military in the Southeast.

This weekend, for the first time, a major Kurdish film is being released with a full promotional budget. The documentary Iki Dil Bir Bavul (On the Way to School) chronicles the life of a school teacher assigned to the southeast who discovers, to his astonishment, that no one there speaks a word of Turkish. “This was supported by the government,” notes Kıpsak. “The amount of promotion it’s been given is unprecedented, so this is very important.”

The more open treatment of the Kurdish issue stands to reason, however. The governing AK Party is keen to demonstrate, particularly to the European Union, its commitment to solving this problem. But would filmmakers find it so easy to find funding for movies that depict, say, governmental corruption, or women who feel that their rights have diminished under AKP rule? “Maybe not,” says Pinar, although he adds that the jury that awards funding to filmmakers is comprised largely of filmmakers, not government representatives. It is still, he says, a vast improvement over the military censorship of the 1980s.

It is perhaps the influence of private film schools, coupled with the implicit message from Europe and the Turkish government that money is available to filmmakers who explain Turkey, that accounts for the deeply serious, introspective temperaments of Turkey’s aspiring filmmakers. Esen Kunt, a research assistant at the Plato Film School who is now completing her master’s degree in political science at Marmara University, wants to make documentary films about Islam, religion, gender and the transformation of intimacy in Turkey. “I believe intellectuals have a responsibility to criticize Turkey from the inside,” she says. She puts a book by Turkish sociologist Nilüfer Göle on the table, explaining that Göle’s work has profoundly influenced her. “If we try to analyze the current approaches in Turkish cinema, we can see that cinema is the camera obscura of Turkish political and cultural transformation, through the lens of gender identity and hegemonic masculinity. Turkish cinema symbolizes cultural memory and cultural resistance history. Especially in the last decade, Turkish directors have tried to criticize the struggle between modernization and convention, customs, gender identity, the hegemonic masculinity of the ideology. Art, especially cinema, gives you a huge opportunity to understand the cultural dichotomies and hybrid narratives of Turkish cultural history.”

Her remarks go some way toward explaining why Turkish films have yet to become smash box-office successes overseas.

Not every theater-goer in Turkey is persuaded that these new movies are an improvement over the Yeşilçam classics. Serkin Yakin and Gulsah Yenidunya, both doctors, are waiting to see a Japanese movie in the lobby of the Sinemajestic on Yeşilçam street. “Some of them are good,” says Yenidunya, “but some not so good. The old movies were closer to us. They had more profound feeling. Now it doesn’t have the same effect.”

“The movies seem more like American ones now,” says Yakin. “For example, Sizi Seviyorum (I Love You). It’s about a man who has one-night stands and how his girlfriend takes revenge. In the old movies, if a man loved a girl, the girl’s big brothers came and killed him.

“Now that’s Turkey.”

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Claire Berlinski

Very few people in Turkey are exercised by the YouTube blackout, now in its second year. Despite the ban, the video-sharing site is believed to be the ninth most popular site in Turkey. Almost every Internet user — from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the humblest teenage porn connoisseur — knows how to circumvent it with proxy browsers. “I get in,” Erdogan told reporters in November, 2008. “You can do so as well.”

But maybe they should be more concerned. Blocking the exchange of information through the Internet is a top priority with some of the world’s most oppressive regimes. China is devoting considerable energy to developing technology to block the best Web 2.0 sites, for example. Inexorably, a line is between drawn between countries that restrict their citizens’ access to information and those that do not. And which side of that line does Turkey – with its European Union membership aspirations – find itself on?

Turkey’s YouTube ban originated in a March 2007 flame war between Turkish and Greek users. One of the original offending videos depicted the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, weeping pastel-colored tears to the music of the Village People. In Turkey, insulting Ataturk is a crime, as is “insulting Turkishness.” The association of Ataturk with 1970s disco-ball music was interpreted — by the country’s highest legal authorities — as a profound insult.

Contrary to rumors in online chat rooms, the blackout was not imposed by Turkey’s governing Justice and Development (AK) party. It cannot be attributed to the party’s Islamic orientation. The ban originates with the secular judiciary. Indeed, there is no love lost between the AK and the judiciary, as evidenced by the latter’s recent efforts to ban not only YouTube, but the entire AK party.

