On Thursday, the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul held a funeral for the dead from the Mavi Marmara, one of the ships of the Gaza flotilla. Many of the mourners were activists from IHH, the Islamic charity that organised the flotilla. Children swung Palestinian and, in some cases, Hizbullah flags; women in black chador wore green ‘We are all Palestinian’ headbands; others were in Turkish headscarfs and matching outfits; still others, jeans and T-shirts. From the packed mosque courtyard came shouts of ‘Katil Israil’ and ‘Kahrolsun Israil’ (‘Murderer Israel’, ‘Damn Israel’). It wasn’t the first time I’d heard those words in Turkey, but it was a striking moment. Turkey and Israel have always, at least officially, been allies in a region where Israel has few friends. The flotilla incident has probably changed their relationship for ever.
The IHH offices are a block away from the mosque complex, across the street from some garages and a bookshop. Two men behind a desk were keeping an eye on lists of activists from the flotilla: ‘The Wounded in Israel’, ‘The Wounded in Ankara’, ‘The Martyrs’. A Belgian woman called Asmaa stood to one side. Her sister and a friend had been on the boat. ‘They were not injured, but I can tell, they are psychologically damaged.’ I asked her what she thought of the suggestion that IHH had ties to extremism. ‘If these people are terrorists,’ she said, looking around, ‘then humanity is lost.’
In the bookshop across the street, Mohammet, an older man in a blue blazer, praised the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for standing with the civil organisations during the crisis. ‘We are pleased by the sensitivity of the European and Turkish reactions,’ he said. ‘They are almost the same now; tied by what is in their hearts.’
‘Obama is a big change for America,’ he went on. ‘He cannot continue with the same policies. He cannot support Israel for ever when they are doing this. That’s not only for the US but for anyone who has a heart. The change has to be in the Arab countries, the dictatorships as well. It’s not only the US’s problem, but the world’s problem.’
I asked whether there had ever been anyone in Turkey who supported Israel. ‘There are no people on Israel’s side. Don’t even ask that question.’
The president of the IHH came into the bookshop and sat down in the back. The men, most of them Turkish but also an activist from Pakistan, got up and joined him. They talked strategy: people should not work only in small groups, the flotilla had been effective because many people from many countries had worked together, collaboration was crucial. More men came in to listen.
‘Real Jewish people won’t let their government commit these acts,’ a 24-year-old man called Fatih said. ‘We are so tired of being called terrorists. It’s like you hear Islam and terrorist together on TV and you are so disturbed. Those two words don’t go together! You know, if you keep saying someone is something enough, the people will become it. But we will not.’
Fatih had just returned from New York, where he’d been studying economics and political science at Hunter College. Turks under the age of 30 make up, by some estimates, almost half the population, and many are hungry for education and work abroad, a notion that terrifies Europeans who don’t want Turkey to join the European Union. I’ve often heard young people say that of course they would leave Turkey if they could. And yet I no longer think the Turkish government ever believed they’d join the EU, and I’m not sure most people, after years of European rebuffs, much care any more. For now, they think of other things: Fatih, for example, who has lived in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, peppers his speech with references to Fox News and the ‘Bible Belt’ and deeply regrets not having been on the Mavi Marmara. ‘It was once in a lifetime,’ he said. ‘It will prove to be the best example of the struggle for peace. I would definitely go if they did it again. But I don’t think they will.’ He looked at the IHH activists. ‘They are not stupid.’