Muslim Victims of Islamist Violence in Turkey

On July 2, 2007, tens of thousands of people gathered in the Turkish city of Sivas.  They came to commemorate 37 victims of a massacre in the town.  The atrocity occurred only fourteen years ago.  

On July 2, 1993, after Friday prayers in the local Sunni mosques, a mob of at least 15,000 Islamic fundamentalists spent eight hours besieging a cultural festival that had mainly attracted members of the Alevi community, a minority of some 18 million, or 25 percent of Turkey's population.  Alevis follow a religious way in which traditional Turkish culture, Shia Islam, and Sufism (Islamic spirituality), are fused.

The Sunni extremists surrounded the Hotel Madimak, where the festival was held.   They called for the dominance of sharia law and denounced the Alevis as unbelievers. Then the fundamentalists set fire to the building.  They had been incited to this act of terror because of the presence at the festival of Aziz Nesin, a popular Turkish writer who was translating The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.  Mr. Nesin escaped the flames and died two years later.

The demonstrators this month assembled in front of the Hotel Madimak and read out the names of the victims, with the rest of the crowd affirming "She/he lives!"   Some held photographs of the slain.  

But along with grief, pride shone from the faces of the protestors in Sivas in 2007, even though the city is known as a fundamentalist nexus in the central Anatolian region of Turkey.  A demand was inscribed on banners: that a museum be erected for the victims of 1993. The site of the massacre should be a place of memory and warning.  Many people came for the memorial demonstration from the main Turkish cities, such as Ankara or Istanbul, but there were also participants from Western Europe, where Alevi organizations have reached a high level of activity.

The constant remembrance of the Sivas victims, although heavy to bear and criticized by some, not only invokes condemnation of Islamic fundamentalism, but also embodies an aspiration for the kind of tolerant and humanistic society needed in Turkey.  The Alevi movement refuses to forget the dead, and adds a promise to achieve condemnation of the crime and the conviction of those who committed it.   A failure to recognize the Sivas atrocity, among those in Turkey who know about it, makes them complicit in it.  "Even some Alevis would rather forget," said Hasan Özer, a technical chemist from Moers in the German Rhineland, and a participant in the 2007 ceremony.  "They think that constant commemoration reopens the wound again and again, and stokes the flames of conflict between Alevis and Sunnis."

The fundamentalists believed the victims of Sivas died as decadent atheists.  Many who encircled the hotel in 1993 and applauded when the fire was set had accepted what they were told by fundamentalist agitators: that the hotel was filled with enemies of Islam who should be punished.

Hasan Özer continued, "Sadly a lot of people, include those who applauded the flames, do not condemn the massacre; rather, they strangely express happiness about it."   To them, there was no crime; the Sunni bigots see themselves as victims of Turkish secularism, and of a world that is unpredictable.  Sivas is an allegory of desperate, patriarchal Sunnism, afraid of change, and seeking violently to protect its established lifestyle, including its traditions, conventions, and customs.

In 1993, the Sivas rioters showed clearly that in the world-outlook of Islamic fundamentalism, there is no place for dissidents.  Dogma, fear of God, repression, superstition, and hate form the mental equipment of the self-proclaimed keeper of faith.  Love, humanism, and tolerance are foreign to their vocabulary.

But even the Turkish state has taken a disgraceful position on Sivas.  The state was helpless; its police could not break up the mob.  How could that be in a country where the police are so feared?  In Sivas, the Turkish secular state bowed to fundamentalism.  Today Alevis and secular Sunnis are united in defending the secular state against "creeping fundamentalism" in Turkey - a phenomenon visible for some time now.  Remembering the victims of Sivas is part of this struggle. 

"The memorials must go on," Hasan Özer said.  "Because the residents of Sivas shake their heads or ignore us when they see us."

Most of the friends and relatives of Hasan Özer warned him not to go to Sivas on July 2, but he insisted on doing so.  Internally, he felt compelled to raise the flag for humanism and not to allow the victims to be forgotten.  The event was a success.  Two pro-Alevi TV channels operating in the freedom of Germany, Su-TV and Düzgün-TV, comment frequently on Sivas, and they invited people to attend the 2007 event.   These TV channels are a thorn in someone´s side.   The Alevis who went to Sivas took a generator with them to watch a live discussion on Su-TV.  They were wise to do so; as soon as they arrived and were observed by the Turkish local police, their power was cut off.

