Alevis: “Turkish history X”

The collective memory of Turkey’s Alevi communities consists of dark layers of trauma. Although in its early years in office the AKP government launched an Alevi initiative to open dialogue with the community, it was shelved after some discussion along with the breakdown of the Kurdish rapprochement in 2015. Moreover, the Islamist character of the AKP government resulted in a tangible decrease in the number of Alevi civil servants, particularly among the ranks of the police, military and in the education system.

The appearance of anti-Alevi hate graffiti and markings on the wall of a house in Izmir in late November triggered immediate condemnation from the Alevi community around the country. In response, both the president and the interior minister promptly declared the government’s determination to bring the perpetrators to justice. All the political parties in the parliament made a joint statement condemning the incident. Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Istanbul deputy Ali Kenanoğlu expressed contentment with the joint declaration in his address to the parliament on behalf of the Alevi communities. 

This rather alarmist popular and official reaction to some graffiti on a wall may seem disproportional to an outside observer but it has serious reasons behind it. To begin with, as Kenanoğlu pointed out, similar incidents have occurred since 2012, in which more than 100 houses have been singled out with these markings in 32 different locations around the country, mostly in the provinces of Malatya, Adıyaman, Çorum and Izmir.

These markings, often just a painted “X”, are threatening because living under the shadow of death has been a characteristic of Alevi identity not for the last seven years but for at least five centuries. A genealogical inquiry into this primordial threat is therefore required to reveal the critically serious nature of its current recurrences. 

An indigenous community

Alevis have been variously defined as a religious community or a social group of various ethnicities with certain rites and customs. Contemporary Iranian clergy officially recognize Alevism as a branch of the Shiite faith but there are objections to this inclusion from within Alevi communities. Some Alevi notables, for instance, claim that Alevism is a religion in its own right, independent of both Islam and its Shiite branch, while an element of the Alevi intelligentsia argue that Alevism is not a religion but a socio-political identity. However they may be defined, Alevis of Kurdish, Zaza and Turkish ethnicities constitute some 15 to 25 percent of Turkey’s population. The differences in estimates come from the repressed nature of Alevi identity: that is, most Alevis are hesitant to come out in the climate of Turkish society.

There are also Alevi communities in Iran, while the Arab Alewite population of Syria (aka Nusayris) and Ehli Beyt communities in Iraq along with the Anatolian and Balkan Bektashi communities are also usually identified as Alevis. This wider definition implies the existence of Alevi communities of various ethnicities in and around the geographical location of contemporary Turkey. 

Genesis of terror

Ottoman ruler Selim I’s name is widely associated with the initiation of the Sunni-Alevi conflict in eastern and central Anatolia, launched during his Iran expedition against the Safavid dynasty in the early 16th Century. His policy of forced conversion to the Sunni faith led to the mass murder of some 40,000 Alevis according to official Ottoman sources. Sunni tribes were involved in this massacre along with the Ottoman army, leading to an historical antagonism at the popular level. Since then, if not before, the Alevi perception of history is a cycle of recurrences of this collective trauma.

For the rest of the Ottoman era, Alevis retreated to settle in remote mountainous villages. In Sunni populated regions they hid their identity and performed their rituals secretly. The Sunni majority stigmatized the Alevis as the enemy, while for the official clergy Alevism was heresy and therefore subject to punitive action according to Islamic law (Sharia). Ottoman society was renowned as a multi-faith and multi-ethnic entity in which Christian and Jewish communities coexisted with the Muslims, but Alevis’ existence was systematically denied. Top echelons of Ottoman bureaucracy were always manned by cadres of various religions and ethnicities, excluding however the Alevis.

Transition to nation-state

Alevis under the Ottoman regime could only survive by being invisible. In the late 19th Century, they would be put into the picture again by Sultan Abdulhamid II, to be targeted by a comprehensive campaign of Islamization/Sunnification. As historian Selim Deringil asserts, “Abdulhamid’s propagation of Sunni orthodoxy was ensured by the school, mosque and barracks.” (Well Protected Domains). Mosques were constructed in remote Alevi villages and Alevis were put under surveillance and indoctrination by Sunni imams. 

The Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), who toppled Abdulhamid to declare constitutional rule in 1908, inclined towards the formation of a Turkish nation-state, which aimed primarily at the Turkification of the multi-ethnic structure of Anatolia. In this context, the CUP postulated that Alevis were of Turkish origin by emphasizing similarities between Alevi practices and Central Asian shamanism. Alevis were therefore “real Turks”: an assertion that was adopted by the republican regime to this day.

After the declaration of republic out of the ashes of the empire, a rehabilitation of the Alevi identity was signaled in the nationalist arguments of Alevis as “real Turks” representing “Turkish Islam” as opposed to “Arabized Islam”. Official documents also emphasized the affinity of Alevis with the modern values of the republic. In turn, Alevi communities tended to see in the new republican regime a guarantee of protection against Sunni extremism. However, as in the initial attempts of nation building, the republican image of Turkish identity also had a Sunni Muslim core, which was evident in the composition of the newly formed Diyanet (Religious Affairs Administration) organization as an exclusively Sunni structure. Consequently, instead of rehabilitation, Alevis continued to be rejected as a heretical other and a security threat requiring continued surveillance.

