by Ali Uyanik – March 6, 2013
A crisis began in the southeast Turkish province of Malatya last summer, 2012. In the town of Surgu, more than 50 people gathered in front of the home of a mixed family of Alevi and Sunni Muslims; they were yelling, “Death to Alevis! Death to Kurds!”
Alevis, who include ethnic Turks and Kurds, are a religious minority of about 20 million people, or a quarter of the Turkish census of 80 million both in the country and abroad, especially in Germany and the Netherlands. Alevis are heterodox believers whose ceremonies combine pre-Islamic elements with Shia Islam and spiritual Sufism.
“We are afraid,” said the Alevi family’s father, Servet Evli, aged 33. “We no longer feel safe after what happened in Surgu. Because of the constant harassment, my wife and children have gone to Istanbul, and I cannot leave my property.”
The AKP inherited, from the secular republic, a fear of “others.” These are defined as non-Turks and non-Sunni Muslims. Conspiracy theories against minorities, always dangerous, have become the motives and themes of the state. Unsurprisingly, anti-Jewish prejudice is also now widespread in Turkey.
On the domestic front, Turkey is unstable. The Kurdish problem remains unresolved. Kurdish regions in the east lag behind the western parts of the country in economic development. Unemployment in the eastern provinces is high. Many people seek a new life in the cities. Because of Turkish-Kurdish enmity, the debate over Turks and Kurds has invaded the western towns. Many innocents continue to be killed in fighting between the government and the radical Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK].
The murder of the Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in January 2007 exemplified the feverish atmosphere in Turkey. When a young man shot Dink, some media and nationalist circles immediately condemned the murdered Turkish Armenian. The argument over genocide of the Armenians at the end of the 19th and first decades of the 20th century remains taboo. A serious discussion of our history continues to be delayed.
Population expulsions still take place in Turkey. In the Alevi area of Dersim, as well as elsewhere in the southeast, new dam construction means people must leave their historic villages. In the Batman region of the Turkish southeast, the ancient city of Hasankeyf will be flooded to build a dam. Experts have criticized the Hasankeyf dam project for loss of a cultural heritage location. Yet the Turkish authorities insist it must be completed as an element of their vision of modernization.
The ruling Justice and Development Party [AKP] may present itself as reforming and “moderate” within an Islamist context. But its critics claim its policies are unfriendly to democracy. Turkey now has more than 70 journalists in prison. The numbers of minors and school pupils kept in pretrial detention waiting for a court judgment is very high. They involve more than 2,000 trials and 4,000 investigations. According to the journalist Ahmet Sik, author of the “underground” book The Imam’s Army, the Turkish police has been infiltrated by the Islamist disciples of the preacher Fethullah Gulen during the past two decades. Sik was arrested and released but faces more legal prosecution for his opinions criticizing Islamists.
Since 2002, the Islamist AKP has limited the influence of the secularist military in society. A major blow was struck by the Islamists in 2009 when, for the first time, two retired generals, Sener Eruygur and Hursit Tolon, were dragged into court and charged with trying to overthrow the government. While the AKP’s opponents claim the party wants to dismantle the military and erect an Islamic state, president Abdullah Gul replies that “democratic reforms since 2002” affecting the army are a concession aimed at satisfying the European Union’s conditions for Turkish membership.
In 2008 military, judicial, political, and journalistic professionals were accused in court of belonging to “Ergenekon,” a purported secret terrorist conspiracy. Their ostensible aim was to create social disorder, hysteria, and fear in the population, by assassinations that would destabilize the state. The military “plotters” were accused of attempting to renew the legitimacy of the army, to repeat its past interventions in politics, and to again impose security and order. Plans in 2006 for a military revolt, entitled “Sarikiz” (Beautiful) and “Ayisigi” (Moonlight), were produced. The Ergenekon trials served to test the powers of the AKP versus the military. It was viewed as an attempt by AKP to get rid of its establishment critics.
While the secular republic pursued a policy of “Turkish Islam,” the AKP aims at a 100 percent Sunni Turkish society. Its political images portray the AKP as uniting Islam and the idea of the Turkish nation in a new order. Once the secularists — and before them the Young Turks at the end of the Ottoman empire — dreamed of a homogenized Turkish identity. Although the AKP proclaimed an opening to the Alevis and promised to investigate atrocities against the Alevis in the 1930s, it does not represent Alevi interests. Instead, Erdogan insults Alevis and their prayer houses, and Alevis are excluded from state resources. Since 1923, national and religious minorities have been classified by the political elite as dangerous for the nation. Fears of the minorities are repeatedly injected into politics. Conspiracy theorists see the minorities in Turkey as agents of foreign powers intending to bring chaos to Turkey. The increasing suppression of dissent is alarming.
The upheaval in Surgu began at the end of July 2012. Sunni Muslims were observing their fasting month, Ramadan. Conforming to tradition in various Islamic societies, a drummer went through Surgu before daybreak to wake up the believers in time for a meal prior to sunrise, when the Ramadan ritual of abstinence begins. Most Alevis do not fast at Ramadan.
