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Ulaş Tol joins to discuss his report “Urban Alevism and Young Alevis’ Search for Identity,” written for the PODEM think tank.

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This week’s interview/podcast is with Markus Dressler, author of the book “Writing Religion: The Making of Turkish Alevi Islam.” The book examines how the idea of Alevism is an almost entirely modern concept, formed towards the end of the Ottoman Empire as part of efforts to integrate disparate Anatolian religious groups into the Turkish and Muslim nation.

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Here’s a transcript of the interview at the Hürriyet Daily News.

Here’s my review of the book.

Writing religion

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I recently spotted three curious newspaper pieces that neatly illustrate how the ruling mentality in Turkey approaches the “Alevi question.” Each one frames the issue in terms of “love,” “unity,” and “brotherhood,” but the underlying assumptions behind these words – ubiquitous and sacrosanct as they are in Turkish political culture – are worth investigating. Unfortunately, they’re not likely to be robust enough when it comes to answering the Alevi question.

The first example was published two weeks ago in mass circulation pro-government daily Sabah, written by columnist Rasim Ozan Kütahyalı. In two columns published on consecutive days, Kütahayalı argued that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government should heed “serious recent intelligence reports” suggesting that “outside forces” were planning to “exploit” Turkey’s Alevi citizens: “Outside forces and their inside co-operators are planning a new chaos plan. The intelligence for this is very serious … They want to drag Alevi citizens into a violent rebellion.” Then, in a spectacular example of drawing the right conclusions from a hopelessly misguided route, Kütahyalı went on to suggest that these threats were reasons for the government to take steps to heed the Alevis’ democratic demands:

“If the AK Parti government takes brave steps to solve the Alevi problem, as it has done with the Kurdish problem, then nobody will be able to construct a chaos scenario using the Alevis … The Alevis’ demands on rights and freedoms are very important, and the government should do whatever it takes to meet these demands.”

Kütahyalı’s argument was almost identical to the one in the Today’s Zaman column by Abdullah Bozkurt that I mentioned in my previous post. In that article, Bozkurt explicitly stated that Iran was looking to use Alevis, (as well as spies disguised as LGBT people), to foment sectarian war in Turkey. He then went on to say that this potential danger was why Turkey should be extra careful and now grant Alevis more rights:

“The Turkish government should be more vigilant than ever over Iranian activities and hasten the process of addressing Alevi demands, including the recognition of their places of worship (cemevi) and the provision of fair-share subsidies from taxpayers’ money. Alevis, who number over 10 million, should be able to establish and train their own clergy and the government should provide financial support for that.”

Hüseyin Gülerce also engaged in similar mental acrobatics in one of his Zaman columns in June. In it, he repeated the official government view that the Gezi Park protests were all part of a grand unpatriotic plot aimed at foiling Turkey’s economic ambitions, but he went even further: “The plan, the project, is based on exploiting, on exacerbating the Turkish-Kurdish, Sunni-Alevi and secular-religious divides. Unfortunately, the Gezi Park events have turned best friends into antagonists.” Like Kütahyalı and Bozkurt, Gülerce used this logic to justify “further democratization”:

“We need to overcome these divides … Democratization must not be halted. The democratic front must be strengthened, progressing to universal democratic standards … Starting with the prime minister, we have to come together in a spirit of tolerance and reconciliation.”

The mentality that essentially sees Alevis as a threat that should be handled with care is shared by all three columns, and it is echoed by many government officials. It was also there in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent warnings against “sectarian division,” when he declared that “if being Alevi means loving the Caliph Ali, then I’m a perfect Alevi.”  In similar tones, ministers constantly repeat how Alevis should never worry about the government, as they are “brothers and sisters” who see “difference as a richness.”

It sounds nice, but it was refreshing to see a piece on T24 by Alper Görmüş last week that took aim at such patronising discourse. In it, Görmüş questioned the glib “embracing brotherliness” displayed by the AKP, saying that Alevis wanted not simply “love” and “brotherhood,” but “equality” and “respect”:

“In families, it’s always the elders who emphasise ‘brotherhood’ and ‘unity’… Alevis know that the Sunnis who use these terms are the strong, advantaged ‘family elders,’ and this does not suggest ‘equality’ and ‘respect’ to them.

