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Turkish sympathy for militants grows

KONYA, Turkey -- Citizens of this fervently Muslim central Anatolian city last week observed the 730th anniversary of the death of the great Islamic mystic Mevlana with stirring concerts of religious music, the ecstatic whirling of white-robed dervishes, and, above all, vows of commitment to the principles of love and tolerance for which Mevlana is revered.

 

"This is the smiling face of Islam," said Ahmet Ozham, who was a well-known pop singer and actor before, as he put it, he "saw the real light of life" and became the leading performer of songs based on Mevlana's poetry.

But beneath the smiles and genuine hospitality they extend to individual foreigners, the citizens of Konya, like those in many Turkish cities and towns, are boiling with anger at the United States, Britain, Israel, and Western civilization in general. They reject the tactics of the suicide bombers who killed 58 people in four massive explosions in Istanbul last month, but express understanding of the bombers' rage.

"I am so sorry for those bombings in Istanbul," said Ali Kernic, 53, as he sat in a friend's electrical shop on Door to the Mosque Street, a neighborhood where the signs are in Arabic, not Turkish, and the names of many businesses have religious connotations. "The suicide bombers have been hurt by the United States and other forces. They are a little sick in the mind. They've lost sons, daughters, and wives, and they take revenge. Islam rejects terrorism."

Such sentiments, and the Islamicized and Arabized environment in which they are expressed, mark an ominous turn of events for the United States and its allies. Sentiments like Kernic's are common in the Arab world, but Turkey, whose people are not Arab, has long been considered the model of a moderate Muslim society capable of bridging the immense cultural gap between the Islamic Middle East and the Judeo-Christian West.

Recent interviews in Konya, widely regarded as the capital of Islam in Turkey; in Ankara, the national capital; and in Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, indicate that major changes -- some of which have been gestating for decades -- are taking place in Turkish society. Turkish Muslims' attitudes have taken a sharp anti-Western, anti-American turn, and some fear a dangerous new outpost of international terror is being established among the nation's 70 million people.

"There is no friendship between the Islamic world and the rest of the world," said Konya's longtime mayor, Mustafa Ozkafa, who describes himself as a very conservative Muslim. "The relationship between the Islamic world and the Western world will end soon" as a result of efforts by people on both sides -- but mostly on the Western side, he said -- to arrange a clash of civilizations.

Unlike many Turkish officials -- religious and secular alike -- Ozkafa does not defend or deny the continued existence of violent extremist groups like Turkish Hezbollah, an organization the national government claims was wiped out by massive suppression efforts in 2000 and 2002.

Rather, Ozkafa and many others -- including foreign diplomats and Turks with good political connections -- say Turkish Hezbollah has backfired on the government in the same way the Taliban and Osama bin Laden backfired on the United States in Afghanistan.

Mevlana, Konya's Islamic hero, "said never think bad ideas. If you do, one day they will turn on you," Ozkafa said. "We have to clean up these bad ideas."

Turkish Hezbollah arose in southeastern Turkey in the early 1990s as a militant Islamic response to the Kurdish separatist movement, which was Marxist- and Maoist-oriented, and was encouraged by security forces desperate to contain the Kurdish insurgency.

But it soon spread into central and western Turkey, where its members began abducting and assassinating people who offended its sensibilities -- Muslim feminists, secular police commanders, prostitutes.

When the Kurdish rebellion wound down in 1999, Hezbollah's usefulness to the security forces ended and the state moved -- by most accounts unsuccessfully -- to wipe it out.

Police who in 2000 raided two houses in Konya rented by Hezbollah members found dozens of bodies -- including the tortured and burned corpse of Konca Kuris, 39, a mother of five who was a leading Muslim feminist. The body count nationwide was in the hundreds.

The authorities' failure to destroy Hezbollah became clear the following year, when Hezbollah militants killed the police chief of Diyarbakir, a major southeastern city, and five other officers. This led to further suppression efforts in 2002, the failure of which was demonstrated by the Hezbollah connections of at least two of the four recent Istanbul suicide bombers and a recent, unconfirmed operation in Konya.

Also at work against secular government and moderate Islam in Turkey are current and recently concluded conflicts in numerous countries nearby -- Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Afghanistan -- and a trend toward deeper identification with religion that is observable in many countries around the world.

"It was innocent when Turkish Muslims traveled to Bosnia, to Chechnya, to Afghanistan," says Ilnur Cevik, publisher of the Ankara-based Turkish Daily News, who is active in the ruling Justice and Development Party. "But some of these people who went to fight Russians or Serbs were indoctrinated against infidels" and returned to Turkey as cell leaders for Al Qaeda.

The organization and timing of the Istanbul bombings have led to a widespread belief in political and media circles that Al Qaeda, as well as Hezbollah or a Hezbollah spinoff, was responsible for the blasts. The leading theory is that financing and guidance was provided from abroad for "an infrastructure of terror -- homegrown groups -- in Turkey," Cevik said.

One of the hardest tasks now facing the government is to do something about the environment in which this infrastructure has developed, said Cevik, who was among a group of ruling party activists and advisers briefed on the situation recently by top intelligence officials.

"The intelligence people say Istanbul is now a horrible place, a hub of intelligence like Beirut used to be," Cevik said. "It is a huge city. . . . There are districts where you can hide an army. And our borders are a shambles."

Further, said Ozlem Tur Kavli, a professor of international relations at Middle East Technical University who specializes in studies of Islamist groups, there are growing questions since the Istanbul bombings about the commitment of the ruling party -- which itself has Islamist roots -- to pursuing Islamic militants.

"Hezbollah is big in Bingol, in Batman" -- cities to which the recent suicide bombers had direct ties -- "but the government has turned a blind eye," Kavli said.

She noted that top government officials have stopped using terms associating Islamic militants with terror since a recent speech by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which he said that "the expression `Islamic terror' offends me."

Officials now speak of "religionist terror" and refer far less often to Hezbollah connections to the bombings than they did in the days immediately following the blasts, domestic and foreign analysts note. Also, three leading anti-Hezbollah police commanders recently were transferred to cities with no known militant activities. The government said the transfers were part of a routine rotation that involved a total of 28 top police officials.

"The voters want an Islamic life," said Mehmet Buyukari, bureau chief in Konya for the national Dogan News Agency. "They are not sorry that there are no operations against Hezbollah. . . . Hezbollah is only the visible part of this story."

Charles A. Radin can be reached at radin@globe.com.

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