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Eye on the News

Claire Berlinski
Murky in Turkey
What we don’t know about the Mavi Marmara incident: just about everything.
3 June 2010

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.

Claire Berlinski, a contributing editor of City Journal, is an American journalist who lives in Istanbul. She is the author of There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters.

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