“The prime minister’s emphasis on ‘love,’ ‘brotherhood,’ and ‘affection’ basically translates for the broader Sunni mass as meaning: ‘Alevism is not as authentic or respected as our beliefs, but this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t love or feel affection for Alevis themselves.’

“Genuine, lasting brotherhood is not built on ‘affection’ alone. A brotherhood that doesn’t contain equality, cannot be considered genuine brotherhood, and isn’t sustainable … Just like the Kurdish issue, the Alevi question cannot be solved by approaching Alevis without ‘equality,’ and without a genuine respect for their beliefs.”

This seems fairly watertight to me. It’s easy for the Sunni “family elders” to talk blithely of love and brotherhood, but it all rings a bit hollow when some still consider Alevis as “potential threats,” and when the state still only spends tax money on Sunni mosques, without even recognising Alevi cemevis as separate houses of worship. As Görmüş suggested, the AKP still has a long way to go before truly gaining the trust of Alevis.

Not so many years ago, a strategic partnership between Turkey and Iran seemed to be developing into one of the region’s more unexpected modern developments. Turkey was vaunted as a mediator in negotiations between the West and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program, and the relationship was reinforced by crucial oil and gas sales from Iran to Turkey. Those days feel rather long ago. The two countries now find themselves at loggerheads backing opposite sides of the bloody civil war in neighboring Syria, with fears of a regional sectarian conflagration steadily turning into an apocalyptic reality. A marker of the Syrian crisis’ deleterious effect on the Turkey-Iran relationship came with the diplomatic spat that followed the deployment of NATO Patriot missiles on Turkey’s southern border earlier this year, which lead the Iranian army’s chief of staff to declare that the move could be a prelude to “world war.” Less spectacular, but also very important, is Iran’s clear unease with Turkey’s delicate ongoing peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which involves the rebel group withdrawing its militants from Turkish soil to their bases in northern Iraq. Tehran is concerned that the withdrawal could result in the militants joining forces with the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), which is the PKK’s offshoot in Iran.

The schism between Turkey and Iran widened to such an extent that Patrick Cockburn recently described relations between the two as “poisonous,” and this is increasingly being reflected in the rising levels of anti-Iran sentiment in Turkey’s Islamist press. In addition to countless pieces targeting Iran for supporting the al-Assad regime in Syria , it has also been striking to see the AKP media include Iranians among the dark “outside forces” stoking the recent Gezi Park protests, supposedly out of discomfort with Turkey’s economic success. In the early days of the demonstrations, it was eagerly reported in all government-supporting media outlets that an “Iranian agent” had been arrested on suspicion of being a “provocateur” behind protests in Ankara. It later emerged in more sceptical news organisations that the individual concerned, Shayan Shamloo, was in fact a rapper who was living in Turkey as a refugee.

Soon afterwards – in one of those truly befuddling Today’s Zaman stories – Abdullah Bozkurt wrote a column titled “Iran plays a subversive role in Turkey,” in which he argued with a straight face (pardon the pun) that Iran was using the protests to infiltrate Turkey with spies disguised as LGBT people in an attempt to bring down the government:

“Recent protests exposed, among other things, the depth of Iranian infiltration into Turkey … [During the protests] about a dozen Iranian agents who were trying to turn rallies into violent anti-government demonstrations were caught by the police… Since it is difficult to distinguish legitimate non-Muslim minority or LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people from spies, Iranian intelligence often uses them as a cover to infiltrate Turkey and third countries.”

However weird, Bozkurt’s column wasn’t an outlier in pointing the finger at Iran for Turkey’s problems. Indeed, Zaman and Today’s Zaman have recently been publishing a steady stream of articles and columns critical of negative Iranian influence in the region, and it’s probably also worth noting here that the Today’s Zaman editor, Bülent Keneş, wrote a book on Iran’s links to international terrorism last year.

