Alevi-Kurdish writer Solgun: Alevi-Sunni division going deeper, open to exploitation

Cafer Solgun (Photo: Today's Zaman)

June 24, 2012, Sunday/ 12:59:00

Cafer Solgun, an intellectual of Alevi-Kurdish origin, has said for Monday Talk that the Alevi-Sunni division is getting deeper in the country's highly polarized environment, but this serious development, which could lead to serious conflict, has been ignored.

“If you don't meet the demands of Alevis, who continue to see themselves as victims, nobody can guarantee that they will not be manipulated again by some dark forces to destabilize the country,” he said.

Solgun's Yüzleşme Derneği (Confrontation Society) last week held a press conference dissecting the Alevi issue once again and asking that the cemevi, the Alevi house of worship, be recognized and that the Religious Affairs Directorate be abolished.

For our interview, Solgun answered questions regarding why the government's Alevi initiative has failed and if there are still things to do to solve the problem.

‘This issue has the potential to produce instability in the country; remember the bloody events of the past, including manipulation of both Sunnis and Alevis to pit them against each other. It is well known today that those events were used to prepare the grounds for military coups in Turkey. Now, if you don't meet the demands of Alevis, who continue to see themselves as victims, nobody can guarantee that they will not be manipulated again by some dark forces to destabilize the country’

You have positively evaluated this government's initiative to solve the Alevi issue with the intention of solving it. But it has not been successful. What are the dynamics behind this failure?

It was especially important that this government, which sees Islam as a point of reference with a Sunni emphasis, took up the Alevi issue because Alevis and the Sunni Muslims generally are perceived to take opposite sides on issues. The Alevi society, in my opinion, has been manipulated to be against the AK Party [Justice and Development Party], and a large number of Alevis support the opposition CHP [Republican People's Party]. Starting in 2009, there have been seven workshops organized by the government and attended by several leaders from Alevi associations.

Those workshops have been criticized by some Alevis who said that the Alevi associations that have been invited do not represent the whole of the Alevi community in Turkey. What is your opinion about this?

I think the Alevi community has been represented. All domestic Alevi organizations were invited to the first Alevi workshop; only Alevi organizations outside of Turkey were not invited. After the first workshop, some of the Alevi organizations protested the initiative and did not take part in the rest of the workshops. There is no doubt that the Alevi organizations should have participated in those workshops because it was a first in Turkish political history in which the government asked Alevis about their problems and demands. Even though there was no real solution to the problems by the end of the workshops, there was a legitimate arena to voice our demands. However, there was something very wrong.

What was it?

There were many Islamic theologians, especially in the last meeting, including past and present theologians from the Religious Affairs Directorate, who were invited by the government as if they were there to assert that Alevis' demands were not acceptable according to the Sunni interpretation of Islam. In the end, it was a disappointment -- a real surprise for us that the final report of the Alevi workshops highlighted the directorate's priorities. The mutual demands of the Alevi organizations have been ignored. There was an implication in the final report that if cemevis [Alevi houses of worship] were recognized, the Sunnis would be greatly disturbed although this is not true; maybe only a marginal group would be really disturbed. The whole Alevi initiative started with good faith, but it was far from meeting the expectations.

‘CHP not interested in solving Alevis' problems’

Would you elaborate on the reasons why?

No government official has given an answer to that question, so I can only express my own opinions.

By the way, did any opposition parties ask the ruling party this question?

No, they did not.

Are there Alevi members of Parliament from the AK Party?

In past AK Party governments, there were a few Alevi deputies in Parliament. In the current AK party government, there is only one, İbrahim Yiğit, who is an İstanbul deputy. It is indicative of the AK Party's position that it does not care much about the Alevi issues anymore.

Other parties?

There are none whom we can point to as Alevi deputies since they are not known specifically for their Alevi background.

What is the situation in the CHP, the party that Alevis vote for overwhelmingly?

Before the elections, as far as I know, leaders from at least 15 Alevi organizations applied to be candidates from the CHP; however, none of them were selected as candidates by CHP officials. The CHP has not been very interested in Alevi candidates. There are about 10-15 Alevi deputies from the CHP in Parliament, and their family roots are Alevi, but they are not known for their Alevi identities. The same goes for CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. His roots are Alevi, but he is not very interested in the Alevi issue. Neither the CHP nor Kılıçdaroğlu have had initiatives in Parliament to meet the demands of Alevis.

Back to the issue of reasons why the government's Alevi initiative ended unsuccessfully, what would be your comment?

