Erdogan’s Negative Comments Unite Turkish Alevis

Selahattin Ozel, the head of a Turkish Alevi federation, comments on the marginalization of Alevis in Turkish society and their current role in the Turkish-Kurdish peace process.

Topics covered

bashar al-assad, alevis, alawites

May 9, 2013

On Saturday [May 4], almost all Alevi organizations in Turkey convened in Kayseri, setting aside long-standing disputes and differences on what the priorities should be in their demands from the state. The discussions focused on the Kurdish peace process, the crisis in Syria and how those developments affect the Alevis in Turkey. Selahattin Ozel, the much-respected head of the Alevi-Bektashi Federation and a participant in the meeting, answered our questions about the Kurdish settlement process and the reasons behind the newly found Alevi “togetherness.”

RadikalAll Alevi associations and federations came together in Kayseri to discuss the settlement process. Was this a one-off event?

Ozel:  No. We have been able to come together for some time. The rhetoric against us has been so ostracizing that it made us abandon the mentality of factionalism. In the meantime, those Alevi groups which catered to personal interests or were set up with tacit state sponsorship were exposed and so were their agendas. They were weeded out.

In our community, there is always debate; we have a culture of debate. Certainly we have not dropped this trait. But we have joined forces on fundamental issues such as the demand for the Madimak Hotel to become a museum [in memory of scores of Alevi intellectuals who were burnt alive there by an Islamist mob in 1993], the status of the cemevis [Alevi houses of worship] and the scope and practices of the Religious Affairs Directorate. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, too, has contributed a lot in bringing us together.

Radikal:  How come?

Ozel:  Erdogan’s rhetoric and policies on the Alevis keep us united and vigorous. His rhetoric on the Alevis has been very divisive, very ostracizing. Thanks to his attitude, we came to realize how untimely our petty arguments are, that we are in fact struggling for our survival and thus we closed ranks. During rallies at the time of the referendum [in 2010], the prime minister got all Alevis booed in the person of [main opposition leader Kemal] Kilicdaroglu. What else were we supposed to do but to close ranks?

Radikal:  It is certainly not the first time in Republican history that you hear ostracizing rhetoric?

Ozel:  You are so right. We’ve had plenty of it — both from the right and the left. We’ve been through the times of [former Prime Ministers] Tansu Ciller and Mesut Yilmaz. But never before have Alevis been fingered as a target in such a systematic way. It is systematic because it is part of a political strategy. That’s why we cannot downplay any remark against the Alevis in the current period as a slip of the tongue or a gaffe. Every word uttered is meant for a purpose. We now clearly understand that.

Radikal:  And what is that purpose?

Ozel:  An effort is underway to build a Sunni bloc in the Middle East. Turkey is meant to be the leader of that bloc. Is there a place for us, the Alevis, in this picture? Not any that we can see at the moment. So, our struggle has become a struggle of survival, and thus I am able to say that we are now acting in full unity. Have you noticed that Turkey would never react to certain atrocities in Iraq? When you take a closer look, you see the victims are Shiite or Alawite. Sad to say, but few would shed tears for you in these lands if you are not a Sunni.

Radikal:  How do Turkey’s Alevis see the Syria problem?

Ozel:  Even posing this question to us is absurd. We are Alevis. All our identity is about peace, our religion is about peace. If people are dying somewhere, we stand up without looking at the identity of neither the murderer nor the victim. We support neither [Syrian leader Bashar al-] Assad nor the formation called the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The conflict, however, is having a direct impact on our Nusayri [Alawite] people in Hatay [at the Syrian border]. Not only because they have relatives in Syria. They have begun to face mistreatment only for being Nusayris. They are very scared of the FSA. For some reason media outlets always forget this aspect when they bring up problems related to the Syrian crisis.

Let me also point out that 90% of Turkey’s Alevis were unaware that Assad was an Alawite until this war broke out. We learned this later. Or rather, all of Turkey was specifically told about Assad’s faith while it was being told about his evils. But Assad did not become an Alawite when he started the war, did he? He was already an Alawite when he had close relations with Turkey or when he hosted the Fenerbahce football team. But we didn’t know it then. As soon as his dictatorial side came to the fore, they remembered he was an Alawite. It has been so forever.

Radikal:  What has been so forever?