The judges say they are obliged to observe the law, even if this consigns Turkey to an unattractive YouTube-banning club comprising Armenia, China, Iran, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates. Senior AK members claim to be opposed to and embarrassed by the ban. “I do not want to see Turkey among those countries in the world that ban YouTube,” said President Abdullah Gul last January.

But these same senior AK members have done nothing to change or clarify the legislation to which the court is appealing, suggesting that they find it convenient for Turkish citizens — and the world — to regard Turkey’s judicial branch as lunatic, primitive, and best ignored or replaced. Certainly this argument has been made by newspapers closely associated with the AK, such as “Zaman.” “YouTube Ban Hits Judiciary’s Credibility,” it reported with no little pleasure on June 3, 2008.


The offhand effacement of a major venue for political speech and cultural contact with the rest of the world has prompted no street demonstrations here, no acts of civil disobedience. “There have been no ‘real life’ protests,” says blogger Alper Sarikaya, who studies media at Bilkent University in Ankara and often writes about Internet censorship. “Just some people protesting the ban online, mostly anonymously. [Protest] pins and T-shirts are so American.”

The issue wasn’t mentioned during the municipal election campaign in April. “Since the issue had to do with Ataturk, I don’t think any of the political parties wanted to risk being misunderstood,” says Sarikaya. No one, he suspects, wanted to be seen as favoring insulting Ataturk.

Turkish civil rights groups have largely ignored the ban. The Turkish press rarely mentions it. The only action that could conceivably be called an organized protest was a desultory movement in August 2008 among fewer than 500 Turkish bloggers to ironically censor their own websites with the words: “This site is blocked because the author himself chose to do it.” Some of these bloggers subsequently formed a group called SansureSansur, or “censoring censorship,” which tries to raise awareness of the issue by designing anti-blackout banners for online reproduction.

The organizer of the self-censorship gesture, Selim Yoruk, works for 4play, a company that creates and develops mobile and Internet-based projects. “Turkish people tend to approach their problems by ignoring them,” Yoruk says. “They don’t mind Internet censorship. They think because they can reach the sites, there’s no problem. But reaching the sites is not the issue here — censorship is. It’s not about the Internet. It’s about freedom. Today we see censorship of the Internet and the media. What about tomorrow? When will we react?”

In a country facing a great number of pressing civil rights challenges, the YouTube blackout may seem to many the least of their worries. But the indifference raises obvious questions: Don’t Turkish citizens think there’s an important point of principle involved here? Why have so few complained that this is an outrage against freedom of expression? And since they haven’t, why would any European want Turkey to be admitted to the EU?

If admitted, Turkey would be entitled, by virtue of its population of 71 million, to the second-largest delegation in the European Parliament, exceeded in power only by Germany. If demographic projections prove correct, Turkey would become the dominant member of the parliament in 2020.


YouTube is not the only banned site in Turkey. As of last month, 1,874 other websites were blocked. The courts have in recent years banned the blogging site WordPress, the websites of a teachers’ trade union, and a Turkish dictionary. Censorship, Yoruk says, “is a very common Turkish government policy. If they don’t like a comment or an idea, they think the best thing to do is censor it. They like to use this policy not only for the Internet but also with newspapers, television, and even comic-strip magazines.”

In November 2008, Google, which owns YouTube, agreed to use Internet-provider blocking to prevent viewers in Turkey from watching videos that were in clear violation of Turkish law. With the offending videos blocked, the judges then restored access to the site.

But six months later, a Turkish prosecutor decided that no Turk, anywhere in the world, should be exposed to the risk of viewing (presumably by accident) a video that might offend him. Google refused to cooperate with this initiative to wipe the disputed videos off the face of the planet, maintaining that one nation’s government shouldn’t be able to decide the limits of speech for Internet users worldwide. The full ban was slapped back on. Users of Internet providers in the Caucasus who rely upon Turkish service networks have reported that they, too, are unable to visit the blocked domains.

For most people here, the ban represents nothing more than a few seconds of inconvenience when they fancy looking at a video. The real ramifications, however, are far wider. What does it say about Turkish political values that the word “censorship” seems to carry less stigma here than the words “Village People?”

If you were a Turkish entrepreneur, would you devote your innovation and creativity to developing technology platforms such as weblogs, social networks, and video-sharing sites that enable people to have a greater voice in their societies? Given that the courts obviously feel no hesitation about banning these sites, and do so regularly, would you feel any incentive to do so? What kind of legal precedent does this ban set? What does it say about the degree to which Turkey has truly embraced the values upon which the European Charter of Human Rights is based?

