ISTANBUL // Having shot to worldwide prominence after its ships bound for the Gaza Strip were attacked by Israeli soldiers in a raid that killed nine people, an Islamic aid organisation in Turkey has been defending itself against accusations that it supports militant Islamist groups such as Hamas or even al Qa'eda. "If Muslims had tortured Jews, I would have put this flotilla together to help the Jews," Bulent Yildirim, the chairman of the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedom and Humanitarian Aid (IHH) said in speeches after his return to Turkey following the Israeli raid on Monday and a subsequent detention in Israel. "We are against oppression."
Israel says the IHH, which was founded in the 1990s to help victims of the war in Bosnia, is close to Hamas and has banned the organisation. Some western experts also cite accusations that the group has been involved in gunrunning or other forms of support for Islamist militants, a charge the organisation denies. But critics say Israel only began linking the IHH to militant groups after the scale of political fallout following its botched raid on the flotilla became clear.
The US government is concerned about the IHH's connection to Hamas but says there is no evidence that would justify branding the organisation a terrorist group. In their headquarters in Fatih, a religious district of Istanbul, IHH officials do not deny that their group is dealing with Hamas. The IHH has a permanent office in the Gaza Strip, where representatives of the group have had meetings with officials of Hamas, a sworn enemy of Israel and the ruler of the Gaza Strip. Mr Yildirim has also met Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister.
In his public statements, Mr Yildirim has called Israel a "Zionist regime" and he has made no secret of his sympathies for Necmettin Erbakan, the father figure of political Islam in Turkey and the country's first Islamist prime minister, ousted by the military in 1997. Mr Yildirim calls Mr Erbakan "hoca", a respectful term meaning teacher. But IHH officials say that does not make their organisation a radical Islamist outfit.
"We are active in 120 countries, most of them Christian or Jewish," Yavuz Dede, the organisation's deputy chairman, said in an interview at the IHH headquarters. "We do not discriminate on religious or other grounds. For example, we collected US$1 million (Dh3.7m) for victims of the Haiti earthquake, and we delivered our aid in a church there." Other IHH officials said the organisation is opposed to violence and relies on donations from the Turkish public. Up to 80 per cent of donations come from poor families, they said. Tens of thousands of people in Africa - Christians, Muslims and Animists among them - have been saved from blindness by an IHH aid programme, according to the organisation. Mr Dede also stressed that Turkish authorities checked the load of the aid ships bound for Gaza to make sure there were no weapons on board.
Not everyone is convinced. Evan Kohlmann, a US counterterrorism expert, says the IHH has been engaged "in illicit financing and episodic support to extremist groups". Writing on counterterrorismblog.org this week, Mr Kohlmann stressed that "the evidence in this regard is fairly weighty, and much of it comes directly from the Turkish government - not the United States, nor the Israelis". He was referring to a reported police raid on the IHH headquarters in December 1997. Mr Dede confirmed that the raid took place but said the police did not find any weapons or explosives. The IHH was later cleared of all accusations of Islamist extremism, he added.
Jean-Louis Bruguiere, France's former top anti-terrorism judge, who investigated the IHH in the late 1990s, told the Associated Press the group had "long-standing ties to terrorism" and said members of a militant group that plotted to bomb Los Angeles airport in 2001 worked for the IHH. But Turkish authorities have made no effort to close down the IHH since the 1997 raid, despite regular crackdowns on several radical Islamist groups and suspected al Qa'eda supporters in the country.
Police have made numerous raids on suspected Islamist organisations and cells, especially since a series of bomb attacks on Jewish and British facilities in Istanbul by Turkish al Qa'eda supporters in 2003, which killed more than 60 people. Similarly, the US has not banned the IHH, even though the US is aware of the group's contacts with Hamas. "We know that IHH representatives have met with senior Hamas officials in Turkey, Syria, and Gaza over the past three years," Philip Crowley, a US state department spokesman, told reporters in Washington this week.
"That is obviously of great concern to us," he said, but added that the IHH "has not been designated as a foreign terrorist organisation by the United States". Asked whether the US does not believe that the IHH has connections to al Qa'eda, Mr Crowley said: "We cannot validate that." Some observers say that links between the IHH and the religiously conservative government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, may have contributed to recent tensions with Israel. Can Atakli, a columnist for the Vatan daily, asserted the IHH's mission had been unofficially supported by the Erdogan government.
The IHH bought the passenger ship Mavi Marmara, which was later attacked by the Israelis, from Istanbul's AKP-led municipality in March for a reduced price of 1.8 million lira (Dh4.2m) excluding VAT, Mr Atakli wrote. The behaviour of the IHH officials on board the Mavi Marmara and the position taken by the government raised questions that had to be answered, Mr Atakli continued. "The fact that the participants said, 'We will die if necessary' and that the prime minister called those killed martyrs raised eyebrows."
The plight of the Palestinians is a very emotional issue in Turkey, especially in more religious sectors of society. The Radikal newspaper said that Mr Erdogan's ruling Development Party, or AKP, was engaged in an "ideological competition" with the Felicity Party, or SP, a small Islamist party supported by Mr Erbakan. IHH officials rejected the assertion that their organisation was close to the government, saying the group kept equal distance from all political parties.