Reporting from Istanbul, Turkey — — The Islamic charity that helped organize Monday's humanitarian flotilla to the Gaza Strip sits below a mosque in a busy neighborhood of Istanbul, its doors open to accept donations from women in head scarves and men in suits.
The organization, known by its Turkish initials IHH, had operated on the country's political and religious fringes for years. But these days it has a new prestige across the Muslim world for challenging Israel's blockade of Gaza with a ship carrying prosthetic limbs, cement, medicine and toys.
Others allege that the foundation navigates in an opaque realm where charity rubs against militant radicalism. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called IHH "an extremist group that has supported international terrorist organizations."
Those who "accuse us of terrorism are the very people who kill innocent victims," said Ali Cihangir, an IHH board member, referring to the Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara that left nine Turkish activists dead. "There are political reasons countries are saying this about us."
IHH is part of a collection of conservative Muslim non-governmental organizations and other groups that have been permitted a freer hand since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic-oriented AK Party won power in 2002. Erdogan's fusion of Islam with democracy has kept radicalism in check, but IHH's involvement in the Gaza flotilla indicates a shared agenda between moderates and conservatives on the Palestinian issue.
A 2006 paper published by the Danish Institute for International Studies said the IHH had used its vast charitable network to aid militant causes in the 1990s, including supplying fighters to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Chechnya. Such support was common among Muslim countries and Islamist organizations that shipped aid and arms to defend Muslims in ethnic wars.
The paper, written by U.S. terrorism consultant Evan Kohlmann, says that in 1996, telephone calls from IHH headquarters in Istanbul were made to a suspected Al Qaeda hide-out in Italy and militant operatives in Europe. The study cites French counter-terrorism Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere as saying the group was connected to the millennium plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport and that in the early 1990s, IHH leader Bulent Yildrim conspired to recruit "veteran soldiers in anticipation of the coming holy war."
IHH provides charity in more than 100 countries. There is no proof that it has any connections to Al Qaeda or its affiliates, and Cihangir said that its involvement with Bosnia and Chechnya amounted to food, clothes and medicine. It is not on the State Department's list of designated foreign terrorist organizations, but it belongs to the Union of Good, an outlawed organization that funds Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza.
"If we are a terrorist organization, why did so many Muslims die in those places?" he said. "They accuse us of being terrorists because someone made phone calls out of our office. Look, it's always crowded here. Anyone could make a phone call. We help Muslims, and it's the problem areas of the world where Muslims are living."
IHH international projects include educating deaf children in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, funding religious instruction to imams in Kyrgyzstan, sponsoring orphans in Albania, buying desks for schools in the Darfur region of Sudan, and funding cataract surgeries in Africa. It also sent a relief team and supplies to Haiti.
The organization teamed with the Free Gaza movement on last week's flotilla to Gaza. IHH bought the biggest vessel in the convoy, the 305-foot passenger ship Mavi Marmara, for $800,000 and loaded it with tons of medicine, dental equipment, building supplies and other materials.
The Israeli commando raid on the flotilla has drawn worldwide condemnation and severely damaged relations between Israel and Turkey. Israel regarded the flotilla as a provocative strategy by IHH to force its hand, which resulted in a tragedy that is increasing pressure to loosen its blockade of Gaza.
The flotilla had at least the tacit support of the Turkish government. The country's customs department allowed the ships to leave port knowing they were bound for Gaza. Turkey's foreign policy has increasingly highlighted the plight of 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, and on Friday Erdogan referred to Hamas as "resistance fighters."
Some Turks questioned the wisdom of agitating Israel.
"There have been many faults. The government took no precautions in allowing those ships to leave," said Sedat Ayan, who stood outside a mosque during the funerals for eight of the activists. "Irresponsibility caused this suffering."
There was no such sentiment at IHH's headquarters, where Turkish and Palestinian flags fluttered together.
"This is a humanitarian drama," Cihangir said. "If we didn't send a ship, another organization would have. If Israel didn't stop the ships, this rage would not be here now. Israel created the violence, and violence creates more violence."