Although in principle anyone who believes himself to be harmed by the ban can appeal to the courts, no ordinary citizen has mounted a legal challenge. “People like to define themselves as ‘protesters’ so long as they don’t have to get too involved themselves,” says Yoruk. “A lot of people here are intimidated by courts and legal issues.”

Under Ataturk, Islamic courts were abolished and replaced with a secular legal apparatus modeled on the Swiss, German, and Italian civil and penal codes. The development of these institutions in Europe, however, was accompanied by centuries of social and cultural evolution. The idea that the legal system should protect, rather than restrict, basic rights remains largely alien to Turkey. People justify the ban, Sarikaya adds, “with the idea of the ‘judicial state’ — it is what the Law decided, and it’s above anything else and knows what is good.”

“We have to recall that the government cannot rule us,” Yoruk says. “We do not have to obey them. That’s democracy. We select them in order to serve us. They are just politicians. Some say, ‘You can’t change anything — why bother?’ But if the whole country said, ‘That’s against freedom and it should be changed,’ then the elected government would have to change it. If not, they would know they wouldn’t be reelected.”

Unfortunately, the country is not saying anything of the sort. Particularly given Turkey’s demonstrated eagerness to impose its standards of speech on other countries, it would hardly be unreasonable for Europeans to be concerned about what this means for their freedom should Turkey become an extremely powerful member of their supranational government.

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The Turkish metropolis is one of the world’s safest big cities—but burglaries are booming. Why?


Claire Berlinski

I walk alone through almost every neighborhood of Istanbul, often at night. This is a megacity of at least 12 million people, many of whom are poor and three-quarters of whom are under 35. Income distribution is gravely unequal. I am nonetheless less afraid—much less afraid—that I will be a victim of violent crime here than I am when I walk through London, Paris, or any big American city.

Istanbul’s streets don’t feel menacing. I rarely see drunks and never see crackheads, gangs of feral youths on street corners, or tattooed louts on the subways and buses. The panhandlers inspire pity, not fear. True, in some neighborhoods, the glue-sniffing street kids are dangerous; in others, hookers attract a louche clientele; pickpockets operate near the tourist attractions. But in the four years I’ve lived here, I’ve heard few firsthand stories of violent crime. The International Crime Victims Survey (ICVS), a worldwide poll of householders’ experiences with crime, confirms my impression that Istanbul is an exceptionally safe city. But perusing the ICVS data, I noticed something so odd that I mentioned it en passant to the editor of this magazine. “According to the ICVS,” I said, “Istanbul has the lowest rate of assault in Europe . . . but the highest rate of burglary, higher even than London.” I signed off with an innocent, “I wonder what this means?”

Alas, I was about to find out. Only a few weeks later, I woke up to find my front door ajar. My desk drawers and jewelry box were open and the contents of my handbag carefully laid out on a cushion. The cash in my wallet was missing. My great-grandmother’s wedding ring was gone. The burglar, who had picked my front-door lock, had taken pains to be considerate, by Western standards of burglary. He had not harmed me; he had not woken me; he had not made a mess; he had taken only the cash and the gold and left behind, thank God, my computer, bank cards, passport, and some costume jewelry to which I’m sentimentally attached. He had slipped out again as silently as he entered.

When I told my friends what had happened, almost all replied that they or someone they knew had recently been burgled, some more than once in the past year. When I had an alarm system installed, the workmen told me that business was great. Turkey, like the rest of the world, is suffering from the global economic crisis. No one else here says that business is great. All this seemed to confirm what the ICVS suggested: that in this exceptionally safe city, burglaries are exceptionally common. But why?

Beyond the ICVS, I could find no solid statistical support either for my sense that Istanbul is very safe or for the contention that it has a serious burglary problem. For inscrutable reasons, the Turkish government no longer makes Istanbul’s crime statistics available to the public. Every official in every office I petitioned—from Istanbul to Ankara and back again—claimed not to have the authority to release the statistics, then referred me to another office. This went on for weeks until I realized that it was a polite way of saying, “Get lost.” I doubt the government is trying to hide anything; it’s just the Turkish way. The idea of an open society hasn’t yet taken hold here, and the reflexive official answer to any question is no.

