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Turkey-Israel crisis: Why the formerly obscure IHH is playing a key role

Turkey-Israel ties have been shattered by Monday's raid on the IHH-owned Mavi Mamara, the largest boat in the Gaza 'Freedom Flotilla.' Turkey's push for democracy has given the IHH new prominence.

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The question now, she adds, is to what extent the government will feel a need to pay back those radical groups and leaders.

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But one thing is certain – Turkish people today have a far greater voice than even 10 years ago.

“Turkish civil society is much more of an actor in Turkey now. It is part of the struggle for democratization here,” says Ferhat Kentel, a professor of sociology at Istanbul’s Sehir University.
“Previously you couldn’t see the reaction of civilians here. Now there is more freedom," says Izzet Sahin, who oversees IHH’s work in Western countries. "Everybody feels more democratic now. This is not only for Muslims – it is for everybody.”

From disgrace to heroism

The story of the IHH, which started its work helping victims of the war in Bosnia during the 1990s, is instructive. After the Turkish military – which considers itself the ultimate guardian of Turkey’s secular system – kicked out of office in 1997 a government led by an Islamist party, the IHH and other Islamic organizations found themselves on the verge of being shut down.
The group’s headquarters was raided in 1998 by Turkish police, who were searching for weapons and evidence of ties to terrorism. (The group denies that any incriminating evidence was found). A year later, when a massive earthquake hit the outskirts of Istanbul, IHH was forbidden to distribute aid or work in the quake zone.
But now, following the Israeli raid on the aid flotilla, in which nine Turks died, the group’s members find themselves welcomed home as heroes. And, in many ways, they are playing a key role in the way Turkey responds to what some see as irreparable damage to its relationship with Israel – a response that could have far-reaching implications for the region as well as for US-Turkey relations, key to American military operations in Afghanistan.

“It is obvious that ideologically they are driving the post-incident developments and they also determine the tone of the debate,” says Mr. Ozel of the Haberturk newspaper.

In a sign that Turkish Islamic circles might themselves be concerned about a rightward shift, Turkish imam Fethullah Gulen criticized the Gaza flotilla in an interview published today by the The Wall Street Journal. The organizers’ failure to reach an agreement with Israel, said the US-based imam with a large following here, “is a sign of defying authority, and will not lead to fruitful matters." Mr. Gulen's movement in Turkey controls several media outlets and business groups and wields a high level of political influence.

'Erase Israel from the Middle East'

At Thursday’s Istanbul funeral of the flotilla members killed, and at a downtown rally held the night before to celebrate the other activists’ return, supporters of the IHH and its Gaza mission spoke in less charitable terms.