One reason is that the AK Party leadership probably believed that no matter what they do, the Alevis would not vote for them, so they've given up on it. This is not a good reason because it is a political decision. However, the Alevi issue should be handled with sensitivity beyond politics because we are talking about demands for equal citizenship rights. It should not matter to the government who those people vote for. This issue has the potential to produce instability in the country; remember the bloody events of the past, including manipulations that managed to play Sunnis and Alevis off against each other. It is well known today that those events were used to prepare the grounds for military coups in Turkey. Now, if you don't meet the demands of Alevis who continue to live in a state of mind which says they are the victim, nobody can guarantee that they will not be manipulated again by some dark forces to destabilize the country. I am not trying to impose any bad scenarios, but unfortunately there have been some developments in that regard.

‘Alevis think if there is no CHP, Sunnis will cut them’

Do you mean marking the homes of some Alevis?

In Adıyaman, Erzincan and Didim and in some European cities, the homes of Alevis were marked, and there were even slogans like “Death to Alevis.” The interior minister made a statement about this, saying that this was the job of some youth. This shows how serious he is about the issue. Representatives from a number of civil society organizations went to Adıyaman to push the authorities to conduct an investigation, but the provincial government was not serious about it either. The Alevi-Sunni division is growing deeper in the country's highly polarized environment, but continues to be ignored. It is also a fact that Sunnis have a lot of prejudices and misperceptions about Alevis. The most prominent ones are that Alevism is a deviant sect, the cemevi is a house of entertainment and food cooked by Alevis cannot be eaten.

After CHP's Onur Öymen made that infamous remark depicting the massacre in the Alevi town of Tunceli in 1937 as an anti-terror campaign, Alevis, who were taken for granted as strong supporters of the main opposition CHP, have started to question their loyalty. What is your opinion about this issue?

The Alevi issue in Turkey is a very complicated issue. To this day, Alevis have not been recognized. Yes, there are cemevis, but they are not recognized. In addition, most of the Alevis have been seen as the guardians of a system that does not recognize them. In the past, the Alevis were part of the masses that served to the further polarization of the country; they carried the banner: “Turkey is secular, and it will remain secular.” However, this system, which is claimed to be secular, does not recognize Alevis! Take the Dersim massacre. Of course Mustafa Kemal Atatürk knew what was going to happen in Dersim from start to end. The regime at the time was responsible for the massacre. I also asked why Alevis display posters of Atatütk in cemevis, houses of worship. This is just wrong. But when I said this I was criticized by some Alevi organizations that were undoubtedly being manipulated with regard to this issue.

It's always been curious why Alevis still support the CHP.

Following Öymen's remarks, there have been mass resignations from the CHP. In Tunceli, first CHP members of the city council resigned, and then other CHP members in Tunceli resigned. A short while after Öymen's appalling remarks, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu took over Deniz Baykal's old seat by fait accompli in the wake of the video scandal that rocked the party. Kılıçdaroğlu suddenly found himself leading the party due to an “operation” that was conducted to prevent Alevis' from splitting from the CHP, and it was successful. Alevis have always thought that the CHP is the party of the regime, the system. Alevis also believed that if there was no CHP, the Sunnis would massacre them. Alevis' interest in the CHP is built upon fear. Even though Kılıçdaroğlu enjoyed large support from Alevis, he did not produce any plans for a solution to the Alevi problem because it is the CHP that has been the real cause of the Alevi problem.

‘Alevi issue has potential to surpass Kurdish problem’

You stress that the Alevi issue is as important to solve as the Kurdish issue, and it is even a heavier issue than the Kurdish problem. Would you elaborate on this idea?

Yes, because it is about beliefs, worship, values and ethics; in other words, it is about an intimate, religious issue. There is also a deep historical background to the Alevi issue. As I said before, the Alevi issue carries the potential to lead to deep divides. Taking a few steps -- giving legal status to cemevis, abolishing the Religious Affairs Directorate, etc. -- would not solve the Alevi issue, either. There needs to be a lot of work done to eliminate prejudice in society. It is the state, the government that can do this -- open the way to change the environment of prejudices and divides. [Recep] Tayyip Erdoğan is a leader who can change the agenda of the country. Unfortunately, the government thinks that they are content with the voter support they have, and therefore they are not interested in solving the Alevi issue.

But you still seem hopeful despite the odds.