Until 2007, official figures were published, but they were largely incomprehensible. There were no definitions of the offenses in question, which included “bad treatment” and “forestry crimes.” The Turkish press recently reported that the Istanbul Police Department recorded 150,000 crimes last year: where they got the number remains unclear, but if accurate, it would confirm my impression that Istanbul is unusually safe. Police in London, by comparison, recorded nearly 1 million crimes last year. But keep in mind that Turks are less likely to report crimes to the police than Britons and that many crimes here are not legally defined—or popularly understood—in the same way.

Turkey does not conduct a national crime survey. Turkey’s former interior minister and head of Istanbul’s Police Inspection Board, Sadettin Tantan, tells me that he cannot even begin to estimate the dark figure of crime in Istanbul—the real crime rate, as opposed to the recorded one (see “The Dark Figure of British Crime,” Spring 2009). “Twenty or 30 years ago,” he says, “the police had a pretty good idea how high the dark figure was, but Istanbul’s population has exploded so massively since then, and its demographics have changed so much, that now the number is incalculable.”

The ICVS at least has the virtue of using consistent methods from country to country. If taken at face value, its findings are remarkable: only 3.5 percent of Istanbul’s respondents said that they had been victims of an assault over the last five years, but 30 percent claimed to have been victims of a burglary or attempted burglary. Data from the ICVS and similar surveys show that Istanbul is far safer from violent crime than other megacities in the developing world, like Rio de Janeiro, Lagos, and Karachi. The only cities of comparable size and similarly low crime rates are in East Asia—Hong Kong and Shanghai, for example—and they are quite developed by comparison.

The ICVS polled only 1,242 Istanbul residents, and it surveyed householders, not squatters; since Istanbul has massive neighborhoods full of squatters—some estimates place the number as high as 60 percent of Istanbul’s total population—the data are nothing more than suggestive. Still, what they suggest is consistent with my general impression and direct personal experience. You are far less likely to be mugged, knifed, threatened, robbed at gunpoint, assaulted, raped, or murdered here than in other cities of this size. But unless your home is protected by iron window spikes and slavering Dobermans, you can kiss your great-grandmother’s wedding ring good-bye.

What could possibly account for this? If Istanbul’s crime rate were low across the board, and not just in violent crime, the question wouldn’t be difficult to answer. Istanbul’s residents are religious, their values are traditional, their families are intact, they don’t drink much, they keep an eagle eye on their kids, they are nosy, their streets are busy, and if they see someone committing a crime, they beat him to a pulp. It’s a near-perfect crime-fighting formula.

Start with religion and values. Turkey is officially secular, but 99.8 percent of its citizens are self-identified Muslims, and almost all believe in God. Turkish culture is obsessively preoccupied with honor, and to be seen as a criminal is immensely shameful. Tantan describes the stigma attached to crime: “If you commit theft, there’s no way you can ever walk around again or show your face, even to your family or the people closest to you.” Every Turk with whom I have spoken agrees.

Next, Turkish families. Only 6 percent of Turkish marriages end in divorce—as opposed to roughly 55 percent in the United States—and 90 percent of Turkish households are either nuclear, with both parents in the home, or extended by grandparents and other relatives. If the extended family doesn’t live in the same home, it usually lives nearby. Only a tiny minority of children are raised by single parents; having a child out of wedlock is shameful, and so is permitting one’s elderly parents to fend for themselves or putting them in a group home. Given what we know about the propensity of single-parent households to produce criminal offspring in the West, it’s hard to doubt the connection between Turkey’s intact families and Istanbul’s (mostly) low crime rate.

Moreover, out of both custom and economic necessity, children here tend to live with their parents until they get married. Parents consider it their right and duty to decide whether their children’s friends are suitable and to know where their children are at all times. As a consequence, unsupervised young people tend not to roam the streets at all hours. And if they are on the streets, at any time of the day, they’re sober. Alcohol is not alien to Turkish culture—old Turkish poetry is replete with references to wine—but most Turks, especially if they are pious, do not drink much. Public drunkenness, which is considered shameful, is extremely rare.

