Emrah Yildiz (EY): Especially after Gezi and Berkin Elvan’s death, and as you explain in your article titled “Alevizing Gezi,” Okmeydanı, signified by Erdoğan`s Hanafi Sunni regime, security forces, and the overwhelming majority of the domestic media as "Alevi," was transformed into a space for dissident political practices and an open-air execution zone in which state violence was used to silence these practices. What would you like to tell us about the historical relationship that Alevis’ spaces, neighborhoods, villages, and cities have with state violence? In the context of this history of violence, which stretches from Gazi to Gezi, how can we analyze the murder of Uğur Kurt?
Ayfer Karakaya-Stump (AKS): With your permission I’d like to explain this history by beginning not in the 1990s, but a bit earlier: there are three significant turning points we can speak of in the course of state-sanctioned violence against Alevis since the establishment of the multiparty system in the 1950s. Those same years, the 1950s and 1960s, were a time when Alevis who migrated from their villages to the cities entered into urban life as blue-collar workers, encountering and integrating into leftist politics. In the polarized and contentious political environment of the 1970s, as the Alevis began to openly take a place in the ranks of the left, it did not take long for parties on the right to discover sectarianism as a means of politicking. Indeed, during this time we witness the use of the Alevis to successfully demonize leftist ideologies. Over the course of the 1970s, in various Turkish cities where Alevi populations are concentrated, like Çorum, Sivas, and Maraş, nationalist/conservative mobs, with the direct support and/or collusion of state security forces, attacked neighborhoods known for their Alevi and leftist identities and ruthlessly murdered many Alevis who lived in these neighborhoods without regard for women or children.
The 1980 coup is another significant turning point in this regard. In the years that followed the coup, for the first time in the Republican era, the state allocated resources and expended significant efforts to systematically and comprehensively create its own version of the Alevi. These efforts were carried out using a stick-and-carrot logic within the framework of an ideology known as the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis. This project, which foresaw the transformation and integration of (Kurdish) Alevis into mainstream Turkish society by Turkifying them, Islamicizing them in significant proportions, and ultimately depoliticizing them, was at least partially successful. Wherever this project was unsuccessful, the state did not hesitate in resorting to the “stick” part of this “stick-and-carrot” policy. Indeed, the 1993 massacre in Sivas and the 1995 armed attacks on the Gazi neighborhood, inhabited mostly by Kurdish Alevis, should be evaluated in this sense—as some of the most egregious examples of state-based and/or state-supported violence against Alevis in our recent history.
Actually, up until 2011, the AKP’s Alevi policies can be seen as an extension of the state efforts to create its own version of the Alevi that began with the 1980 coup. However, the AKP government shifted the emphasis in the Turk-Islamic synthesis from Turkishness to Islam and foresaw their integration into the Muslim community by reducing Alevism to the rank of a classic Sufi order of Islam. From the Alevi Opening to the publication of Alevi classics by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and finally the mosque-cemevi projects (which apparently fell apart due to the conflict with the Gülen movement), every step the AKP has or has not taken toward the Alevis, in my opinion, can be read as a component of this long-term assimilationist policy.
Certain developments that took place in national and international politics in 2011 and afterwards brought along with them a very serious and visible intensification of the AKP’s anti-Alevi discourse. The most directly relevant of those developments for our purposes are the civil war that began in Syria and the Gezi events that exploded in 2013. During this period, we see Recep Tayyip Erdoğan clinging to his sectarianism card with the sort of recklessness unprecedented in the history of the Republic in order to increase the low levels of public support (around thirty to thirty-five percent) for an interventionist policy in Syria and to discredit the Gezi events in the eyes of his base.
EY: Considering the size of the massacres and the length of the dark and bloody history in which state violence has targeted Alevis, how are the violent policies used against Alevis under Erdoğan`s government different? During the time of Erdoğan`s government, what sort of transformation do you think has taken place between Alevis and the state?
AKS: As I assert in my article “Alevizing Gezi,” the fact that everyone who died during Gezi was an Alevi is not a coincidence; it is the result of a conscious government policy that attempted to Alevize Gezi. In practical terms, it was the result of the police consciously maintaining a high degree of violence in neighborhoods known for their Alevi and leftist identifications and their intentional targeting while using this violence. The government must have expected that, insofar as the Alevis could be held responsible for Gezi, the distance between the conservative Sünni segments of society and the Gezi resistance would widen. In other words, just as right-wing politicians tried to discredit leftism through Alevis in the eyes of the Sunni majority in the 1970s, Tayyip Erdoğan is today trying to discredit Gezi through Alevism. However, while this was being accomplished mostly behind closed doors and on a much more local level in the 1970s, Tayyip Erdoğan is now doing the same thing openly and vocally. With just a few days left until the first anniversary of Gezi, an Alevi citizen who was waiting in the yard of a cemevi in Okmeydanı, an Alevi neighborhood, for the funeral of a relative was shot in the head with real bullets and killed by the police. Subsequent to this event, Erdoğan spoke on television, saying, "I don`t understand how the police can be so patient," thereby explicitly provoking the police against those who live in the neighborhood. In light of our analysis so far, it is quite impossible not to find this murder and the subsequent provocation by the prime minister significant! It is probable that Tayyip Erdoğan perceives as a politically useful tool the presence of an atmosphere of tension and violence—the levels of which could be fine-tuned according to the situation, but which would remain constant—in the Alevi/leftist-identified neighborhoods that strongly supported the Gezi resistance.