Ali Sirin is a leader of the Alevi community in Germany. Translation by Hasan Canoglu for the Center for Islamic Pluralism. See a musical festival produced by German Alevis on CIPTV
On July 2, 2007, tens of thousands of people gathered in the Turkish city of Sivas.  They came to commemorate 37 victims of a massacre in the town.  The atrocity occurred only fourteen years ago.  

On July 2, 1993, after Friday prayers in the local Sunni mosques, a mob of at least 15,000 Islamic fundamentalists spent eight hours besieging a cultural festival that had mainly attracted members of the Alevi community, a minority of some 18 million, or 25 percent of Turkey's population.  Alevis follow a religious way in which traditional Turkish culture, Shia Islam, and Sufism (Islamic spirituality), are fused.

The Sunni extremists surrounded the Hotel Madimak, where the festival was held.   They called for the dominance of sharia law and denounced the Alevis as unbelievers. Then the fundamentalists set fire to the building.  They had been incited to this act of terror because of the presence at the festival of Aziz Nesin, a popular Turkish writer who was translating The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.  Mr. Nesin escaped the flames and died two years later.

The demonstrators this month assembled in front of the Hotel Madimak and read out the names of the victims, with the rest of the crowd affirming "She/he lives!"   Some held photographs of the slain.  

But along with grief, pride shone from the faces of the protestors in Sivas in 2007, even though the city is known as a fundamentalist nexus in the central Anatolian region of Turkey.  A demand was inscribed on banners: that a museum be erected for the victims of 1993. The site of the massacre should be a place of memory and warning.  Many people came for the memorial demonstration from the main Turkish cities, such as Ankara or Istanbul, but there were also participants from Western Europe, where Alevi organizations have reached a high level of activity.

The constant remembrance of the Sivas victims, although heavy to bear and criticized by some, not only invokes condemnation of Islamic fundamentalism, but also embodies an aspiration for the kind of tolerant and humanistic society needed in Turkey.  The Alevi movement refuses to forget the dead, and adds a promise to achieve condemnation of the crime and the conviction of those who committed it.   A failure to recognize the Sivas atrocity, among those in Turkey who know about it, makes them complicit in it.  "Even some Alevis would rather forget," said Hasan Özer, a technical chemist from Moers in the German Rhineland, and a participant in the 2007 ceremony.  "They think that constant commemoration reopens the wound again and again, and stokes the flames of conflict between Alevis and Sunnis."

The fundamentalists believed the victims of Sivas died as decadent atheists.  Many who encircled the hotel in 1993 and applauded when the fire was set had accepted what they were told by fundamentalist agitators: that the hotel was filled with enemies of Islam who should be punished.

Hasan Özer continued, "Sadly a lot of people, include those who applauded the flames, do not condemn the massacre; rather, they strangely express happiness about it."   To them, there was no crime; the Sunni bigots see themselves as victims of Turkish secularism, and of a world that is unpredictable.  Sivas is an allegory of desperate, patriarchal Sunnism, afraid of change, and seeking violently to protect its established lifestyle, including its traditions, conventions, and customs.

In 1993, the Sivas rioters showed clearly that in the world-outlook of Islamic fundamentalism, there is no place for dissidents.  Dogma, fear of God, repression, superstition, and hate form the mental equipment of the self-proclaimed keeper of faith.  Love, humanism, and tolerance are foreign to their vocabulary.

But even the Turkish state has taken a disgraceful position on Sivas.  The state was helpless; its police could not break up the mob.  How could that be in a country where the police are so feared?  In Sivas, the Turkish secular state bowed to fundamentalism.  Today Alevis and secular Sunnis are united in defending the secular state against "creeping fundamentalism" in Turkey - a phenomenon visible for some time now.  Remembering the victims of Sivas is part of this struggle. 

"The memorials must go on," Hasan Özer said.  "Because the residents of Sivas shake their heads or ignore us when they see us."

Most of the friends and relatives of Hasan Özer warned him not to go to Sivas on July 2, but he insisted on doing so.  Internally, he felt compelled to raise the flag for humanism and not to allow the victims to be forgotten.  The event was a success.  Two pro-Alevi TV channels operating in the freedom of Germany, Su-TV and Düzgün-TV, comment frequently on Sivas, and they invited people to attend the 2007 event.   These TV channels are a thorn in someone´s side.   The Alevis who went to Sivas took a generator with them to watch a live discussion on Su-TV.  They were wise to do so; as soon as they arrived and were observed by the Turkish local police, their power was cut off.

Ali Sirin is a leader of the Alevi community in Germany. Translation by Hasan Canoglu for the Center for Islamic Pluralism. See a musical festival produced by German Alevis on CIPTV