People in Istanbul watch, judge, and look out for one another in a way that people don’t, for example, in Paris, where I lived for five years without knowing my neighbors’ names. Istanbul is a city of busybodies—another reason for the rarity of violent crime. If I so much as drop a heavy dictionary on my floor, the shrieking hysteric who lives below me will be at my door in seconds to investigate.

I am friends with a martial-arts instructor whose apartment is in a poorer, conservative neighborhood. When he started giving lessons there, the neighbors called the police. They had seen young men going in; they had heard grunting and thumping; and they had seen the same men leaving, sweaty and exhausted. They came to the obvious conclusion: he was running a whorehouse. My friend knew that he would never be able to convince them that everything was aboveboard, and knew as well that if it continued, they would lynch him. The words “mind your own business” would have been useless. He moved the lessons elsewhere. As that story suggests, Istanbul has what Tantan calls “a culture of safety.” Obnoxious, even oppressive, this constant meddling nevertheless has a bright side: a Kitty Genovese story in Istanbul would be hard to imagine.

The density of Istanbul’s population and the vibrancy of its street life also ensure that potential wrongdoers are unlikely to escape the eyes of its inhabitants. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs famously described the role of sidewalks in ensuring public safety: “There must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to what we might call the natural proprietors of the street. . . . The sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the numbers of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in the buildings along the street to watch it in sufficient numbers. . . . Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity.”

Jacobs might have been describing Istanbul, whose sidewalks bustle with commerce. Almost every street in Istanbul is lined with small grocers and shopkeepers. They stand on the sidewalks most of the time, even in cold weather, socializing with one another and keeping watch over the neighborhood well into the night. They know who belongs and who doesn’t. When I walk down my street, five or six shopkeepers greet me, know me by name, ask me how I am, and would doubtless defend me if I found myself threatened or harassed. Turkey is patriarchal, but in this regard it’s also chivalrous.

That patriarchal culture—along with the low rates of female employment to which it gives rise, especially among older women in more religious and conservative families—also contributes to the city’s safety. Stuck at home, many of these women are frustrated and bored. Not only do they mind their children’s business; they mind everyone else’s. Having nothing better to do, they spend their lives looking out their windows and squawking excitedly if they see anything amiss. (Before drawing overly positive conclusions about shame-based, patriarchal cultures, note Amnesty International’s estimate that at least a third, and perhaps as many as half, of Turkey’s women are victims of domestic violence.)

A final, and critical, ingredient in Istanbul’s safety is vigilantism. If you commit a crime and get caught, odds are you’ll get a good thrashing. Not long ago, I was sitting at an outdoor café when a disheveled man wandered by, arguing madly with imaginary demons. For some reason, he felt moved to grab a handful of garbage from a nearby bin and throw it at a table of diners. The owner of the restaurant charged over, beat him savagely, then grabbed him by the collar and threw him into the busy street, where only luck saved him from being hit by a car.

I’ve seen this sort of thing more than once, and it is not pretty. This kind of justice is neither blind nor merciful. Taking the law into one’s own hands is just as illegal, on the books, in Turkey as it is in America, but the cops tend to look the other way when it happens. When I reported that my apartment had been burgled, I asked the police officers at the station what the law would have allowed me to do, precisely, had I woken up and confronted the intruder. “The law says you can defend yourself with proportionate force,” said one detective in an officious, pencil-pushing way. Then his tone grew sly. “But if he got frightened and tried to flee—off the balcony, say”—my balcony is five stories from the ground—“well, these things happen!” He chuckled, and so did all the other cops.

All this helps to explain why violent crime in Istanbul is relatively uncommon. But what about the city’s high burglary rate? Quite a few people here blame the police for it. When I asked acquaintances whether I could expect the police to recover my stolen goods, their typical reaction was laughter. Many added that they believed the police to be working with the burglars. Members of my boxing gym, the men who installed my alarm system, the locksmith who changed my lock—all told me this confidently.

On the one hand, the theory sounds like typical Turkish conspiracy-mindedness: plenty of people here also believe that Jews received advance notice of the World Trade Center attack. On the other, the police certainly were dismissive when I first reported my burglary. They told me to go to a different police station, and when I did, the officers there told me that it was too late to do anything. When I persisted, they said that I should report the crime to the prosecutor, not to them.