Ozel:  The deliberate effort to associate Alevism with evil. At the time of the Susurluk scandal, for instance, did they call [state-linked hit man] Abdullah Catli a Hanafi Sunni? No. Did they call [parliament member] Sedat Bucak a Shafi Kurd? No. But how did they present Huseyin Kocadag? An Alevi police chief! The same goes for the recent rhetoric on the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Radikal:  In what sense?

Ozel:  They say there is a faction within the PKK which is against a settlement and favors war. They say this faction is comprised of Alevis. That is, the Alevis are the ones who want war. If those people are purged from the PKK, everything will be easier. It takes a very determined effort to constantly associate war with a faith which is all about peace and fraternity. And to give our state its due credit, I recognize it always kept up that effort!

From my personal point of view, I also see a link between the rhetoric about Alevis within the PKK and the murders [of three PKK women] in Paris. I do not represent the state and have no intelligence sources, but I guess I am allowed to piece together the facts and come up with some ideas. The murders in Paris happened [on Jan. 9, 2012] shortly after some newspapers began to circulate the story about a hawkish Alevi faction within the PKK. The three women killed in Paris were all Alevis. This looks suspicious.

Radikal:  Where do the Alevi organizations stand in the settlement process? We fail to understand.

Ozel:  They are present everywhere in the process, but it seems we have failed to explain ourselves. I am truly baffled. Even before the process had started, when no one dared to speak out, we were on the ground — in Diyarbakir, in Roboski [Uludere]. … We had put together a delegation months ago to go to the PKK and receive the captives it was holding. We got no response to our proposal. Then the direction of the wind changed. The PKK decided to free the captives. Not a single Alevi representative was present in the delegation that brought the captives home. The [Kurdish] Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) could have included an Alevi in the delegation to acknowledge the efforts we had made up until that point, but they did not. It should not have been that way.

Radikal:  Is it true that Alevis have grown angry with the Kurdish political movement?

Ozel:  Not angry, but disgruntled. It is out of the question for us to endorse the rhetoric of Islamic union in the letter PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan sent on Newroz Day. We have suffered for decades due to the rhetoric of Turkish-Islamic union. Now it becomes a Kurdish-Turkish-Islamic union. And what falls to our share will be again trouble. We had expected that the Kurdish political movement, as a representative of people who have long suffered from discrimination, would set a common denominator more inclusive than just an “Islamic union.” But they did not.

Radikal:  But Ocalan as well as [senior PKK members] Murat Karayilan, Zubeyir Aydar, Remzi Kartal and many others sought to mend fences and said that you misunderstood.

Ozel:  True. But that’s not enough to instantly mend our broken hearts. We will see in time how committed they are to being pluralistic and inclusive. We still have memories like the one of Idris-i Bitlisi [a Kurdish leader who sided with Ottoman rulers in Alevi massacres in the 16th century]. Now those memories combine with the new rhetoric and we can’t help but worry.

Radikal:  The Kurds counter that they have for years defended the rights of Alevis, but Alevis now mistrust them, fixated on just one word.

Ozel:  This is an argument we simply cannot accept. No! The Kurdish movement naturally struggled for the rights of the Kurds. I don’t see what they have done specifically for the situation and the rights of the Alevis. I have no idea. The Madimak massacre was followed by the massacre in Basbaglar, which was perpetrated by the PKK. If this is how the Kurdish movement defends Alevi rights, it is something we have never asked for. No, thanks. We do not belong anywhere where there is bloodshed and war. We would never resort to such means to win our rights and no one should do so on our behalf. I’m speaking about the basic principles here. My words should not be taken as an opposition to the peace process.

Radikal:  So, you mean the Alevi organizations will be helping in the peace process?

Ozel:  We have always suggested to help, but no one cares about our opinion. The prime minister should have asked that we select the Alevi leader for the list of “Wise Men” [promoting the peace process]. Instead, he picked one of his own choice, Izzettin Dogan. Fine. We are preoccupied with this process in all sincerity. We are certainly willing to share our ideas. The whole country agrees that the bloodshed should stop. The divergence stems from the question of whether this conflict-free phase will evolve into democracy or not. We would like to share our views on that. Yesterday, I got a call from the BDP’s Sebahat Tuncel, who extended a conference invitation [to the four big conferences Ocalan has suggested]. We will consider this invitation.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Ezgi Basaran