I don't want to lose hope. All political parties in Parliament should realize the importance of this issue and be ready to take steps with an approach above politics. Of course, we demand it from the ruling party, which is the strongest party. They can at least debate giving autonomous status to the Religious Affairs Directorate, which is supported by taxes from the citizens of this country. And for my part, I do not renounce my rights in that regard [will have claims against directorate members in the divine court, when they face each other to clear mutual accounts in the presence of God]. All of this could be debated by Parliament's Constitutional Reconciliation Commission, which has started to write the first draft of Turkey's new constitution.


‘Alevis' suspicion of gov't grows even more’

What do the Alevis in general feel regarding the government's abandonment of the Alevi issue?

There has already been an existing chilliness toward the AK Party, and after the abandonment of the Alevi initiative, this has turned into complete distrust. This distrust has also been leading to Alevi suspicions regarding the Sunni majority. The issue has been boiling deep inside. A lot of Alevis also think that the role of the military is not prominent in Turkish politics anymore, and they feel further vulnerable. They are asking: What is going to happen to us? They are quite pessimistic. They don't know where to go in regards to voicing their legitimate demands.

What is your opinion about the possibility of new coup plots in Turkey? Do you think the military's influence in politics and its guardianship role are over?

I know the state very well since I have spent time in its prisons, and I was tortured in those prisons. I've learned much about the state mentality. It is obvious today that there is no possibility of a coup in the short-term. However, we have not passed laws to ensure that the current situation will be sustainable. There is still no plan to put the General Staff under the Ministry of Defense. In addition, the budget of the Defense Ministry is still the highest among all ministries; plus, the budget of the General Staff cannot be inspected by the civilian authorities. Therefore, the situation today, which seems positive in regards to the civilian-military relationship, is not guaranteed in the law. This is a complex issue. The guardianship role of the military over Turkey's regime is still strong. In military academies, cadets are still taught about how important they are in guarding the system. The government will be faulted if they think that they are safe due to the Ergenekon trials. The government is strong now, and possibly they will win the next elections too, but nobody knows how long that will last. If government officials are real democrats, they should think that their strength will last only until the next elections; then the public will decide what to do.


‘Religious Affairs Directorate should be abolished’

Your organization demands the removal of the Religious Affairs Directorate. Why?

The most basic, the most elementary description of secularism is the separation of religious and state affairs. The directorate, a state institution, employs more than 100,000 people. Its budget is greater than five ministries in Turkey. And it is responsible for propaganda for the Hanefi school within Sunni Islam. Leave aside all other issues, the presence of this huge state institution proves that there is no secularism in Turkey. The state should not be a part of this issue of belief and religion. The only thing that the state should do is ensure that there is freedom of religion and that nobody imposes his or her own beliefs on others. Unfortunately, only some Alevi organizations -- others say that they should also be allocated a budget from the directorate and they should have a presence in the Religious Affairs Directorate -- defend the removal of the Religious Affairs Directorate even though Sunni people should also be bothered and worried by the presence of the directorate, which has been a tool of the regime and the government. This is not appropriate for an institution that is supposed to serve people to meet their religious needs.


‘Madımak issue not handled well’

A hotel, Madımak, in which more than 30 Alevis were burned to death on July 2, 1993, at the hands of a fanatic religious mob was nationalized by court order in 2010. But this was not what the Alevi community wanted, right?

Obviously, the state has the power to expropriate the hotel and the shish kebab house underneath. But the Alevi organizations wanted something else -- a museum. Actually, it did not have to be a museum, but there could have been a memorial to commemorate our loss. We could have a written statement there saying that some forces tried to pit Alevis and Sunnis against each other here, but we won't fall prey to this game; we accept each other as we are and can live in brotherhood. It is beyond my imagination why the issue has been deadlocked.


[PROFILE] Cafer Solgun

He is the chairman of the Yüzleşme Derneği (Confrontation Society), which advocates a re-writing of republican history and a return of honor to people unjustly convicted of crimes committed by state-related organs. He is also among the founders of the Munzur Intellectuals and Artists Platform (MASAP), established in 2005 to protect the cultural and natural values of Dersim, officially known today as the province of Tunceli. Solgun's parents were about six and seven years old at the time of the 1937 and 1938 killings in Dersim, where many locals were massacred. Solgun, who was imprisoned for a total of 17-and-a-half years for his political views, has written books of short stories. He was 15 years old when he was first arrested and tortured. His latest book, "Gayriresmi Cumhuriyet/Türkiye'nin Resmi İdeolojiyle İmtihanı" (Unofficial Republic/Turkey's Test with the Official Ideology) came out in 2012 from TİMAŞ. Last year, he had “Alevilerin Kemalizm'le İmtihanı” (Alevis' Test with Kemalism), which questions the relationship between Alevis and Kemalism.

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