Pir Sultan Abdal Statue and Festival

Sivas, 1976

Even though the Turkish nation-state was established constitutionally in line with secular principles, Alevis, who are one of Turkey's largest ethno-religious groups, have been subjected to systemic discrimination and massacres because of their identity. The Turkish state adopted the orthodox Sunni interpretation of Islam as the country's official system of belief on the basis that it had come from the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish state therefore rejected Alevism and all other systems of Islamic belief, as it considered them to be deviations from orthodox Sunni Islam. According to academic studies, Alevis constitute somewhere in the range of 10 percent to 25 percent of the total population of Turkey, which corresponds to between 10 million and 25 million people. The majority of Alevis do not follow the practices of orthodox Sunni Islam in their worship and have an entirely different socio-religious structure and theology from orthodox Sunni Muslims.

The Turkish state, however, considered there to be no ethno-religious difference between the country's Sunni Muslims and Alevis. After the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, Alevis were unable to obtain any collective rights in line with the country's legislation. The first modern massacre of Kurdish Alevis occurred in the Koçgiri region during the Turkish War of Independence led by Mustafa Kemal. After the establishment of the republic, another massacre of Kurdish Alevis occurred in Dersim in 1938. Later, right-wing nationalist, fascist, and Islamist political movements grew disturbed by the politicization of Alevis within the leftist movement in Turkey in the 1960s and 1970s and carried out pogroms against Alevis. Hundreds of Alevis were massacred in Malatya in 1978, Maraş in 1979, and Çorum in 1980, having their homes set alight and the properties plundered. There is a strong belief as well that the state itself organized these massacres. Similar massacres also continued in the following decades, such as the Sivas massacre in 1993 and the Gazi neighborhood riots in Istanbul in 1995. In addition, Sunni Turkish nationalists frequently mark the houses of Alevis with a red X as a threat to this day.

One of the most important symbols of Alevi identity in Turkey is folk poet and opinion leader Pir Sultan Abdal, who lived in Sivas between 1480 and 1550. While his thoughts reflect the principles of the Alevi faith, his life story, according to Alevis, represents the spirit of resistance against tyranny. His poems themselves focus on themes such as human dignity, love, peace, death, and the creator. He has historically been regarded as a dissident figure for his criticism of the Ottoman state's unjust practices, a cause for which he died. The Ottoman governor of Sivas, Hızır Pasha, perceived Pir Sultan Abdal’s resistance and influence as a threat to his own power and this had him hanged.





In 1976, a group of Alevis set out to keep Pir Sultan Abdal alive in the collective memory and so started working within a local association to erect a statue of the figure in the village of Banaz in Sivas. The design of the statue was completed due to Alevis who volunteered for the project and the necessary financial support was secured through social networks. Many people in Banaz as well as students from the surrounding areas contributed to the project in multiple ways. The statue itself is of Pir Sultan Abdal holding a bağlama—a stringed instrument that holds great importance for Alevis—as a symbol of resistance. Following the 1980 coup, the ruling junta shuttered most of the associations in the country. The local association that spearheaded the project was also closed, although it was later reestablished in Ankara in 1986. The events organized by the Pir Sultan Abdal Traditional Cultural Activities association in Banaz, Sivas, to keep his memory alive continued until 1989. Alevis from across the country came to the annual event for solidarity and worship, which also included conferences that focused on current political issues that concerned Alevi identity and the democratization of the country. The event was not only a cultural initiative but also a political attempt to secure state recognition of Alevi identity amid the repressive political system in Turkey, which refused to recognize its existence as a separate ethno-religious identity. In order to organize the events, the association requested financial aid and in-kind assistance from the Sivas Governorate and also received support from state officials.

The statue of Pir Sultan Abdal is one of the first and rare examples to end the ongoing culture of denial and silence regarding Alevi identity. Since the statue is in a rural area, access to the site is not necessarily easy. The Pir Sultan Abdal Festivals, which were held at a time when pressure on the Alevi community was on the rise, had a significant impact in bringing Alevis together in terms of culture, religion, and politics. As for the effectiveness of these remembrance efforts, they attracted very high participation almost every year.

The main challenge posed to the efforts to commemorate Pir Sultan Abdal has been the new human rights abuses that have targeted the Alevi community and secular intellectuals in Turkey. In 1993, hundreds of intellectuals, religious figures who were social representatives, and opinion leaders met with thousands of people, mostly Alevis, in Sivas, as part of the Pir Sultan Abdal Festival. However, under the protection of state law enforcement, conservative Sunni groups formed a mob in Sivas and targeted the intellectuals, writers, and musicians who were in the Madımak Hotel. The crowd gathered in front of the hotel and first protested under the supervision of the police and soldiers. This protest soon turned into a massacre in which 33 intellectuals and artists were killed when the conservative Sunni mob set fire to the hotel where festival attendees were staying in the following hours. The trial of those responsible for the massacre was anything but impartial, as many of those who led the massacre escaped without punishment. Eight of the suspects escaped after their release in 1997, and most of the attackers were ultimately found not guilty. In other words, the demands of recognition from Alevis and their efforts to end the state policy of denial resulted in a campaign of violence and massacre, which police and soldiers deliberately allowed to take place.

The Alevi struggle for rights based on their beliefs and cultural demands has been a constant since the first years of the Republic of Turkey and has been carried out through Alevi associations and various political parties with Alevi membership. They have long reiterated their demands through the political organizations, civil society organizations, and associations in which they are involved. Particularly after the AKP came to power in 2002, a program called the Alevi opening came to the political agenda, yet the state did not take any firm steps to make any progress with the initiative. Having been opened for discussion by political party representatives at various times, Alevi associations also attempted to kept it on the agenda in order to support Alevis' struggle for the recognition of their beliefs and culture and rights thereof. These Alevi associations demanded that cemevis be granted the official status of houses of worship—which would allow them to benefit from the various rights that status affords—that compulsory religion classes be abolished, and that Alevis be ensured of the protection of their lives, beliefs, and culture on the basis of equal citizenship. The associations that made these demands a struggle took action on February 27, 2022, when they announced the Democracy and Secularism Meeting. This action was important as it demonstrated that Alevis' struggle for equal recognition of their faith and culture was a fundamental demand.