In Turkish youths' eyes, a cynical ploy by the U.S.

Sept. 11: A group that might be expected to support an American war against Iraq sees only a gambit for oil.

January 14, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ISTANBUL, Turkey - The Turkish flag was lowered at the Private High School for Scientific Education when the first-period bell rang Sept. 12, 2001. The eyes of the students, the school's headmaster recalls, showed they had been crying.

These teen-agers are not the members of the Islamic world who celebrated American deaths. These are teen-agers who, at least originally, saw the attacks as murder.

"It was a very scary, very sad time," recalls the headmaster, Ismail Binicioglu. "Everybody was so concerned and so frightened, and everybody really felt for the United States, and they wanted to know if this was World War III. There were many fears and many questions."

The explanation most of his students have finally settled on for the attacks is this: United States officials purposely allowed the attacks to happen, maybe even helped coordinate them, so they could later justify moving into Iraq to steal its oil.

That is an old claim among more extreme elements of other Muslim countries. It is, though, a relatively new conclusion among these private-school students, some of the wealthiest and best-educated in Turkey.

This, after all, is the country - predominantly Muslim but grounded in secularism and a member of NATO - that should be the most likely in the Islamic world to support the United States. And these are the students within Turkey who could be expected to be among the most likely to back U.S. policy.

But listen to Orkun Selcuk, a 17-year-old language student in love with Pepsi, Jennifer Lopez and most other emblems of American culture.

"They were in on the attack from the very beginning," Selcuk says of the U.S. government's involvement in Sept. 11. "The United States is the most powerful country in the world. George Bush could have stopped the attacks if he wanted to, but he didn't because he wanted a reason for war."

Selcuk, of course, is just a single student, one of 26 at the private Istanbul high school who agreed to discuss his views on the United States, the threat of war in neighboring Iraq and what the world looks like to teen-agers these days. The students - 15 to 18 years old - do not represent a scientific sampling of attitudes among the young people of Turkey.

These kids, the boys dressed in sweaters and ties, the girls in skirts, heads uncovered - religion plays little or no part in most of their lives - instead represent the best bet the United States has of gaining support in any predominantly Muslim country. But based on interviews with these students, that bet, at least at the moment, appears to be a longshot.

Of the 26 teen-agers interviewed, 18 of them said they believed the United States government either helped the Sept. 11 hijackers or looked the other way to allow the attacks to occur - all because of greed. Not one of them supports an attack on Iraq - which shares a 206-mile border with Turkey - because, they say, they do not believe the motives are to stop terrorism.

To these students, America is George W. Bush and George W. Bush is big oil and defense contractors. War would not be to protect Americans, of whom these students speak fondly.

"Bush wants to use his weapons, so he liquidates them with war, then buys more weapons and that makes him and his friends rich and happy," says Sirma Algul, who is 18 and dreams of being an actress. "If the reason for war against Iraq is weapons, why haven't the inspectors there found any weapons?"

Her comments, like Selcuk's, are common among the students interviewed. The students are familiar with the United States, Bush's work in the oil business and the sluggishness of the U.S. economy, which some here say is also contributing to a rush for war.

The students are also aware that the U.S. military is sending troops and materiel to the region - even as U.N. inspectors say that while Iraq has not been fully cooperative, they have found no evidence of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

"The United Nations is the whole world and the United States is just the United States," Algul says. "So if the United Nations says there's no reason to go to war, that's the whole world saying don't go to war. But George Bush doesn't care what the whole world thinks. He wants to use his weapons and take that oil."

Unlike in other predominantly Muslim countries, opposition here to war with Iraq has little to do with a shared religion, of any notion that that United States is targeting Muslims because of their beliefs. When the prayers of imams crackle from amplifiers atop Istanbul's mosques, these students are more likely to drown out the sounds by cranking up their Eminem tapes than they are to answer the calls to prayer. Muslim, in Turkey, does not necessarily mean religious.

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