ISTANBUL: “It was as if we were in the middle of a war zone,” said 22-year-old drama student Aslihan Celebi as she described the scene of a violent anti-jihadist protest at Istanbul University. The university has in the last few weeks been the center of violent clashes between leftist students denouncing the brutality of ISIS jihadists and the group’s sympathizers. The clashes erupted as social tensions mount in Turkey over the advance of ISIS, with at least 34 people killed this month in protests over the lack of action by the government against the Islamist extremists.
ISIS jihadists are currently battling Kurdish fighters for the Syrian town of Ain al-Arab just over the Turkish border. But so far the Turkish military has just looked on.
The first clash at the university erupted in late September when Islamist students tried to forcibly prevent left-wingers from holding an anti-ISIS rally.
A number of students were attacked by ISIS sympathizers wearing black masks and armed with clubs, meat cleavers and knives, said Aslihan, a member of FKF, the socialist group which organized the anti-ISIS protests.
“It was a violent raid, to attack ... not just the leftists, but other students too,” she said.
“They started to sing an ISIS anthem, chanted ‘Allahu akbar’ [God is the greatest] and attacked us indiscriminately. They even beat up the cafeteria’s waiter.”
The Islamists tore down a banner that read “We won’t remain a bystander to ISIS massacres,” before both sides clashed, hurling glass bottles.
The university has continued to operate, despite having been raided by police several times following new clashes that saw dozens of students detained and scores injured.
Riot police still hold positions outside the university, with armored vehicles and water cannon trucks.
Anil Orun, a 22-year-old history major, was rounded up by police for his involvement in a similar clash in October, during which more than 40 students were detained, among them eight ISIS supporters, according to Turkish media.
“The police went into each classroom, looking for leftist students. This was when I was detained. They swore at us, pointed their guns at us, threatening to fire rubber bullets and even shoot us if we dare resist,” he said. “They knocked some of the detainees on the ground, kicked our heads with their boots and paraded us in the main hall as if we were prisoners.”
The clashes were reminiscent of violent political free-for-alls that shook the university in the late 1970s before the 1980 coup which featured bloody conflicts between leftists and far-right extremists.
The influence of leftists remains largely intact at the university, where police often use tear gas to disperse protests.
“Our university has long been a hotbed of left-wing right-wing tensions. But this is the first confrontation pitting leftists against ISIS supporters,” said another student, 20-year-old Ugur Diner.
He blamed the police, the university administration and ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AK Party) for protecting ISIS.
The authorities have vehemently denied reports that the jihadist group has been tacitly allowed to maintain a presence in Istanbul including an office in the conservative Fatih district.
Aslihan said some ISIS supporters did not belong at the university, but came from other universities to provoke the leftist students.
“Some of them were not even students. The police just let them in,” Aslihan said.
“They target female students. They called us ‘bitches’ and ‘whores’ to our face, ripped off a friend’s T-shirt and grabbed another one by the hair.”
“Sitting next to a male friend is enough for them to attack.”
The atmosphere at the university is fraught with uncertainty and anxiety, said Elif Ogut, a 20-year-old student wearing an Islamic headscarf.
“I fear that the clashes could break out any given time. They [pro-ISIS students] don’t represent us. Their ideology is not supported by the majority,” she said.
Alican Yesilcimen, a 23-year-old history major, said there is “no peace at the university anymore.”
“They don’t have a right to hijack our education,” he said.
“Turkey has suffered a lot from both Islamist radicalism and Kurdish separatism. Why do I want their supporters at my university?”