The Evli family considered the drums a form of noise pollution. Being mainly Alevi (their mother is Sunni), they told the drummer it was unnecessary to disturb them at their house: as Alevis, they would not be participating in the Ramadan fast. An argument started; insults were exchanged. The drummer circled through Surgu, recounting the controversy. As gossip made its further rounds, an irate crowd appeared at the Evli house. Rocks were thrown, windows broken, and a stable was burned down. The Evli family remained shut in the house for hours. “Every one of us was afraid of dying on that awful evening,” Servet Evli recalled. “My sister told Yol TV [a local broadcaster] about the incident. We thank them for reporting about the situation in Surgu days later.”
District police and the national gendarmerie drove the thugs away from the house. The Alevi community in Turkey and in Western Europe protested against the aggression, and supported the Evli family. Turkish politicians and Alevi community representatives visited the victims. The national gendarmerie patrolled at the house for more than 40 days to assure the security of the family. But although the confrontation seems to have cooled, hatred is still being directed at the Evlis.
“We got away easily,” Servet Evli declares. “We could have been lynched or our house set afire. Then all that would remain would be another location for people to leave roses and mourning displays.”
Despite short-term relief, a permanent anxiety remains. “Since the incident, we feel great pressure against us in our small town,” Evli continues. “People shun us, some out of fear, some out of hate. Here everybody knows everybody.”
They are now outcasts. The family lives by farming, but today nobody will buy their produce. “The village mayor came to us and said it would be better for us to leave because our security could not be guaranteed,” Evli said. “We could have received a payment to move to the nearest other city, but I was against it. We did not want to leave because the mob would then have gotten what it wanted: to expel minorities and dissenters.”
According to Evli, “we cannot buy anything in Surgu anymore. The storekeepers have listed us as banned from their shops.” The Evlis buy what they need in other towns. But the father of the family is not intimidated. He wants to send a message by staying in Surgu: that the Alevis cannot simply be chased away, even if they are an irritant to the religious Sunnis. Evli, who travels frequently to the city of Dogansehir 16 kilometres (nine miles) away, is barred from service by local collective taxis. Evli comments, “The drivers do not let me into their vans, because they calculate that if they do, other passengers will refuse to use their cabs.” The mother of the Ramadan drummer reported Evli to the public prosecutor for threatening her, supposedly, at her home. “Luckily, I could prove I was in Istanbul then, and therefore escaped repression,” Evli notes. As if exclusion and isolation were not enough, Servet Evli has been accused additionally of slander. “I must fight against defamation, my statements are denounced as lies. If the worst happens, 14 years in jail await me.”
There are times when Servet Evli has no idea what to do next, but he thinks of the coming winter and the means he will need for his large family to survive it. His wife’s relatives, although Sunni, have helped them. “They shake their heads about the situation,” Servet observes. “All I want is justice. What happened last summer has disturbed me deeply. The people with whom I lived very well avoid me; some even joined the mob.”
Politicians in the area try to ameliorate the problem, Evli argues. They told the Malatya province governor, Ulvi Saran, that the case was an isolated one. Yet the “isolated case” became a widely-discussed episode in Turkey, symptomatic of the Alevi situation.
Turkey is living in a bright, new world – or so we are told. Longing for social homogeneity is considerable and has grown since the foundation of the secular republic in 1923. But with the electoral success of the Islamist, Shariah-oriented, and conservative Justice and Development Party in 2002, a political, cultural, and economic change has taken place. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as prime minister since 2003, and Abdullah Gul, confirmed as president in 2007, hold the most important political-representative positions in the country for AKP.
The decisive factor for the success of the AKP was its pragmatic Islamist political strategy. Claiming to represent rural Anatolia, the AKP defeated the secularist elite successfully. Above all, the AKP gained quick victories at the municipal level. Domestic policy and foreign affairs positions seemed to bind the AKP to a free-market outlook.
But the Turkish dream, of a better, fairer, and more peaceful society, collapsed.
In response to what was once called “the Arab Spring,” Turkey failed with a wished-for “zero problem” approach, as relations with Syria, Iran, and Iraq went sour. Turkey failed to become, as Erdogan had promised, a great regional power.
Although the Turkish economy may continue growing, too many people contend with poverty. A third bridge, uniting Asia and Europe, is planned across the strait of the Bosporus in Istanbul; property values are rising on the main boulevards; gentrification proceeds; the property market has a major place in the economy – but may prove a bubble that will burst. Poor residents are pushed out of their neighborhoods. The tenants are expelled, to facilitate the resale or rental of their flats and houses at a higher rate. The Tarlabasi neighborhood of Istanbul, which houses numerous internal and foreign migrants, is marked by forced changes in population. The urban management officials are anything but democratic in dealing with the residents of this part of the city. Sulukule, another Istanbul neighborhood, and among the oldest continuous Roma (Gypsy) settlements in the world, is expelling the Roma.
Alevis as well have not benefited from the rise of the AKP. A distinct Alevi religious identity is denied. Social stigma and discrimination continue to be suffered by the Alevis in the AKP era. Alevi “cem” [meeting houses] are not recognized as sacred sites; in school curricula, Alevi belief is a marginal topic.
The official Turkish state office for religious affairs – the Diyanet – enjoys, after the military, the second largest share of the national budget. But the Alevis do not gain from it. Under the religious agenda, the Alevis are unambiguously the biggest losers. Thanks to the AKP, every three days a new mosque is constructed in Turkey, which already has 81,000 mosques. Religion has been restored to a prominent public place. Even Taksim Square in Istanbul, considered a “secular” location, is to include a mosque.
No promises made to the Alevis are kept. Such is the bright new world brought by the AKP.