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Deep ignorance: Most Turks know nothing about what really happened on the "Mavi Marmara" 

In May, a ship full of civilians — but not full of humanitarian aid — sailed from Turkey to join the Free Gaza flotilla. Having warned the Mavi Marmara that it would not be allowed to breach the blockade, Israeli commandos raided the ship. In the clash, nine Turks were killed. I've lived in Istanbul for five years and I've spoken to hundreds of Turks about these events. A Turkish documentary filmmaker and I have filmed some of these conversations. Something will immediately strike the viewer: the Turkish people have no idea what happened. This is because the most basic facts about and surrounding these events have not been reported in Turkey. 

In billing the flotilla as a humanitarian mission, the IHH — the expedition's Islamist sponsor — exploited the Turks' Achilles heel: their generosity. Turks think of themselves as charitable and compassionate, as indeed they are. They genuinely believe, because this is what has been reported here, that the Palestinians are starving. They know almost nothing about the reasons for the blockade. They believe that the ship was on a humanitarian mission and nothing but a humanitarian mission. They are bewildered that anyone would have interfered with such a noble-minded endeavour. They do not know that there were no humanitarian supplies on the Mavi Marmara. They do not know the most rudimentary facts about Hamas. As one man said: "These are elected people. It's not like they took over by force, via a coup."

Almost no one in Turkey understands any language but Turkish. If this obviously thoughtful man was unaware that indeed, Hamas took over precisely by force, via a coup, it is because he had no way to know. The men and women to whom we spoke were astonished when we told them that Israeli officials had invited the ship to disembark at Ashdod and deliver the aid overland. But they were not disbelieving — and importantly, when we told them this, it changed their view. Many spontaneously said that they knew they could not trust what they heard in the news, that the situation confused them and that something about the story just didn't sound right. 

Turkey's Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials as the AKP, came to power in 2002. Journalists struggle to find the right catchphrase to describe the nature of this party, usually settling on something like "mildly Islamist" — to which the party's critics reply that this is like being mildly pregnant. The ensuing theological debate quickly crowds out what is perhaps the more important observation: whether this party is mildly Islamist or gravid with a mullahcracy, it is in its instincts, and in keeping with Turkish tradition, profoundly authoritarian. It is no different from other Turkish political parties this way. But the intersection of authoritarianism and Islamism, no matter the degree of the latter, is not giving rise to a sterling candidate for EU membership, whatever David Cameron might think. The fate of the Turkish media since the AKP came to power illustrates this point.

When Western journalists note in a casual aside that press freedom has experienced certain setbacks under the AKP, they are failing to do justice to the severity of this calamity and its ramifications for Turkey and the region. The calamity is exacerbated by the tendency of the foreign media to repeat, without scrutiny, the very idiocies peddled in the Turkish press, where the range of opinion on offer has become severely limited. The result is the growth of a grossly distorted and dangerous consensus about Turkey, here and abroad — to wit, that Turkey under the AKP has become more democratic and politically healthier, even if it is a bit up the duff with Islamism.

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Simon Hade
September 3rd, 2010
11:09 AM
re: Bill Corr Pray tell, what is the situation of the remainin Turks in Greece? Are they able to elect their religous leaders? How many schools are they permitted to open? The Turks of the islands of Kos and Chios are now a mere handful. Unfortunately, it is not that easy to use the internet to find out why, as most english speaking sources tend to ignore certain facts and focus on others.

