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[OPINION] Alevis remain Turkey’s most vulnerable victims of state repression

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The Turkish capital of Ankara witnessed four attacks on Alevi houses of worship (cemevis) and foundations last weekend. Lawyer Hüsniye Şimşek, representing the Alevi foundations, says the chronology of the attacks indicates that the raids were “organized and planned beforehand.” Turkish police, however, maintain that a single, mentally unstable person was responsible for carrying out the attacks, dismissing the possibility of a planned and coordinated attack.

According to the Turkish police, the attacks on Saturday were perpetrated by 24-year-old Ahmet Ozan K. from the city of İzmir, on the Ana Fatma Cemevi, the Şah-ı Merdan Cemevi, the Gökçebel Village Association and the Türkmen Alevi Bektaşi Foundation, which are all located in different neighborhoods around Ankara. According to Deutsche Welle’s Turkish edition, the attacks took place within the span of 45 minutes, raising the question of how one person alone could have carried out these attacks in this short time span. While the police maintain that the attacks were committed by the same person, several Alevi leaders and opposition figures claim that the Turkish authorities are in fact responsible for the attacks and that it is a plot by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to sow the seeds of hatred among different groups in Turkey in the hope of creating a chaotic environment that will provide a better chance of winning the 2023 elections. Polls indicate that public support for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is declining.

Democratic Alevis Association (DAD) Co-Chair Musa blamed Erdoğan’s AKP for the attacks. According to the Turkish Haberdar news website he is reported to have said: “The attacks on the cemevis were not a coincidence. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu and President Erdoğan are threats to society. These attacks show how they [want to] drag Alevis into chaos as elections loom. This was not just a one-day attack or an attack by some [good-for-nothings], but the fact that the incidents happened in five different locations at the same time means that the [Turkish state] planned a project of chaos [against Alevis].” Kulu warned that the recent attacks were not isolated incidents and implored intellectuals, writers and Turks who love their country to oppose these attacks against Alevis before fascism takes Turkey hostage.

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Ankara deputy Gamze Taşcıer, who visited the Alevi associations targeted in the attacks, also expressed his doubts. According to Turkish Minute, he said: “Nearly 10 hours elapsed between the first attack and the time he [the attacker] was caught. There is negligence here, but it’s the Interior Ministry that should investigate it.” Following the attacks, several Alevi federations and associations held protests against the government in Ankara’s Mamak district. The CHP and deputies from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) together with numerous civil society organizations supported the Alevi protests.

Attacks against Alevis have increased in recent years, and HDP lawmaker Ali Kenanoğlu submitted a parliamentary question addressing Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu in October 2020 regarding the kind of legal proceedings the ministry has run against the perpetrators of the 36 publicly known hate crime incidents that were committed against Alevis during the last eight years.

Alevis are historically the largest religious minority group in Turkey, and they are known to meet religious obligations and hold ceremonies not in mosques but in cemevis (a house or a place of gathering). Alevis make up as much as 20 percent of Turkey’s 85 million population. Turkey is a majority Sunni country, and millions of the religious, conservative masses view Alevis as apostates. Turkey’s religious authority the Diyanet does not recognize cemevis as places of worship. As a result, mosques have civil servant imams and enjoy government subsidies for their electricity and water bills, but cemevis struggle to pay high utility bills as they fall under the status of “commercial users” and don’t have government-paid clerics like Sunnis do.

The Alevis’ situation in Turkey has worsened since the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011. Turkish Alevis historically and culturally have strong ties to Syrian Alawites. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad belongs to the Alawite sect, and Turkey’s city of Hatay, bordering Syria, is home to a large number of Alawites who have family ties with Alawites living in Syria. CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has been opposing Erdoğan’s support for opposition rebels groups against Assad, and CHP deputies visited Assad to maintain relations with the Syrian government in the early years of the conflict, since many CHP lawmakers and voters are known to be Alevis. Turkish Alevis, who are mainly supporters of the left and the pro-Kurdish HDP, oppose the AKP’s support for Syrian Sunni groups. Turkey is host to more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees who are mainly Syrian Sunnis, fueling anger and fear over Turkish Alevis, who are closer to Syrian Alawites. Alevis have feared that the violence in Syria could spill over into Turkey since a bomb attack in Turkey’s Reyhanlı town, bordering Syria, killed 53 civilians in 2013.

Alevis rioted several times against the Ottoman Empire starting in the 15th century, and they were persecuted many times for sympathizing with Safavids, the dynasty responsible for converting Iran to Shia Islam. The Alevi faith is a branch of Shia Islam, and massacres committed by the Turkish state against the Alevi sect continued during the new Turkish Republic era, with tens of thousands of Alevis killed in 1937 following the Dersim (Tunceli) rebellion. Thousands of Alevis were killed in the Maraş Massacre of 1978, the Çorum Massacre of 1980 and the Sivas Massacre of 1993.

Turkish President Erdoğan launched the “Alevi initiative” in 2009 to implement reforms and grant the sect religious rights. The initiative notwithstanding, the Alevis remain a religious minority group that has been one of the most negatively affected by the AKP’s authoritarianism since 2011. The sect has become increasingly vulnerable to all kinds of attacks in today’s toxic environment fueled by the religious-ethnic tension that has been on the rise as the 2023 general elections approach.

The attacks on Alevis in Ankara coincided with the first day of the Islamic month of Muharram, considered sacred by the Alevi community as it marks the month in which the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein, was killed during the Battle of Karbala in 680. Alevis live in fear in many parts of Turkey, where their houses have been marked with paint to identify them in recent years. Not only have Erdoğan’s Islamist AKP and its ultra-nationalist ally the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) done too little to protect this minority, but they have become active parts of the problem, creating an environment of chaos and danger to the Alevi community.

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