All the same, I’m inclined to decide in favor of the cops. I spent the better part of a day at the police station trying to coax them into action, and perhaps because they grew fond of me and my amusing American questions, they finally sent a pair of superbly gruff, hard-boiled detectives to my apartment to examine the crime scene. Watching them, I began to see things their way. The detectives were careful and professional, but I had waited too long to report the event, and it was too late to obtain useful forensic evidence. I had thoroughly cleaned the apartment by then. Had I reported the theft immediately, they might have found fingerprints that matched a known criminal’s. If they had found them, the detectives said, they would have had a decent chance of making an arrest, though the stolen property would have been fenced too quickly for recovery. So from their point of view, I had asked them to waste an entire afternoon on a crime that would only add to the number of unsolved cases on their books.

Afterward, I had to return to the station to sign a statement. Even gruff, hard-boiled Istanbul detectives can’t long resist the national impulse to be friendly to foreigners, and they offered me a ride there in the back of their mobile forensics lab. At the station, they offered me tea and settled in for a chat. People didn’t report crimes, they said, because they didn’t trust the police. Consequently, the detectives couldn’t solve crimes, and their reputation suffered further. They clearly felt aggrieved, and I could see why.

The station had an Istanbul-noir feeling: cigarette-smoke-stained walls, old-fashioned portable typewriters, stacks upon stacks of files and reports, an ancient portrait of Atatürk, in full military regalia, on the wall. There were iron bars on the windows. Why, I asked naively, did they need those? Who in his right mind would try to burgle a police station? One detective looked at me as if he couldn’t believe I’d asked something so stupid, then patiently explained that the bars were to keep criminals in, not out.

After telling me about confessions they’d extracted and murders they’d solved (in one case, they claimed, through a single fingerprint on a package of tissues), they began complaining that even when they caught a criminal, the courts swiftly released him. This is what cops say everywhere (and it tends to be true everywhere). But according to Tantan, the problem has become particularly vexed of late in Turkey and contributes to the popular perception of police corruption. “The real problem here is that there are serious gaps in the legal framework for fighting crime,” he says, sighing. “People believe that the police are cooperating with the burglars, for example, because they see the police catch a thief; they see the police collecting evidence; then they see the thief slapped on the wrist or not convicted at all. They conclude that the problem is police corruption, when in fact the problem is the legal system, which is too tolerant of petty crime. A thief can be taken to court without ever being taken into custody, then released without spending so much as a day in jail.”

This isn’t what you’d expect to hear in a country made infamous by the movie Midnight Express, but it’s plausible. Turkey is trying to join the European Union. To meet the Copenhagen criteria—the rules governing membership eligibility—the Turkish parliament has passed extensive legal reforms aimed at protecting human rights. Though police brutality remains widely reported, the death penalty is no more, and the military’s control over civil justice is severely attenuated. New courts of appeal have been created. Time limits on police custody and pretrial detention are significantly shorter. A zero-tolerance policy on police torture has reduced the prospect of impunity for police officers who coerce confessions. Detainees now have a guarantee of immediate access to a lawyer and financial aid, and statements taken in the absence of counsel are largely inadmissible in court.

The new legal code makes it harder to put an innocent man behind bars. Inevitably, this makes it harder to put guilty men behind bars, too. “There are a lot of seemingly strange aspects of the legal code that leave the public perplexed and angry,” says Tantan. “For example, when a bank guard recently killed a bank robber, he had to stand trial and go through the whole court process, even though it seemed obvious to everyone that the bank robber had it coming.” It’s not surprising that Turks reach for the idea of corruption to explain these things. Corruption is a much more familiar concept to the average Turk than presumption of innocence.

We’re still left with the burglary mystery. Social controls that militate against crime generally, one would think, would also militate against theft. Tantan offers a theory. “There is a huge amount of migration through Istanbul,” he says. “A lot of petty crime is committed by migrants who need money or drugs. But a lot of petty crime, too, is committed by PKK juveniles.” The PKK is a radical-left-wing, Kurdish-separatist terrorist group; Turkey has been at war with it since the 1970s.

“The PKK dominates Istanbul’s petty-crime scene,” Tantan continues. “Gangs of thieves and burglars are working under the PKK’s influence. They’re young kids brought in from the southeast to beg, pickpocket, and steal. Petty criminals in Istanbul work on a neighborhood basis. Whoever controls the neighborhood usually has to kick up a portion of the proceeds to the PKK. The police and gendarmerie try to track down the top figures in the neighborhood, the ones with direct links to the PKK. In areas where they’re successful, you won’t find petty crime.”

