Turkey’s Anti-Alevi Politics in the Age of the Islamic State

Alevis are a central part of the Kurdish freedom movement and Turkish leftist and progressive politics.

By Dilar Dirik

Under the authoritarian, sectarian-conservative politics of Turkish President and his AKP party, Turkey has been holding the European Union hostage by instrumentalizing the suffering of Syrian refugees. He continues to fortify his one-man rule with his paranoid war on terror in which he paradoxically lumps the Kurdish movement, the Islamic State group, academics, sections of the military, and his former mentor and collaborator Fethullah Gülen into one monolithic bloc.

Alevi-Kurdish women resist the Turkish stateAlevi-Kurdish women resist the Turkish state’s insidious refugee settlement policies in Terolar. | Photo: Via Kurdish Question

Part of Erdogan’s divisive plan is to pit communities against each other to get rid of any ethnic, religious, ideological, social or political components that might challenge his deeply sectarian neo-Ottoman project is to target the country’s Alevi population.

Since March 2016, the residents of the Alevi-Kurdish villages in Kahramanmaraş or Maraş (Gurgum in Kurdish) have been actively resisting settlement policies of the state. The Turkish state wants to build a Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency, or AFAD, camp around the valley village Terolar – consisting mostly of Sunni Arabs from Syria. While providing a spotless image to the outside world, these infamous state-sponsored refugee camps often provide jihadists with a safe haven for treatment, recruitment, and shelter. Cases of sexual abuse and human trafficking are widely reported. These camps have been widely analyzed as sites where the AKP consciously mobilizes refugees for its own political and ideological agenda. The planned camp in Terolar is supposed to host a population of refugees that is higher than the local population.

The tireless demonstrations of the residents of villages like Terolar and beyond, who sense a dangerous agenda behind this new settlement plan, have been met with police violence for months. In a rather clever measure, the government and its media portray this legitimate resistance as anti-refugee sentiments of the locals, when in reality this is part of a larger project of the AKP to incite community conflicts and impose dramatic demographic changes to Kurdish regions for its economic and political gains by using refugees.

A History of Alevi massacres

In order to meaningfully understand the resistance in Maras, it is important to be aware of the deeply rooted genocidal history of the modern Turkish state against the Alevi-Kurdish community, a legacy that predates Erdogan’s overtly religious-sectarian administration in spite of the secular pretensions of former governments.

The denial and systematic annihilation of those who are not Turkish-and-Sunni constituted a founding pillar of the Turkish nation-state – no matter how much it framed its image in progressive, secular terms. Thus, genocides against the Armenians, Pontic Greeks, Assyrians and Kurds – especially the Yazidis and Alevis among them – were fundamental and even existential to the “modernity” paradigm of this violently imposed, artificial state, which found a different scapegoat for each decade, in coordination with the military, the far-right and Islamist fundamentalists.

While some massacres occurred as state-sponsored lynching campaigns or killings of Alevi individuals, others were planned large-scale ethnic cleansing operations by the state. For decades, “marking” Alevi homes as targets for hateful attacks and the demonization of the Alevi way of life through urban myths, denial, lies, and propaganda was a constant agenda of the state. The systematic erasure and forced Islamization of Alevi thought, culture, history and values which feature ecological, communitarian, anti-authoritarian and often women-centered characteristics is deeply ideologically motivated, as the Alevi philosophy organically embodies an opposition to the authoritarian, capitalist, patriarchal state.

In 1938, the Alevi-Kurdish city of Dersim was ruthlessly bombed, murdering up to 15,000 civilians, after a great uprising of the people, led by Seyît Riza, a respected tribal leader and political figure. Among the combat pilots was nobody other than the republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal’s adopted daughter Sabiha Gökçen, after whom the third largest airport in Turkey is named. Glorifying her as the first female combat pilot in the world and the first female pilot in Turkey is one of many attempts by the state to cover its genocidal measures with the narrative of modernity: a modern Turkish woman bombing the backward Kurds – a perfect modernization story.

One of the largest massacres against the Alevi-Kurds took place in 1978 in Maras, the same place where the state tries to settle Sunni Muslim Arab refugees today. In an already tense political climate full of clashes between left and right, anticipating the infamous 1980 military coup, a violent killing spree swept through Maras, as Alevi homes were attacked, burned, and people were assassinated on the streets. More than 100 people were murdered and for the Alevis it was clear that the state’s counter-guerrilla authorities had provoked the attacks. After this collective trauma, ten thousands of people fled to other parts of Turkey and Europe. Many stopped teaching their children Kurdish out of fear and slowly assimilated themselves as a means of self-preservation.

The post-coup era was marked by many incidents, echoing the big Maras massacre. In 1993, a fascist Islamist lynch mob attacked Madimak Hotel in Sivas, where thinkers, artists, writers, and intellectuals were preparing for an Alevi cultural festival. The Turkish police, at that time secular, watched and in some cases even aided the fascist mob which first threw stones at the hotel before setting it on fire, resulting in 33 Alevis being suffocated or burned alive and many wounded.

The bloody events of the largely Alevi Gazi neighborhood of Istanbul in March 1995 were another episode of murder and violence directed at Alevis, Kurds in general, and leftists, executed by right-wingers and Islamists, sponsored by the state. The police fired blindly into the crowds of people who demonstrated the massacre in Gazi. Attacks, lynchings, markings of homes for targeting, and harassments of Alevis in Gazi continue today.

As this non-exhaustive chronology shows, secular Kemalist militarists, far-right ultra-nationalists and conservative Islamists in Turkey have always set their differences apart and joined forces against those whom they saw as threats to the authoritarian one state, one flag, one nation, one language, one religion doctrine they hold in common, with minor differences. Through his overtly political Islamism, Erdogan has just brought this legacy to a new level, aided by the rise of the Islamic State group.