When evaluating the police blockades and police violence used in neighborhoods known for their Alevi/leftist identities, it is useful to remember that these neighborhoods are also the targets of the AKP’s gentrification policies in Istanbul, known under the rubric of urban transformation. The neighborhoods in question are at the same time areas that show the most organized resistance against urban transformation, in part thanks to the support of some leftist organizations. Consequently, it would not be far off the mark to imagine that the police violence carried out in these neighborhoods, by means of intimidating residents of the neighborhood, may also have additional goals such as dismantling the resistance to urban transformation and marginalizing leftist organizations, who support the resistance, by associating them with violence.
EY: After Soma, a lot has been said about the relatives left behind by the miners who were killed and about the fact that the perpetrators are evident, and in particular about Elmadere village. Thinking about Alevis and their spaces, you’ve discussed the “Gazafication” of Alevi neighborhoods, especially in city centers. Could you explain for the readers of Jadaliyya this problematique of spatiality and your choice to use this description as a metaphor to approach this problematique?
AKS: As we learned from the media, eleven of the miners who died were from the Alevi village of Elmadere. However, although the authorities visited other localities that had lost people in the Soma catastrophe in order to express their condolences and to get information about the families` needs, they have not gone to Elmadere. It might be surprising to you, but in fact Alevis unfortunately encounter this kind of discrimination quite frequently. The only difference in this case is that it occurred within a large disaster and it was reflected in the press.
My comparison to Gaza was much more about the profiled Alevi neighborhoods in large cities like Istanbul and Ankara. Okmeydanı is a good example of this. In spite of the fact that it is located in the heart of the city, it is like an entirely different world. For a long time, but especially since Gezi, they have virtually been living behind a routinized police blockade. There are frequent protests and small-caliber clashes with the police in these neighborhoods that are not even covered in the local media. The residents of these neighborhoods are not only (Kurdish) Alevis or leftists; at the same time they’re people from the lowest socioeconomic segments of society. A significant difference between these people and the first-generation Alevi families who migrated to Istanbul is that, as a consequence of the privatization and the increasing Islamification of education over the last years, their chances and expectations for social mobilization through education have fallen.
The youth in these neighborhoods, who have been oppressed both because of their ethnic/religious as well as their social identities and who do not have many reasons to be hopeful for the future, are full of anger at the AKP government. They regard the eight young people killed during the Gezi protests as their martyrs. Tayyip Erdoğan’s exclusionary and incendiary language, as well as the police violence that shows no signs of stopping, only serve to increase the anger and hopelessness of these youth. It was these young people who took to the streets and threw stones at police vehicles following the murder of Uğur Kurt. Over the last few days, the organized leftist groups in these “suspect” neighborhoods have begun to more vocally express the need for armed resistance against police violence. These kinds of appeals have up until today not received widespread support among Alevi society, but given the current state of affairs, sad as it may be, it is not difficult to foresee such appeals finding many more supporters, especially among young people.
EY: Where do you think Alevis stand in the political environment of contemporary Turkey? Are they, as expected, still CHP supporters? Do you think it’s possible for the HDP to present serious a political alternative for the Alevis?
AKS: Actually, Alevis are currently in a serious political quagmire. Although they have very significant complaints about the CHP, a large majority of Alevis, around seventy-five to eighty percent, which includes Kurds and Zazas, vote for the CHP because for the Alevis, the CHP is still in the position of being the lesser of two evils. The reason for this is actually quite simple: as a religious minority that has experienced oppression and persecution over the course of history, Alevis see laicism/secularism as an assurance of their continued existence, and in that regard, the CHP is for them still the party that most ardently defends laic/secular values. With the AKP`s top-down policies of conservatism, which become more stifling by the day, as well as the increasingly strong discourse of the Islamic community, the pictures of the people beheaded by jihadists in Syria just because they have different beliefs, have further increased the Alevis` sensitivity on the subject of laicism/secularism over the past few years.
By the way, it is also important to note that, just as there have been Alevis within the Kurdish movement from the beginning, there are also a significant number of Alevis among both the HDP’s politicians as well as its supporters. In spite of this, in the last election, the establishment of the HDP by those who left the BDP did not generate the expected amount of excitement among wide sections of the Alevi society; in fact, there was a decline in support by Alevis for the HDP/BDP line. I believe there are a number of interconnected reasons for this. First and foremost, the HDP was unable to save itself from the impression that, like the BDP, it is a party centered around the Kurdish question. Furthermore, there is a widespread belief that the Kurdish movement is increasingly transforming from a markedly leftist and secular movement into a pragmatic nationalist movement, open to doing business with Islamist Kurds. The emphasis being placed on Islamic brotherhood by both the government and the Kurdish movement during the peace talks with the AKP has generated a deep anxiety and fear among Alevis. As far as I have seen, the Kurdish movement`s effort to present all of this in terms of respect for the beliefs of the people is becoming less and less convincing, even for the Alevis who voted for the HDP.
Looking objectively at the big picture, there is a clear and striking rift between the Alevis` political priorities and preferences and the Kurds` political priorities and preferences, especially since the events of Gezi. We can observe this rift most visibly in the divergent approaches of the two groups to Gezi and to the Syrian civil war. And there is no doubt that, if the Kurdish movement, in an effort not to damage the peace process, decides to support Tayyip Erdoğan in the upcoming presidential election, this rift will only deepen further. This means that the Alevis will continue to be left without any political alternatives and will continue to be bound to the CHP.
[Note: After this conversation took place, a second person killed in Okmeydanı was identified as Ayhan Yılmaz, born in 1972 in Giresun. This interview was first published in Turkish here, and was translated into English by Nicholas Glastonbury.]