There is a tendency here to ascribe any unfortunate event to the PKK, so my first response to this was incredulity. But it’s undoubtedly true that the PKK is involved in organized crime. There is widespread consensus among intelligence agencies that it engages in racketeering, extortion, and human trafficking; it is also said to control the majority of the drug trade between Central Asia and Western Europe. So perhaps it is not so ridiculous to hypothesize that it’s doing a sideline in burglary. And Turkish legal scholar Necla Güney agrees with Tantan that the PKK has “established itself Europe-wide as a narcotics dealer, a racketeer and a large-scale burglary organizer.” The group has the motivation to steal: it needs cash to finance a war. It certainly isn’t constrained by ordinary social controls; after all, it regularly bombs crowded shopping centers and assassinates doctors and teachers.

And it would make sense to use juveniles to do it. The rights of children have been at the top of Turkey’s legal-reform project: it is now nearly impossible to incarcerate them here, just as it is in Europe. Obviously, the protection of children is a welcome development, but it also creates a perverse incentive for criminals to exploit them: even those children who are caught red-handed can be back at work the next day. In response to the question, “Why burglary, but not mugging?,” could the answer be that kids simply aren’t very good at mugging adults? They’re terrific little burglars, though—they can get through windows that adults can’t squeeze through. They’re light, so they can climb stairs and pad through apartments without waking people up.

If my meddlesome neighbor had seen adults casing the building or loitering in the hallways in the middle of the night, no doubt she would have made noise and woken the whole neighborhood. Had she found a strange child, however, I daresay her first response would have been puzzlement or concern. A child could easily exploit her confusion to escape. That advantage might explain why the thief in my apartment took his time—carefully sorting through my jewelry box for the gold, for instance, instead of just throwing the whole thing into a bag. My first thought—a chilling one—was that he had felt confident in his ability to handle things if I woke up. But on reflection, is it possible that he believed not in his ability to harm me but in my unwillingness to harm him? Turkish vigilante culture would never extend to throwing a child off a balcony. Further, everything the burglar took was light. An adult could make off with a television set easily—but could a child?

When I asked the cops at the station, they agreed with Tantan’s theory. Most burglaries, they said, were committed by highly skilled juveniles who were kicking up the proceeds to organized criminal gangs, especially those run by the PKK. They also agreed that efforts to bring Turkey into compliance with EU legal standards had made it impossible for them to put these miserable kids behind bars. No one, however, was able to give me proof that the PKK connection was real. I asked Tantan for evidence: Might I consult court filings, prosecutors’ briefs? I was told that they were closed to the public. Could I interview a convicted burglar? I would have to ask the chief prosecutor for permission. He declined to speak to me.

It would be credulous to accept the PKK theory without reservations. The Turkish government is at war with the group; neither it nor the police are neutral analysts, and the allegation clearly serves definite political aims. Still, I have heard no better explanation for Istanbul’s curious burglary wave—or any other plausible explanation, for that matter. And thus I have reluctantly concluded that, strange as it sounds, it is indeed possible that Maoist-Kurdish-separatist-PKK-slave-urchins stole my great-grandmother’s wedding ring.

Just as I was finishing this article, burglars attempted to rob my building again. They were thwarted by my neighbor. She heard a suspicious noise, ran upstairs, saw two teenagers she didn’t recognize, and demanded to know who they were. Their response sounded fishy to her: she began screaming. Other neighbors ran over immediately, but they were too late. The kids escaped. When the police arrived, they told me that they had arrested six juveniles for burglary in my neighborhood in the past week alone.

They firmly expected that they would all be back on the streets within days.

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Claire Berlinski

If reading the news prompts you to suspect that the apocalypse is at hand, keep in mind that good news doesn’t sell and that journalists need to make a living. Editors prefer the headline PROTESTS MARRED BY VIOLENCE to the headline PROTESTS REALLY QUITE BORING. Sometimes, however, a boring protest is an important story. Istanbul’s May Day celebrations were generally peaceful and cheerful this year—for the first time since 1977, when 37 people were shot or trampled to death in Taksim Square, the city’s busy consumer center, helping pave the way for the 1980 military overthrow of Turkey’s civilian government. Nonetheless, if you read the news reports, you would have concluded that this year, too, Istanbul’s streets ran red with blood in an orgy of left-wing agitation and police brutality.