But there is also a long history of resistance. Alevis are central parts of the Kurdish freedom movement and Turkish leftist and progressive politics. Especially Alevi-Kurdish women, who suffered more than men from these sorts of violent attacks, widely joined the ranks of different political groups, and especially the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, from the beginning. While leading secular politics, the Kurdish freedom movement always stressed the specific historic repression and genocidal policies against groups like the Alevis, Yazidis, and Armenians in Turkey.

Sakine Cansiz, one of the co-founders of the PKK and leading figure of the Kurdish women’s movement who was murdered on Jan. 9, 2013, in Paris along with Fidan Dogan and Leyla Saylemez, was an Alevi-Kurdish woman. Fidan Dogan, also an Alevi-Kurdish woman, was in fact from Maras.

Given this historic context, the legitimate question arises in Maras today as to why the AKP government, which repeatedly claims to have 50 percent of the population on its side, seems to find no place for Sunni refugees in its strongholds, but instead finds it necessary to settle them in the middle of Alevi-Kurdish living areas, which still fall under the shadow of past massacres and traumas.

It is crucial to understand that the rage among Alevis is not directed against the refugees but against the state’s insidious and not so subtle motivations. Residents of Terolar village stress in their demonstrations that their community, which is well acquainted with the meaning of war, displacement, uprooting, and existential threats, stands in solidarity with the Syrian refugees who need a shelter but struggles against the government taking advantage of human misery to yet again impose cultural genocide against the Alevis. They fear that the state attempts to incite religiously motivated conflict by settling Sunni Arab refugees to Alevi Kurdish regions, of all places, and to force the Alevis out of their remaining homes. Considering that the Turkish government received 6 billion Euros from the European Union for refugee relief and the immense amount of resources the state and army pour into the destruction of Kurdish cities resulting in hundreds of civilian massacres, it does not seem that resources, logistics, and economic means are a problem for Erdogan’s calculated refugee settlement policies.

Demographic Change, Capitalist Development and Total War

Within this context, ideological, political, and religious motivations of the state’s anti-Alevi policies appear obvious. However, one cannot understand these developments without considering the long-term political and economic interests of the AKP which it tries to achieve through demographic changes.

Since the summer of 2015, the Turkish state launched an atrocious military campaign on Kurdistan, which not only murdered hundreds of civilians in front of the eyes of the international community, but also systematically destroyed homes, meaningful historical sites and infrastructure. Soon, it became clear that one aim of the state is to create Housing Development Administration (TOKI) buildings in these areas, gentrify them or settle Syrian refugees there, after wiping out the Kurds from these regions. This is especially the case with the Sur district of Amed (Diyarbakir), which is considered as UNESCO world heritage and which has been turned into dust and ashes by the Turkish army, forcing more than twenty thousand people to flee. While physically wiping out the inhabitants of these areas, radical infrastructure re-adjustments and gentrification for tourism impose a second genocidal measure on them by annihilating their culture from the face of earth.

Furthermore, Erdogan has long been hinting at granting Syrian refugees Turkish citizenship to garner support in the region and mobilize potential votes. At the same time, he threatens to strip “terrorist sympathizers,” a description that encompasses a wide spectrum of people including academics, off their citizenship. The aim of this dual move is clear: a vast demographic change hand-in-hand with ambitious capitalist infrastructure projects to economically re-colonize Kurdistan.

Of course pitting refugees against Kurds in general and Alevis in particular is a very sensitive issue that the AKP tries to exploit for its gains. It is easy to accuse anyone of anti-refugee racism who resists these special war tactics when these include refugee camp constructions. Settling Syrian refugees into specific areas and even promising them citizenship is a clever strategy of Erdogan to bribe Europe, increase his popularity with conservative Sunni blocs in the region, and engage in a large-scale cultural and physical genocidal attack on everybody that does not suit his neo-Ottoman narrative – especially people who undermine his marriage between Turkish nationalism and Islamist conservatism.

That is why it is impossible to analyze Turkey’s refugee policies isolated from its total war on Kurdistan as a region and Alevi culture in particular.

Similarly, it is not realistic to treat the physical murder of Kurdish bodies from AKP’s neoliberal economic master plan, combined with his imperial nostalgia. Just like the military laws and governmental decrees that legitimized the militaristic devastation of Dersim in 1938, the military lock-downs and mass-murderous extrajudicial actions in places like Cizre, Nusaybin, Yüksekova, Sur, and Silopi today are continuations of the Turkish synthesis of nationalism, militarism, capitalism, patriarchy and political religion. In the spirit of ISIS, Erdogan is furthering a fatal demographic change in the Middle East by attacking the ancient cultures that embody ecological and women-centered identities and lifestyles. The fact that especially women are on the forefront of the Terolar resistance is illustrative of Alevi-Kurdish women’s attachment to their lands and the ecological values associated with them.

The EU is complicit in this war either through individual states’ arms sales to Turkey, through silence on human rights abuses and fascism despite being well aware, or through future economic investment interests and war games. The so-called “European values” are being sold off in human trafficking and sex slave markets in Turkey, in refugee child labor, in the eternal loss of cultural world heritage, and in the Mediterranean sea, the joint European-Turkish graveyard for thousands of drowned refugees.

The surrender of the plight of the refugees to the same states, institutions, and systems that have caused all these wars is a shame for all believers in freedom, democracy and human rights. But from the perspective of the oppressed, the resistance and self-defense continue.

In the words of Seyit Riza, who led the Alevi-Kurdish rebellion in Dersim and was executed by the state in 1937: “I could not cope with your tricks and lies, this became trouble for me. But, I did not kneel in front of you. May this trouble you.”