September 3rd, 2010
9:09 AM
Ms. Berlinski, As a Turkish citizen, I agree with your observations on the new structure of media concentration in Turkey. However, as you noted, it was not better before. There are instances that a Chief of General Staff 'ordered' Aydin Dogan, the media mogul to stop making -well documented- news on human rights violations of the Army members. It seems that the Army is not in a position to do that in the country, anymore. However, it is the Erdogan government holding the sticks this time, through numerous business deals, government auctions -energy and construction leading the way-. And he is indeed audacious! You are right on criticising most Western journalists, such as Kinzer, who have a tendency of overlooking the political developments with optimistic orientalist eyes. However, after the Mavi Marmara incident, a second set of journalists, including you, found their way to the media. These I’d call ‘pessimist orientalists’. To start with, your highly distorted observation that Turkish people don’t know ‘rudimentary’ facts about Hamas. I have and never voted for AKP, I’m an atheist, yet, I believe that Hamas is a democratically elected government. This doesn’t give Hamas a totally empty space to manoeuvre in –especially regarding gender rights, they deserve international slamming, but not more than the Saudis, whom Israeli-friendly journalist like, at least turn a blind eye much more than Hamas, although they don’t’ have a better human rights record-, but this gives Israeli government a perfect opportunity to convince the Western governments, who are getting increasingly Islamophobic, as in the era of any economic recession, to punish the Palestinian population to have voted for Hamas. Regarding IHH, I don’t think, as a Western observer, apart from your political presuppositions –the ‘Islamist’ card- you know anything about the organisation. IHH made several charity works before, including a lot of countries, including Sudan. To note, IHH was the only Islamist organisation that openly criticised the AKP government for not criticising Omer Al Bashir. I don’t think it fits your ‘dark Islamist’ card. Still, -as a journalist who worked on them some while ago- I believe that they have some dark secrets especially regarding Chechnya, but not Palestine and Hamas. As a journalist in Turkey, it’s your task to find out, before coming along with a conviction. I’m not even mentioning your first three paragraphs, which stinks of not even bad journalism, but pro-Israeli government propaganda. When you write, as a journalist, that the ship is not full of humanitarian aid, or that you should give a source, and preferably, not a pro-Israeli one. When you omit the fact, or be it the argument, that the raid took place in international waters, this is selective journalism. When you put all Turks into one basket of ignorant generosity, this is pure ugliness for a sinister purpose. A considerable number of people knew from the beginning that, more than being a humanitarian aid project, the Mavi Marmara flotilla aimed to break the blockade as an act of civil disobedience. From your article, I can only guess you have problems with that, but most Turkish people don’t. Perhaps you could have mentioned in your article that, being a divided country between seculars and the ‘Islamic’s, one of the few topics that unite these two poles is the reaction to the ruthless Israeli government. If you want to accuse a whole population with ignorance though, the floor is yours, but with one condition: don’t call yourself a journalist. Ah, one final note: After the raid, Fethullah Gülen himself accused IHH people, most probably with concerns to keep up good relations with the US administration. He was criticised by a couple of AKP politicians. In your next article, and as you spend more time in Turkey, I hope –but don’t expect- you will manage to get into nuances of Islamist politics in Turkey.

SM Thompson
September 3rd, 2010
6:09 AM
Interesting though this piece is, is it not a little long winded!

Mehmet Ali Mustafaoglu
August 30th, 2010
8:08 PM
Well-written piece. The Western press covering Turkey are either lazy or dont want to make waves lest they anger Turkey's rulers. Its a shame the West is (willingly) losing such a strategic country.

For Justice
August 29th, 2010
10:08 PM
Turkish press freedom criticized by the western pundits?? What credibility do these spin masters have when they were telling the world at large that their governments had irrefutable evidence of wmds in Iraq. These same propagandists write volumes about human rights violations in China, but hardly a word is mentioned about Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel, the most ruthless states in terms of human rights violations. These hypocrites are very vocal about Tibet, yet they do not give a monkey about the freedom of Palestinians, Kashmiris and Chechnians.

August 29th, 2010
5:08 PM
I consider myself well read on international affairs, and have NEVER before encountered such a penetrating perspective on the Turkish system. It is a rare article indeed that flips ones world upside down on such a focused a subject. This is MUST READING for all the "think tank" types in DC. I never even heard of your magazine before today, but I have now. Thank you! -Victor, USA

Charlie griffith
August 28th, 2010
11:08 PM
I've learned, as Bill Corr has so sensibly posted immediately above this blank space (no pun intended here) to: "Use the internet to find out why...." on any number of questions. Note: I refuse to say "issues". I thought "...issues.." were noted in law journals, but that leads us astray. And, Claire Berlinski here has revealed the extent of media "play" in the long, swinging ropes of the Turkish information chain. Added to this is the practiced taqiyya and kitman from polished speakers from the font of Islam. I needn't mention the New York Times or the Washington Post. The inescapable conclusion is that it's the unwashed public's painful dilemma to decide for themselves what makes sense. I wish us all the best of luck. Maybe Google can't be electronically jammed everywhere after all.

August 28th, 2010
10:08 PM
Hamas did indeed win an election. Then the U.S. and Israel tried to overthrow them.

August 28th, 2010
1:08 PM
Journalists critical of the Erdogan government have been sacked from their papers or worse, imprisoned. Confirmation comes from the Info-Turk website: "The Media Monitoring Report for January, February and March 2010 issued by the BİA Media Monitoring Desk reveals that a total of 216 people, among them 69 journalists and furthermore authors, publishers, caricaturists, politicians and other citizens, stand trial in cases related to freedom of thought and freedom of expression. During the first quarter of the previous year a total of 110 people were tried in this context, 60 of them journalists." Are these events "a vital step in Turkey's road to becoming a mature democracy....." also?

August 28th, 2010
2:08 AM
"This is a statistic anyone can find; you but have to look. How do you get a growing middle class out of that? Why does no one ask?" Perhaps the same question should be asked about the US, which is in the 4th-highest position on the OECD mid-2000s Gini coefficient list (presuming that's what you're referring to) and not very much lower than Turkey or Portugal.

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