Although the Turkish nation-state was established according to secular principles on a constitutional basis, ethno-religious groups like the Alevis in Turkey have nevertheless been subjected to systematic discrimination and massacres because of their identity. Beginning with the Ottoman Empire, only Sunni interpretations of Islam were considered authentic; Sunni Islam remained the official religion of the state, while others were rejected as deviations and even associated with schisms and apostasy. Estimates of the population of Alevis in Turkey range from 10 to 25 percent in academic studies, and Turkey is home to both Kurdish and Turkish Alevis. A majority of Alevi communities do not follow orthodox Islamic practices for praying, and Alevi communities have a distinct social organization based on their religious belief structure. After the establishment of the Republic, Alevi communities were granted no collective rights by the state, which meant they were treated as having no ethno-religious differences from other Sunni Muslim populations in Turkey. The first massacre that targeted Alevi Kurds was the Dersim Massacre in 1938. Later, during the 1960s-70s, the politicization of Alevi communities within the Turkish leftist movement angered right-wingers, ultra-nationalists and Islamists, who cooperated in carrying out pogroms of Alevis in the late 1970s. Malatya in 1978, Maraş in 1979, and Çorum in 1980 witnessed the murder of hundreds of Alevis, the torching of hundreds of homes, and lootings committed by ultranationalists and reactionaries. These are now believed to have been organized by the state. Such massacres continued in the following decades and included the Sivas Massacre (1993) and the Gazi incidents in Istanbul (1995).
The influential poet Pir Sultan Abdal has been one of the most important symbols of Alevi identity in Turkey. His thoughts are considered to reflect the tenets of Alevi faith, while his life is believed to represent the spirit of resistance against domination. Pir Sultan Abdal lived in Sivas from 1480 to 1550 and wrote verses on themes such as human dignity, love, peace, death and God. He was also an opposition figure who criticized the unjust policies of the Ottoman Empire. His influence and the extent of his resistance to imperial methods of administration angered the Ottoman state official Hızır Pasha, and ultimately led to his execution.
Scope and Purpose
In 1976 a group of Alevis, organized in a local association, decided to erect a statue of Pir Sultan Abdal on a mountain in his village of Banaz in order to keep the poet alive in collective memory. After resolving design-related issues with the help of Alevi volunteers, social networks were used to raise funds for the project, mainly among the Alevi community. A majority of villagers in Banaz and students from nearby towns demonstrated their support for the project through direct participation and by contributing to all necessary tasks. The monument was designed as Pir Sultan Abdal holding a traditional Alevi musical instrument in a manner symbolizing the resistance. In 1980, the military junta closed down the association that initiated this project; nevertheless, the Association of Pir Sultan Abdal was re-established in Ankara in 1986. A few years later, a cultural festival called the “Pir Sultan Abdal Traditional Cultural Activities” began in the village of Banaz, and has continued since 1989. At this annual festival, Alevis come together in solidarity to worship, perform traditional folk dances, and also to discuss political issues in conferences related to the Alevi question and democratization. The festival is not just a cultural event, but has also functioned as a political tool for asserting Alevi identity and seeking recognition from a political regime that refuses to recognize the Alevis’ distinct ethno-religious identity. The association also asked for financial aid and contributions in kind from the Sivas Governorship, which was granted by the state authorities.
The Pir Sultan Abdal statue was a rare and early memorial effort that aimed to break through the culture of silence and denial surrounding Alevi identity. Nevertheless, since this monument is located in a rural area, it is difficult to access. On the other hand, the cultural festival dedicated to Pir Sultan Abdal has had a significant impact in bringing Alevi communities together on cultural, religious and political grounds in a political climate in which the pressures on Alevi communities has been increasing. The number of participants in these annual meetings has always been significant, an indication of the impact of the project.
The main challenge to the memorialization projects around Pir Sultan Abdal has been renewed human rights violations targeting Alevi communities and secular-minded intellectuals in Turkey. In 1993, hundreds of intellectuals, prominent community figures, and opinion leaders came together in Sivas with tens of thousands of Alevis for the annual Pir Sultan Abdal Festival. Reactionaries in Sivas organized a violent campaign, under the protection of state security forces, and targeted intellectuals, writers and musicians who were staying at the Madimak Hotel. The crowd gathered in front of the hotel, organized a protest, and then set a fire in which 33 intellectuals and musicians lost their lives. The trail of those responsible for this incident ended unsatisfactorily; no leading figures were tried, eight perpetrators were allowed to flee in 1997, and most of the remaining perpetrators were acquitted. In other words, claims for recognition and attempts to counter denial were met with a violent reaction, during which police officers and the gendarmerie deliberately failed to protect the victims.