From 1977 until this year, the government tried to ban the celebrations, which celebrate the international labor movement and almost always descend into violence. Last year, for instance, the police were properly excoriated for gassing a hospital full of leukemia-stricken children and beating protesters senseless. But this year, the demonstrators threw carnations and sang while the police spent the better part of the day smoking, looking first worried and then tired, and asking me what I thought of President Obama. They arrested a handful of troublemakers, who succeeded in breaking a few shop windows. One cop tripped over a garbage can and hurt his leg. “Officials said 36 police officers were injured,” read the subsequent report from Reuters. I didn’t see how the other 35 injuries happened, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that most of them also ensued from clumsiness.

The absence of drama was worth reporting. The government finally did the right thing this year, taking a significant step toward permitting true freedom of assembly in Turkey while preserving public safety. The national assembly declared May Day a holiday. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan made unusually conciliatory speeches about brotherhood and solidarity. Most important, the government permitted demonstrators to gather at the site of the ’77 massacre, albeit in controlled numbers—a reasonable decision, since many of the deaths in the original incident had resulted from a stampede. The police had clearly been instructed to do nothing that would look embarrassing on the nightly news. The combination of goodwill, common sense, and planning worked. Everyone lost interest after a while and went home.

My reservations about Turkey’s governing party, the AKP, are considerable, but it deserves credit here. It won’t get it. Foreign media outlets generally aren’t sufficiently interested in Turkey to think it worth explaining a story whose newsworthiness resides in its historical context. Instead, the reports have screeched that the police used tear gas, that protesters rampaged, and that the day was “marred” by violence, as if Istanbul had been turned into a free-fire zone. In truth, journalists and curious spectators idled in the cafés, drank tea, and complained that May Day was much more exciting last year.

The cops did use pepper spray to disperse those demonstrators who were bent on mayhem, prompting a great deal of melodramatic coughing. But pepper spray, as opposed to the more noxious 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile tear gas, is a nuisance, not a brutality. It smells and feels as if someone is cooking with chilies, because that’s precisely what it’s made of. Gas masks make for great photos—very World War I!—but the protesters and journalists who made a great display of wearing them didn’t seem to need them when they paused for a cigarette. Considering the size of the crowds of trade unionists, communists, anarchists, and unwashed students—most of whom assembled peacefully, danced, made speeches, and then went home unharmed—the number of arrests was trivial. I’ve seen heavier-handed policing at Rolling Stones concerts.

So it was a good day for freedom of assembly in Turkey, and a good day for freedom of the press—and all the more so given the heat the AKP has deservedly taken in recent years for harassing the media. Where I was standing, the cop-to-journalist ratio was about three to one. The police were painfully aware that no matter what they did, journalists were determined to photograph and report it to make them look brutal. “Then we’ll get in trouble,” a young police officer said to me, fretting nervously under his heavy riot gear and clearly envisioning a punitive reassignment to some dismal Eastern Anatolian village. Likewise, if the protesters broke a window and the police failed to prevent it, he said, “We’ll get in trouble”—as they would, he went on, if the protesters managed to stampede and injure themselves. The police couldn’t win. They nonetheless made no attempt to prevent journalists from getting right into the middle of the demonstrations or taking photographs. I very much doubt that French or German police would have been so indulgent and cooperative. “You see we’re not bad,” another officer said to me plaintively. “We trained a lot for this day. But whatever we do, the Europeans will laugh at us.”

A handful of obviously coached protesters did their best to antagonize the police, throwing stones at them and then feigning injury when apprehended, shrieking “police brutality” for the cameras. For the most part, though, the demonstrators, also to their credit, were no more interested in conflict than the police.

When I returned home and saw how the day had been reported, I wondered if we had all been at the same event. (Some of us hadn’t: one wire service story was datelined PARIS.) “Istanbul was virtually shut down,” read an Agence France-Press photograph caption—failing to mention that this was because the government had declared the day a holiday. It’s something to keep in mind when reading similar stories of violence elsewhere in the news, not to mention reports of our imminent collective demise from swine flu. From the headlines, you would think that Istanbul on May Day looked like Gaza. That’s far enough from the truth to make one doubt that even Gaza looks like Gaza.

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