Return of the terror

The Dersim massacre of 1938 shattered the Alevis’ hopes of recognition to a large extent. Reports written in preparation for the state’s operation in Dersim region emphasized the security threat emerging from “the mistaken identification and affinity between Alevis and Kurdishness”. The army’s Dersim expedition resulted in the deaths of around 15,000 Alevi civilians and forced the surviving population into exile. This operation added another dark layer onto the collective trauma of Alevi history.

The state’s focus on Alevis would later be influenced by Turkey’s anti-communist stance in the post-war global order. Alevis were now portrayed as harboring socialist tendencies and hence open to communist infiltration. This forecast would materialize in the 1970s when the “enlightened” workers, civil servants and the youth of Alevi origins participated en masse in the expansion of the leftist movements around the country. The subsequent polarization of society between left and right led to armed conflict with sustained casualties and to nationalist and Islamist provocations against Alevi communities.

A chain of massacres

In December 1978, in the southeastern city of Maraş, members of the Sunni majority attacked the city’s Alevi population, killing 120 and injuring a further 176. Around 200 houses were razed to the ground and 100 businesses were pillaged. In May 1980, the same scenario was staged in the central Anatolian city Çorum with 57 murdered and hundreds injured. The pile of collective trauma thus grew higher.

These massacres were part of the pretext for the 1980 military coup. The military regime’s introduction of “Turk-Islam synthesis” was followed by a new wave of Islamization efforts targeting Alevis, along with the widespread political repression of the left. Later, the emergence of identity politics with the rise of political Islam and the Kurdish movement encouraged Alevis’ political mobilization to pursue their demands for equal citizenship. The Alevi revival of the 1990s particularly sought equal status for Cem Houses – Alevi houses of worship – with Muslim, Jewish and Christian temples. The same decade would also witness two more major massacres.

In Sivas in July 1993 thirty-seven intellectuals – most of whom were Alevi – who were in the city to participate in a cultural event were killed when the hotel they were in was set on fire by a mob of Islamic extremists. While the country watched the inferno on live TV, local police were probably doing the same, since almost none appeared at the incident scene. Erdal  Inönü, the then leader of the social democrat junior coalition partner SHP, tried all day to reach to the minister of interior by telephone and failed. Local military commanders did not get any orders to intervene against the mob. The center-right prime minister of the time Tansu Çiller declared happily in the aftermath of the incident that none of the demonstrators were hurt.

In March 1995, unidentified gunmen opened fire on five cafes in Istanbul’s Gazi district, where the population is mainly Alevi. One person was killed and dozens injured. During the protests that followed police opened fire on the crowd and killed 21 people in Gazi and other Alevi districts of Istanbul.

Trials of the perpetrators of the Gazi attacks and particularly the Sivas massacre proved to be shambles. A number of the lawyers who represented the defendants of the Sivas massacre are today part of the ruling AKP’s upper hierarchy. Trials led to heavy sentences but all of the convicts are currently free after gaining release through taking advantage of gaps in the law.

“X” signifies a lot

The collective memory of Turkey’s Alevi communities consists of these dark layers of trauma. Although in its early years in office the AKP launched an Alevi initiative to open dialogue with the community, it was shelved after some discussion along with the breakdown of the Kurdish rapprochement in 2015. Moreover, the Islamist character of the AKP government resulted in a tangible decrease in the number of Alevi civil servants, particularly among the ranks of the police, military and in the education system.

The majority of those who lost their lives during the Gezi Park protests of 2013 were of Alevi origin, while statements by high ranking government officials including then Prime Minister Erdoğan blaming the Alevis for the Gezi protests can still be heard. This is arguably a strategic discourse aiming to distort and undermine popular challenges against the government by sectarianizing politics. 

Moreover, the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011 was accompanied by an increasing sectarian slant to the AKP’s domestic and foreign policy. The attempts to sectarianize politics occasionally lead President Erdoğan to make statements on the ethnic and religious affiliations of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the opposition CHP whose ancestors were from Dersim. Government discourse on Alevis sometimes reaches to the extremes of hate speech with accusations targeting Alevis, characterizing Cem Houses as places of terror supported by Syria. (See Mehmet Metiner, “Cemevleri Terör Yuvası”, Yeni Şafak, October 2013).

Going back to 1978, “x” marks in red paint appeared on the walls of Alevi houses in the lead up to the Maraş massacre. Alevi houses were also marked in the same manner prior to the Çorum massacre of May 1980. Alevis’ current reaction is therefore primarily that of an offended community, one whose bitter collective memory is evoked, along with the fear of an imminent massacre: a fear built on concrete foundations. Alevis fear to be buried under another dark layer on top of the already deep accumulation of their community’s collective trauma.