Brewing sectarian discord in Turkey

Mahir Zeynalov

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On July 2, 1993, hundreds of locals in the northern Turkish province of Sivas watched and chanted as dozens of people were burned to death in Madımak Hotel, where famous Alevi intellectuals and public figures, along with Turkish author Aziz Nesin, gathered for an event.

Thirty-three people were killed after an eight-hour assault under the gaze of security forces, who did nothing to stop the massacre. The Sivas massacre of mostly Alevis was not the first of its kind; the massacres on April 18, 1978, in Malatya, Sivas (Sept. 4, 1978), Maraş (Dec. 19, 1978) and in Çorum (May 28, 1980) are notable examples of how assailants in Turkey, in complicit with some groups within the state, orchestrated attacks to instigate sectarian confrontation.

Undoubtedly, he most visible among these massacres was the Dersim massacre of 1937-38 when more than 10,000 were killed in a ruthless air campaign to punish Alevi Kurds for defying the central authority. The name of Dersim was changed to Tunceli, just three years before the bloody uprising against the state was launched.
Symbolic gestures for Alevis.

A new start?

Signaling a desire to mend fences, the government of Justice and Development Party (AKP) is preparing to reach out to Alevis by restoring the name of Tunceli back to Dersim. Two years ago, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also apologized for the 1937 Dersim massacre but Alevis largely dismissed it as being politically motivated and aimed at embarrassing the main opposition leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, whose family is rooted in Dersim.

However, much of what the current Turkish government has done is cosmetic and carries mostly a symbolic meaning rather than a real reform to improve rights and freedoms of Alevis.

Mahir Zeynalov

The prime minister has done more for Turkish democracy than any of his predecessors, including largely suspending public denial and assimilation of Alevis. New opportunities arose, along with deeper challenges as the new wave of democratization was started with the advent of Erdoğan in 2002. As the government has consolidated much of the state power in the past few years, it has also slowed down the process of granting broad rights and freedoms for the Alevi minority, who are estimated to be between 10 and 15 million.

Turkey’s state regulatory body, the Religious Affairs Directorate, is driven by Sunni officials who refuse to recognize Alevis as a distinct sect and brand them as Muslims. This description also helps them to avoid recognizing the cemevi as an Alevi house of worship because, as they say, the “house of worship for Muslims is a mosque.”

Erdoğan claims that his government has done more than any previous authorities to embrace Alevis, rejecting charges that the minority is being discriminated and assimilated. The government should be given credit for not endorsing policies of assimilation in a degree we have witnessed in past decades. However, much of what the current Turkish government has done is cosmetic and carries mostly a symbolic meaning rather than a real reform to improve rights and freedoms of Alevis.

Mosque-cemevi project

The chief demand of Alevis, recognition of cemevi as their house of worship, has fallen on deaf ears. To alleviate deep-running tensions between the Sunni majority and Alevis, three Sunni and three Alevi businessmen sponsored a cultural complex – inspired by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen – that is housing a mosque and a cemevi side by side. President of Cem Foundation, İzzettin Doğan, a leading Alevi figure in Turkey, endorsed the project.

However, Major Alevi foundations fear that the new project is aimed at further assimilation of their identity. Given the state’s long history of denial and assimilation, their concerns are understandable, but not true. Gülen, who suggested the plan, has always supported more rights for Alevis and embraced the minority. If Alevis are unsure of real intention of the new plan, the first cultural complex, founded earlier this month in Ankara, could be a pilot project to see if it damages the identity of Alevis. With the cultural complex, the Alevi houses of worship could be de facto recognized and benefit from state subsidies offered to mosques.
Repercussion of regional wars

With violent sectarian conflict in Syria and Iraq spinning out of control, it risks destabilizing southern Turkish provinces, which have sizeable Alevi and Alawite minorities. Renewed clashes between locals and security services in Hatay and mysterious death of young Alevi boy fanned the flames of such fears.

Although Erdoğan and other government officials frequently reach out to Alevis, Ankara’s policies in Syria and Iraq are largely perceived as Sunnist among critics back at home.

Symbolic gestures to Alevis, such as restoring the name of Dersim province, is a significant step forward. But the government must make sure that the Alevis are equal with other fellow citizens by granting them what they want: recognition. This may significantly avert brewing sectarian discord in Turkey.


Mahir Zeynalov is an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

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