ISTANBUL (AP) — Istanbul University student Aysegul Korkut is outraged by the images coming out of Syria. But these days the Islamic State group’s horrors 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 September 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 Beyazit campus. There has been repeated violence since, and Turkish media have reported scores of arrests. On Monday alone 42 students were detained when police broke up a fight in a courtyard adjoining the department, the state-run Anadolou 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 Islamic State which have popped up across Istanbul, a cosmopolitan metropolis better known to tourists for its vibrant nightlife and Ottoman-era glories.
Pins bearing the militants’ black-and-white flag are on sale at a jihad-themed bookstore just a few blocks from the Istanbul University campus. Inside, magazines bear the face of Osama bin Laden and the memoirs of the Chechen jihadist Ibn Khattab. Global Books’ owner, Osman Akyildiz, says students and alumni are his biggest customers.
Local media have reported seeing other signs of Islamic State group support across the capital: 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 “IS gift shop” — a now-empty store reported to have sold T-shirts and sportswear emblazoned with the Islamic State group emblem. A recent video showing a youth wearing one such T-shirt on Istanbul’s tram sent a shiver of concern across social media.
A few scattered sightings of Islamic State group 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 Kasim 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 Islamic State group 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 Islamic State group was designated a terror organization last year, Turkish officials are still reluctant to use the term publicly. Back at the bookstore, Akyildiz 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 “IS 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. Islamic State group 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?”
Irem 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 Islamic State group “gift shop” in Bagcilar, 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 Koksal Coskun 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 Haksoz 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 UN, 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 Ulas Suder, a 20-year-old archaeology major. “What can you feel when an organization that terrorizes the Middle East enters your school?”