Alevis and their religious rights

Alevis and their religious rights

I knew two of them rather closely in person. Behçet Aysan was a gifted poet, while Asaf Koçak was a cartoonist with a style. We were of the same generation; I had the chance to contribute to the publishing of a number of examples of their productions in the “Yarın-Tomorrow” magazine, in which I used to contribute as an editor in my younger years.

I learned that both Behçet and Asaf were among the 35 people killed in a hotel fire in Sivas, central Turkey, 20 years ago, while I was in a hotel lobby in Saint Germain, Paris, as I was getting prepared to fly back to Ankara after a journalistic trip.

They were in Sivas for festivities in the name of Pir Sultan Abdal, who is believed to have been hanged during a popular uprising in the 16th century by the Ottoman rulers of Turkey, during a major war with the Safavid rulers of Iran. Pir Sultan is accepted as not only one of the masters of Turkish language and popular poetry, (the Oriental version of the troubadour tradition in the Occident), but also as one of the holy saints of the Alevi faith in Anatolia. The Safavid Shah, Ismail, was of Turkish origin, too, but of a different sect of then-Ottoman Sultan; “Yavuz” Sultan Selim belonged to the Sunni branch of Islam, while Shah Ismail belonged to its Shiite sect.

Alevis were in between. The Alevi faith leans closer to Shiism then Sunnism, while it also has traces of ancient faith. The community’s prayers and religious practices are formally different than both the Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam and conducted in the Turkish language, not in Arabic, as is the case in of both the Sunni and Shiite versions of Islam. When the Alevis, mostly of Turkmen origin from Central Asia, decided to side with the shah in the 16th century, the sultan did not spare them his toughness on the way to his victory over the shah in 1514. Partly because of this, Selim received the nickname “Yavuz (the tough one) and that is why Alevis today are upset that the third bridge across the Bosphorus was named after him by the Turkish government.

When a group of Alevis and a number of writers, singers and intellectuals –mostly Alevis – gathered in Sivas 20 years ago, there were those, mostly Sunnis from the right wing and religious parties, that gathered there too to stop them from holding the Pir Sultan Abdal Festival. Their hotel, called the Madımak, was besieged by protesters, and when a fire was started by arsonists, the crowd prevented firefighters from reaching the building in time. Meanwhile, the coalition government of the time did not act promptly to mobilize police and the gendarmerie, which should have acted upon their own initiative anyway, and the result was that 35 people were killed, including Behçet and Asaf.

Millions of Alevis in Turkey still have their problems today. The Tayyip Erdoğan government has been talking about a “second Alevi opening” after the failure of the first one two years ago, while Turkey is getting prepared for local (and then presidential) elections in 2014. But the government does not recognize the Alevi faith as a separate to the Sunni version of Islam. The state-run Religious Affairs Directorate says it is only a “culture,” so it refuses to fund their religious places and leaders, called “dedes,” not “imams.” Their places of worship, called “cemevis” are not recognized as a place of worship like mosques, churches or synagogues; the Diyanet says mosques should be the places of worship for all Muslims. But the Diyanet is run by taxes that Alevis pay too, and they want their share of religious freedoms.

Now might be a proper time to start debating the issue, on the 20th anniversary of the Sivas tragedy.