* Fourth of a Six Part Series: Tolerance and Intolerance in the Islamic World, held at the Palais des Nations during the Durban Review Conference. All members of the Panel are Practicing Muslims.

Alevis are a religious, sub-ethnic and cultural community in Turkey, numbering in the tens of millions. Alevism is considered one of the many sects of Islam. However, Alevi worship takes place in assembly houses rather than mosques. The ceremony, âyîn-i cem or simply cem, features music and dance which symbolize the main planets revolving around the Sun (with men and women turning in circles), the liberation from ego, and unity with God. Unlike most other Muslim practices, Alevi rituals are conducted mostly in Turkish, and some in Kurdish.

In contrast to Sunni as well as to the Shia Muslim orthodoxy Anatolian Alevis do not accept shariah, the Islamic judicial system for religious and worldly problems. In addition, Alevis call for a renunciation of violence and equality of women and men in their communities, which differs significantly from the teaching of Sunni Islam in Turkey and Shia Islam in Iran.

There was suppression and violence against the Alevis under the Ottoman empire, however, I will deal, because of the lack of time, mainly with the massacre in Sivas, Turkey, in 1993. But before I begin to talk about Sivas, I will say something about the rumors.

“Mum söndü,” which means, “the candle is extinguished,” is an Alevi principle, expressed in their religious meetings and their ritual sexual practices. Once these and other rumors were used as pretexts to crush the Alevis, who in Anatolia exercised a major influence on the population during the period when the Bektashi Sufis were a pillar of the state. Sunni rulers felt threatened by the power of the Bektashis and after the spread of rumors, there were pogroms and killings which have not ceased today. Even now, although 20 million Alevis live in Turkey, they are not accepted as an independent confessional community. The Alevis are regularly denounced as devil worshippers and classified as “sects,” so that they are deprived of state subsidies. The Turkish state promotes Sunni Islam from the Turkish budget and pursues a religious ministry, because Sunni Islam is the Turkish state religion. By this non-acceptance of the Alevis, and the construction of Sunni mosques in Alevi villages, the Turkish regime obviously intends to reeducate the Alevis as Sunnis, which amounts to an attempt to destroy the Alevis as a whole.

Now, about the Sivas massacre. The 2nd of July 1993 has become a synonym for the inhuman face of the state.

This date reveals the weakness of democracy in Turkey. To honor the poet Pir Sultan Abdal, poets, authors and publishers gathered in a hotel in the city of Sivas . Best known among them was Aziz Nesin, an author and satirist who criticized Islam and the Koran publicly in Sivas and described a large part of the Turkish population as stupid. Religious circles were stirred up by religious fanatics. A mob of up to 20,000 people assembled before the Madimak hotel.

There is a video of the massacre of Sivas which was taken by police who only stood and watched, refusing to stop the mob. It is many hours long. They did not intervene, and they fired no warning shots. The state has appeared as an accomplice. This is an impression which increased in the months after the massacre. None of the perpetrators was arrested. The Islamists put on trial showed neither remorse nor compassion for the families of the victims. They grinned at the cameras and made statements supporting the action. Only three years later the Refah party, to which many of them belonged, became the government party.

The martyrdom of several hours was broadcasted live on TV. Thousands of Sunnis appeared before the Madimak hotel in Sivas. They said that for generations, Alevis have been unbelievers and heretics. The Sunnis declared, with “fists heavenward in God’s name, we say we have had enough of you.” They had just come from the Friday prayer.

The Alevis in the burning hotel had a choice: die in the flames or jump into the mob. The police and fire department intervened hours later—why, is unknown today.

Before the Alevi festival was held pamphlets were distributed throughout the city to the Sunni public. Sunnis were summoned to denounce and demonize Aziz Nesin and other participants in the festival, which were providing alleged Quranic citations supporting violence.

The dominance of the Sunni clerics, their values, norms, and behavior patterns in Sivas made this distortion of their frame of reference possible, justifying, for them, violence on the pretext of religious differences, against alleged enemies of Islam as defined by small, personal cliques and groups.

After Friday prayers and the assembly of fanatics in front of the hotel they shouted “Turkey is Muslim!,” “We want shariah!,” “The Republic was established here and here it will be crushed!” Turkish media treated the victims as culprits. The chief columnists of the biggest newspapers held Aziz Nesin responsible as a provocateur and exculpated the murderers.

The killers are still free. Many of them now live in Germany. The Turkish state speaks of a sad incident. Many Turkish officials would be pleased if the massacre were forgotten. But Alevis do not forget. They demand justice—an investigation of the massacre and a museum honoring the 35 dead victims. The Sivas massacre remains in Alevi minds and souls. The graves of the Sivas victims in Ankara and Karsiyaka were desecrated in November 2007 and a commemorative wall was destroyed. This act of destruction showed that the memory of the victims has not vanished.

Remembrance of Sivas is criticized by the state. They say it promotes hatred among Alevis. The memory of Sivas is an important condition for Alevis and Sunnis to live together in peace. A peaceful community existence cannot be based on forgetting. Today the Alevis continue to demand the erection of a memorial at Sivas.

Veli Sirin is a graduate of Islamic studies of the University of Bochum. He is a leader in the Alevi Youth Movement, a journalist and German Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism.

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