Istanbul University students concerned about campus attacks by ISIL supporters
Marga Zambrana / Berza Şimşek / Suzan Fraser ISTANBUL - The Associated Press
In this photo taken on Sept. 30, 2014, a student puts the finishing touches on an anti-ISIL poster at Istanbul University's Department of Literature. AP Photo / Raphael StratterIstanbul University student Ayşegül Korkut is outraged by the images coming out of Syria. But these days the horrors of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seem closer to home: She recently faced off against masked supporters of the brutal militants on her own campus.
"I couldn't understand what was happening at first," the 21-year-old said of the moment she first spotted baton-wielding youths striding across the Department of Literature, shouting: "Allahu Akbar! Within minutes, she and other leftist students had been sucked into a fight, with both sides hurling glass bottles at each other and trashing a science fair set up in the main hall.
"I was shocked," she said.
The Sept. 26 clash, described to The Associated Press by Korkut and a half a dozen other university students, was the first in a series of fights at Istanbul University's Beyazıt campus. There has been repeated violence since, and Turkish media have reported scores of arrests.
On Oct. 13 alone 42 students were detained when police broke up a fight in a courtyard adjoining the department, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported. Several sticks - and a meat cleaver - were recovered from the scene. Police and university officials did not return messages seeking comment.
The fights are one of many signs of support for the ISIL which have popped up across Istanbul.
Global Books' owner, Osman Akyıldız, says students
and alumni are his biggest customers. AP Photo
Local media have reported seeing other signs of ISIL support across the city: A black flag hanging from a second story window, for example, or a sticker on the rear windshield of a car. Others still have written about an "ISIL gift shop" - a now-empty store reported to have sold T-shirts and sportswear emblazoned with the Islamist group's emblem. A recent video showing a youth wearing one such T-shirt on Istanbul's tram sent a shiver of concern across social media.
Lack of robust condemnation
A few scattered sightings of ISIL's paraphernalia in a sprawling city of 14 million people do not necessarily indicate significant support. It's not clear, for example, to what degree the youth on the tram or the masked rioters at Istanbul University are committed supporters or just provocatively dressed sympathizers.
But Turkish academic Ahmet Kasım Han says there's still cause for concern.
"Sociologically speaking, it all starts with those signs," he said in a recent interview at his office at Istanbul's Kadir Has University. "Some of those people who are declaring sympathy ... might easily get radicalized."
The fights at Istanbul University suggest ISIL sympathizers aren't afraid of making their presence known.
The brazenness is in part down to lack of a robust condemnation at the official level, said Han. Although the ISIL was designated a terror organization last year, Turkish officials are still reluctant to use the term publicly. Back at the bookstore, Akyıldız spoke for some religiously conservative Turks when he said jihadists didn't deserve to be called terrorists.
"For everyone the definition of terrorist is different," he said. "According to us they are heroes."
The Sept. 26 clash at the university started after a left-wing group put up a poster in the main hall of the Department of Literature denouncing the killings carried out by "ISIL gangs," said Korkut and others. In the early afternoon, masked men came to deliver an ultimatum: Take the poster down, or else.
What happened next was filmed by students who recorded the confrontation from the balconies overlooking the hall. ISIL supporters, dressed casually and with black masks and baseball caps pulled over their faces, milled around on one side, separated from a group of left-wing students by a barricade of folding tables grabbed from the science fair. The two groups shouted at each other before hurling projectiles across the vast room.
"Security! Why are you just watching?" one student screamed over the sound of shattering glass. "Why aren't you taking them away?"
İrem Meten, whose socialist student group, FKF, shot much of the video, says the men had no trouble getting into campus, even though entry requires university identification.
Media attention has occasionally driven hardliners into hiding. The ISIL "gift shop" in Bağcılar, which was in the press earlier this year, is now empty save for a few bare mannequins and a religious inscription above the door. Landlord Köksal Coşkun says the occupants left after attracting negative attention from neighbors and police.
The masked attackers at Istanbul University, by contrast, show no sign of going underground, even as Turkey inches closer to joining the U.S.-led military intervention in Syria. In a statement recently published by the religiously conservative Haksöz magazine, the group claiming responsibility for the skirmishes shrugged off the threat of arrest.
"If anyone will be called to account, it will not be those who wage jihad," the statement said. "It will be the collaborators and the so-called imperialists who find refuge behind NATO, the U.N., and the U.S."
The group did not return an email from AP seeking further comment.
When reporters visited the university on Sept. 30, there was an undercurrent of tension. About 20 riot police, a few carrying submachine guns and several wearing body armor, loitered outside the Literature Department. Inside, all appeared calm. Students smoked, drank tea and played ping pong. Students from the university's women's society were busy hand painting an anti-Islamic State group sign.
Many were defiant but some were clearly worried. Left-wing students now go to and from campus in one large group, citing safety in numbers.
"Of course we're stressed," said Ulaş Suder, a 20-year-old archaeology major. "What can you feel when an organization that terrorizes the Middle East enters your school?"