Much of the Iran-bashing in the Turkish press goes hand in hand with pieces on Turkey’s Alevi minority. The Alevis are an offshoot of Shiism, (distinct from the Alawites in Syria), and have historically been associated by some in Turkey as dangerous fifth columnists with divided loyalties to Iran. Indeed, that association goes back as far as Bosphorus bridge-commemorated Sultan Selim the Grim, whose decision to kill tens of thousands of Alevis was taken during a military campaign against the Persian Safavid Empire in the 16th century.

Some of the most enthusiastic and unpleasant examples negatively associating Alevis with Iran come from the extreme Islamist daily Yeni Akit. For two consecutive days in June, for example, Yeni Akit carried front page headline stories claiming that Iranian authorities had invited Alevi religious leaders across the border to visit Ayatollah Khamenei in an attempt to foment sectarian war in Turkey. The headline of the first day’s story, “Iran is playing with fire” (İran, ateşle oynuyor), was a stomach-turning play on the Turkish term for “flame” (ateş), in reference the fire often used in Alevi rituals. Of course, it should be stressed that Yeni Akit is far from representative of majority sentiment in Turkey, but it probably isn’t quite as marginal as most people like to think. In fact, a few months ago Erdoğan even put two of its writers – including editor-in-chief Hasan Karakaya – on his “Wise Men Commission,” charged with the august task of repeating whatever he said about the ongoing Kurdish peace process.

It all adds up to a worrying picture. With the Syrian crisis having exploded into a wider geopolitical struggle splitting the region on sectarian lines, it’s increasingly clear that the growing schism between majority-Sunni Turkey and majority-Shia Iran is more than just a temporary trend.

The massacre that took place in the Central Anatolian town of Sivas in 1993 is one of the darkest episodes in modern Turkish history. On the morning of July 2, a large group of radical Sunni Islamists descended on the Madımak Hotel in Sivas town center, protesting its hosting of an Alevi cultural festival. The mob attacked and set fire to the hotel, which resulted in the deaths of 37 people. Autopsies at the time concluded that the deceased had either died of burns or smoke inhalation.

Radical Islamist daily Yeni Akit’s July 23, 2012 front page carried a large headline declaring “The 19 Year Lie,” accompanied by two photos tastefully showing the morgue full of corpses from the massacre. Aside from the pleasure the paper obviously derived from showing off the photos on its front page once again, the ostensible reason the story was to expose what it called the “lie” that those in the hotel had been killed by the flames. In one of the pictures, a young girl lying on a morgue table, Belkıs Çakır, bears what the paper says is “clearly” a gunshot wound in the chest. This apparently proves that most of the deceased actually killed each other inside the hotel.Unfortunately for Akit, closer inspection reveals that the “blood” from Çakır’s “bullet wound” is simply a braid of hair hanging down from her head.

Akit’s charming July 23 front page

Akit’s piece aroused immediate opprobrium from a number of other Turkish dailies. The next day’s Taraf responded with the headline: “Akit sets fire to Madımak again,” Cumhuriyet said: “One more black publication from Akit,” while leftist-nationalist Yurt bluntly stated on its front page: “A Bigoted Lie.” All included the dismayed reactions from the families of those who died in the tragic incident, as well as their representatives.

Akit said the morgue photos had been hidden for 19 years before passing into their hands, but lawyer Şenal Sarıhan explained to Taraf that the photos were in fact included in a book on the event written by herself, “Madımak Yangını Sivas Davası.” “This book was published in 2002, and it had its third print run in 2011. Akit’s reporter Murat Alan clearly has it. The photos are included on page 97, 100, and 102. To claim that this is the first time they have been seen is completely untrue,” Sarıhan said. Çakır’s original autopsy, she added, was conducted at Sivas’s Numune Hospital, under strict observation. It unambiguously concluded that she had died of burns and from carbon monoxide poisoning. “The definite cause of death was burns and smoke inhalation. There is no dispute on this subject … Neither bullet wounds nor knife wounds can be seen in the photos,” Sarıhan said, adding that the only two people who died of bullet wounds on the day were shot outside the hotel by the demonstrators.

