February 24, 2017
Ulaş Tol joins to discuss his report “Urban Alevism and Young Alevis’ Search for Identity,” written for the PODEM think tank.
Download the episode or listen below.
Turkey Book Talk listeners can get a 33% discount plus free delivery on four titles published by Hurst – “The Circassian: A Life of Eşref Bey, Late Ottoman Insurgent and Special Agent” by Benjamin Fortna, “The New Turkey and its Discontents” by Simon Waldman and Emre Çalışkan, “The Poisoned Well: Empire and its Legacy in the Middle East” by Roger Hardy, and “Out of Nowhere: The Syrian Kurds in Peace and War” by Michael Gunter. Follow this link to get that discount.
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Many thanks to my current supporters Özlem Beyarslan, Steve Bryant, Celia Jocelyn Kerslake and Aaron Ataman.
November 28, 2015
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.
Download a podcast of our conversation.
Here’s a transcript of the interview at the Hürriyet Daily News.
Here’s my review of the book.
NB – I’ve also just created a Facebook page for the podcast, where I’ll be posting new episodes. Check it out here.
July 8, 2013
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.
July 27, 2012
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 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!
December 7, 2011
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.