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Eighteen years after the 'merry holy war'

HDN | 7/5/2011 12:00:00 AM | Burak Bekdil - burak.bekdil@huriyet.com.tr

On July 2, 1993, a group of artists, writers and musicians, most of them Alevis, gathered to celebrate the 16th-century poet Pir Sultan Abdal.

On July 2, 1993, a group of artists, writers and musicians, most of them Alevis, gathered to celebrate the 16th-century poet Pir Sultan Abdal. Famous humor writer Aziz Nesin, who had translated and published extracts from Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses,” was among the intellectuals assembled at a hotel in Sivas, a Central Anatolian city run by a mayor from the Welfare Party, or RP. On July 2, 1993, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was RP’s chairman for Istanbul. On the same day, thousands of devout Sunni Muslims gathered outside the hotel after their Friday prayers. The RP’s mayor, Temel Karamollaoğulları, had wished “his Muslim brothers a merry holy war.” The group surrounded the hotel, shouting “Death to the infidel!” and threatening the assembled artists with a lynching.

They set alight the hotel, and the fire claimed 35 lives, including those of musicians, poets, tourists and hotel staff, while the police merely gazed at the scene with empty looks. Mr. Nesin was able to escape only because the attackers initially failed to recognize him. According to reports, when rescuers eventually realized his identity, he was beaten by firemen while a city councilman, Cafer Özçakmak, also RP, shouted, “This is the devil we really should have killed.” These were the events known as the Sivas Massacre.

After the events, Sivas’s police chief, Doğukan Önder, proudly announced that he had “kissed the beards of the heroes [arsonists] dozens of times.” As always, there was the lighter side of the tragedy. Tansu Çiller, prime minister at the time, said that she was happy “because the crowd outside the hotel [the arsonists] was unharmed.” And Süleyman Demirel, then president, was relieved because “those inside and outside the hotel did not clash.” The president forgot that people burning to death usually don’t possess any power to clash.

At the weekend, scores of protestors flocked to Sivas to commemorate the dead in front of the infamous Madımak Hotel despite an edict from the governor’s office banning a march. Gov. Ali Kolat said that legal proceedings would be initiated against people who protest in front of the hotel. In other words, it would constitute an offence if some people peacefully protested the Sivas Massacre in front of the hotel where it took place. The state was simply telling the protestors to protest somewhere else, ideally in front of the Republican People’s Party headquarters, or the Israeli Embassy in Ankara…

Apparently, Gov. Kolat was afraid of “provocation.” This thinking requires some honest deliberation. Eighteen years after the massacre who, really, would have been “provoked” if the commemorators of the massacre peacefully marched to the hotel and left flowers there, made speeches or took out placards to protest? The ugly truth is that the governor was right when he suspected that locals in Sivas could have been “provoked.” Because the massacre had not been committed by a dozen radical Islamists. On July 2, 1993, there were thousands of “Muslims” in front of Madimak too keen to burn the infidels alive, including the city’s democratically elected mayor. And after 18 years, there are probably more arson enthusiasts if some “corrupted Muslims” or “infidels” dared to visit the site where a bunch of corrupted Muslims and infidels had been killed.

It is a first-class lie that the pious Turks in 2011 are more mature and liberal in the face of provocative manifestation than they were in 1993. Doing what Mr. Nesin did in 1993 – publishing “The Satanic Verses” – is a practical impossibility in the year 2011. Turkey would have been a much less safe place for Mr. Nesin if he were alive today. The truth is, there are no longer Madımak incidents not because the pious Muslim Turk has adopted a less violent mindset, but because there are no longer gatherings like Madımak.

If this is not convincing enough, get a few copies of “The Satanic Verses” and exhibit them in Sivas or any other Anatolian city. But remember to buy an expensive life insurance policy before you do so.

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