Zeynep Altıok, daughter of the poet Metin Altıok who was killed in the Madımak attack, was quoted as saying that the news did not come as a surprise from Akit. “They have written similar things before. They used to say it was the work of the [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK. Their aim is to distort the truth. Before, they said it was the PKK, now they’ve gone in completely the opposite direction. I can’t take it seriously.”

Unfortunately, it’s not easy to reason with fanatical Islamists, and Akit’s July 24 front page headline followed on from the previous day, declaring: “Let the autopsies be conducted again”! On July 25, following the condemnations that the earlier pieces had aroused, the paper retreated into comforting victimhood,complaining that the other newspapers constituted a “dirty alliance against Akit … a panicking cartel.”

Yeni Akit is notorious in Turkey as the most vitriolic of the country’s Islamist newspapers. It was established in 2010 after its forerunner, “Anadolu’da Vakit,” was closed down following its failure to pay a fine incurred in 2003 for a piece deemed “insulting to the Turkish Armed Forces” (still officially a crime). Sane-minded observers view Akit with a mixture of incredulity and contempt, and think of it as not much more than a marginal voice on the lunatic fringe. Nevertheless, the fact that it enjoys significantly higher circulation figures than a number of far more respected newspapers must be chastening indeed!

On 23rd November the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan, officially offered a state ‘apology’ for the massacre of thousands of Alevi Kurds that took place in the eastern province of Tunceli (formerly Dersim) in 1937-1939. Without wading into the rights and wrongs of today’s politicians apologising for yesterday’s crimes, well-meaning observers – including many in the Western media – have responded approvingly, citing this as the latest evidence of a democratising, self-critical Turkish politics in action. If sincere, Erdoğan’s words would have been a brave and commendable, but there are reasons to be sceptical.

The Prime Minister knows that he has nothing to lose from such an apology, (feeble as it was in any case: “If an apology is required on behalf of the state and if such precedents exist, I am apologizing”). The current Justice and Development (AKP) government will hardly be held accountable for events that took place whilst under single-party, Republican People’s Party (CHP, current opposition), rule seventy-five years ago. Whilst apologising “on behalf of the state”, Erdoğan used the opportunity to lay down the gauntlet to the CHP, declaring that it was the real culprit behind the events: “The party that should confront this incident is not the AKP. It is the CHP which was behind this bloody disaster”. Evidently, the primary motivation behind opening up this issue at this time wasn’t to have an honest, sensible debate about a difficult issue, but rather to launch the government’s latest attack on the opposition. Instead of using the opportunity to reflect modestly on some of the darkest days in the history of the Turkish republic, Erdoğan has cynically exploited a sensitive issue to score cheap political points. The spectacle is nauseating.

For a number of complex reasons Tunceli – with its predominantly Alevi population – has traditionally been a strong supporter of the secular establishment, and thus of the CHP. In the parliamentary elections earlier this year the province again voted for a CHP representative, making it something of a novelty in the Anatolian hinterland (consider this map: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a5/2011_Turkish_general_election_english.svg to see why). Could electoral calculations have anything to do with the Prime Minister’s opening up of the issue at this time, and in such a combative way? Political scientist Doğu Ergil reflected: “I wonder if Erdoğan would have done the same thing if the perpetrators had been close to his political views”, before going on to suggest that the debate “shouldn’t be limited to the Dersim killings. Turkey should also apologize for the 1915 Armenian killings and the Sept. 6-7, 1955, events, which resulted in the mass exodus of minorities from the country”. Don’t hold your breath.

Apparently it isn’t possible to stimulate an honest conversation about the darker episodes of the country’s history without seeking political reward; it isn’t possible to reform the judiciary without leaving a legacy of overbearing party political control; it isn’t possible to de-fang the military without simultaneously loading the police with your own supporters. Yet again the convenient narrative of Turkey’s steady democratisation is exposed as, at best, flawed.

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