31/07/2012

"I Hope There's Not Another Linching Tonight"


Hürriyet daily's Ahmet Hakan probably put it best for all of us by tweeting that simple wish.

Up until yesterday afternoon, I had no idea what had occurred in the villages just outside Malatya in the East. Idly clicking around facebook updates and hum-drum newsfeeds however, I began to suspect there had been some kind of development in the struggle for Turkey's ten million-strong Alevis to gain formal recognition for their religion, or 'belief' depending on where you stand. 

A gathering was taking place. The Alevi facebook groups were rallying their supporters slightly fiestier than usual, with statements such as

"We will go to Taksim, and march against those fascists who ask why we are not fasting and call us 'Infidelous!" 

Well, it looked like I would be going to Taksim. But I still had no idea what had sparked the sudden outburst. And then it all became sorely clear...

The "Ramadan Attack"

It started simply enough. In the village of Sürgü, just outside the Eastern city of Malatya (itself, a town with a vast Alevi demographic), a man with a drum started banging away outside someone's house at four in the morning. 

Was he a madman? A drunk? A Hari Krishna, even? Not at all. During the month of Ramadan, where the observant are advised to get up and have a bite to eat before sunrise, drumming people awake is considered not so much a tradition as a vital service for the community - a spiritual alarm clock with no snooze button. However, those not observing fasting would not quite agree. Cue the Alevi family. 

Alevis do not observe fasting in Ramadan, in line with other Muslim sects, rather they fast for twelve days during the month of Muharram. This information was lost on the village drummer in Sürgü as he had made a habit of stopping directly outside an Alevi family's house beating his drum for the village to hear. A member of the family, went out to request the drummer not beat directly outside there house as they had work in the morning and weren't fasting anyway. I'm not sure how diplomatic anyone not fasting could be to a beating drummer outside their window in the early hours of the morning, but to cut a long story short, an argument broke out. The fight started to involve neighbours, and pretty soon, in the words of Veli Ağbaba the local govenor, “between 300 and 500 people" arrived, some 50 identified as being from surrounding villages. As you can see from the video, fortunately the family were unharmed, but they were terrorised and threatened throughout the morning as "Kurds" and "Alevis". Their barn was burnt down and the windows of their house were smashed repeatedly with stones in what the media are calling "The Ramadan Attack".

No Strangers to Abuse

Alevis experience this kind of thing intermittently, hence why, despite there large numbers, they are extremely secretive about their identities and practises, which are out of step with traditional Islam on both the Sunni and Shi'a side of things. 

They have suffered greatly in the Turkish Republic, which even in its ultra-secularist beginings  sought to assimilate them as a form of cultural centralisation. This was performed at various stages, through education reforms, the emergences of a strictly Sunni identity in the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and the state's incessant refusal to recognise the community as a seperate religious group. 

The latter point is particularly problematic as, despite the presence of foundations operating in their own private buildings, and the fact of ten million tax-paying Alevis in the country, there in no state construction or licencing of their places of worship, or Cemevis. As far as journalist, Ahmet Hakan is concerned, the matter is absurdly simple: Taking the Alevi line of argument he states "they don't called our places of worship 'places of worship'... They have a great big mosque in parliament, but when we wanted a room, they said no". This, at almost no benefit to national unity, as seen by events such as this.

Alevis are thus a group apart in the Turkish state, leading to their strong identification with socialism in the 1970s. This relationship brought them even more enemies and lead to bloodshed in both Kahraman Maraş (1978) and Sivas (1993). Events which remain strong in the minds of millions.

The Solidarity Marches

At eight o' clock last night in Taksim Square, all the usual protest groups were there, the main opposition CHP's youth wing, the Kurdish BDP and the socialist ÖDP, together with Alevis waving flags and symbols of support. As the athaan was called to end the fast, the crowd began chanting and taking to the streets in an atmospheric display. 

However, I noted that the groups amassing were an expected, though none-the-less uneasy collective. For instance, the CHP main opposition leader Kılıçdaroğlu had only last week declared that "Alevism is a belief, it is a part of Islam" - A statement which implies heavily that there would remain no formal recognition of the group under a CHP leadership - which still leaves Alevis out in the cold. But they were there to march anyway. 

"Freedom for Cemevis" - This woman from the Socialist
Worker's Party was not impressed by the opportunism of
the opposition.
ın fact, to any outsider, it looked as though the CHP were leading the protest itself, but I noticed that once they passed, there was a space between them and the rest of those gathered. Darting to the behind, I thus put my concerns to the woman from the Socialist Workers' Party, asking her about the presence of parties with mixed messages. After being kind enough to give me the picture on the right, she told me"they are just here to chant against the government. The CHP are two-faced"

Another man sporting a placard for the pro-Kurdish, Peace and Democracy (BDP) Party, was bluntly polemic, saying nothing more than "I am here, because I am against the AKP". A similar impression was gleaned from the ÖDP socialist students, holding up naffly-translated banners inscribed "Made in AKP", which could have been reserved for any protest. 

Who, I wondered, was here on behalf of the Alevis, let alone the Malatya family themselves? I wondered.

Then, a more humble response, from a man claiming to have tagged along with a CHP friend at the front. When I put it to him that Kılıçdaroğlu's words earlier in the month made it odd for the CHP to take so suddenly to the cause of the Alevis, he simply said, "these kind of things can't be allowed to go on, I'm here to show support for humanity".

In the thick of it were a group of young Alevi men holding up a banner with the familiar silhoette logo of Pir  Sultan Abdal, the legendary founder of the Alevi movement. They were busy raising their hands and chanting "We Are Against Fascism, Shoulder to Shoulder", which sounds alot better in the original Turkish. One of them told me that "Sultan Abdal was a song-writer many years ago, and a symbol of resistance against fascism for us". 

Reading the works and life of Pir Sultan Abdal, one sees an inspiring figure revelling in frustrating the authorities of his day. It is easy to see why Alevis treasure the outsider identity they have had to adjust to. 

For many years they have been throwing stones from the sidelines at the way their culture has been suppressed by the state. However, these stones have bore no relation to the physical stones thrown at defenceless family homes in the East. To many from the Alevi community, these events are a reminder that recognition is the key to genuine tolerance in today's Turkey, and may be the only way to provide peace of mind that the Sivas and Maraş will not be repeated.

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