A Massacre as a Turning Point

In July 1993, Islamic fundamentalists stormed and torched a hotel in Sivas, Eastern Turkey, killing 37 Alevis. This event marked a turning point in Alevi identity. Steve Zwick about Alevis in Turkey and Germany and about inter-Islamic rifts and tensions.

photo: AP
Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law and nephew

​​They came from across Europe: thousands of expatriate Turks, members of the Alevi faith. They gathered last Wednesday at the burned-out shell of the hotel in the Anatolian village.

Only 33 men were ever convicted of leading the attack, and all were sentenced to prison terms of 7.5 years to life. But the massacre and the low number of convictions had an unintended effect: it galvanized Alevis who'd migrated to Europe – especially the 700,000 or so living in Germany – where images of the 37 "Sivas Martyrs" became fixtures on the walls of Alevi Culture Centers.

Protection and asylum for terrorists

In late 2001, an Alevi lawyer in Germany named Seydi Koparan received a fax from Turkey. It was a newspaper article, and it contained shocking news: at least three of the Sivas convicts were living in his adopted country. He contacted Lale Akgün, a Turkish-born member of the German Parliament. She recalls her reaction:

"I tought, 'That can't be true; it can't be true – on the one hand we're fighting terrorism, and on the other hand we're offering terrorists protection here? That can't be true.'"

Akgün – who is not an Alevi herself, but a member of Turkey's majority Sunni population – was able to confirm that nine of the convicted felons were, indeed, living in Germany. Two had even been granted asylum – although that status has since been revoked. To date, however, only one of the nine convicts has been extradited to Turkey.

Muslims accused of unbelieving

Earlier this year, authorities in southern Germany found that fundamentalists had been distributing literature accusing all Alevis of apostasy, or of turning away from Islam – a high crime under Islamic law.

On June 28, at one of several rallies across Europe in the month leading up to July 2 – Koparan urged Alevis to campaign against what he calls "false tolerance".

"Because of a false tolerance, or naïveté, the German public has gone into a state of denial regarding the dangers of fundamentalism, and Islamists are given free reign", Koparan says.

"That's why it is from this land that the attacks in New York were planned and coordinated, as well as the attacks in Djerba, and other examples we all know of, but which I won't pain you with. It is our task to make the general public aware of the dangers of religious fanaticism. And it is for this reason that we gather to commemorate the
victims of Sivas.

"He's right", Akgün agrees. "We have to proceed with diligence, and we can't let Germany become a safe haven for terrorists."

Germany as a base for Islamic terrorists

"And they are not acting in isolation", Akgün asserts. "I'm convinced that the Sivas attack wasn't a case of a mob getting whipped into a spontaneous frenzy, but that it was planned. We now know that some of the attackers had taken vacation time from their jobs in Germany to be in Sivas on this day. We cannot close our eyes to the fact that terrorists – Islamic terrorists – are acting from Germany to carry out attacks in other countries."

Alevis are also part of Islam, but while most Turks are Sunni, Alevis are Shiites – meaning they follow the path laid down by the Prophet Mohammed's son-in-law, Ali.

But it is Alevism's disregard for Islamic law – or Sharia – that incurs the wrath of fundamentalists.

Alevis preach that edicts and decisions Mohammed made after becoming an administrator and warrior are not inspired verse, and can thus be ignored.

The true core of Islam

That means no five daily prayers, no separate worship for men and women, no facing Mecca, and even no mosques. Instead, Alevis pray in a circle, facing each other, in what is known as a "Gem House".

In place of Islamic Law they follow a 40-step process for achieving the mystic sense of oneness that Mohammed himself preached in the Koran's early verses, which they say is the true core of Islam.

But Alevis also preach forgiveness – which some say makes the campaign to extradite the Sivas convicts hypocritical. Koparan denies that.

"We don't want to propagate hatred, or to promote an adversarial relationship between Alevis and Sunnis. Rather, we want to ensure that the tension of hatred is forever banished into the past by making sure we don't take it lightly in the present. We are working to promote peace,
friendship, and tolerance."

Akgün sees the issue as part of a broader democratic agenda.

"We would be making a mistake if we said it was just a problem of the Alevis. It is important for all democratically-minded people to ensure that no one is pressurized for his beliefs. If I don't believe in God, and someone asks me to respect their belief, then they have to respect my un-belief, and when people come here and say, 'We don't want the constitution, we want Shari'a,' then that is something we cannot tolerate."

Alevis as a bulwark against fundamentalism

Like Akgün, Ozan Ceyhun was raised Sunni, moved to Germany, and is now in politics – as a member of the European Parliament. He feels the Alevis can provide a bulwark against fundamentalism and a bridge between Turks and Germans, as well as between Turkey and the European Union:

"It's because, first, they have a very peaceful religion, and second because they have a philosophy that, for me, is very welcome – I mean, they're Muslims but they drink wine; they're Muslims but they consider women's rights an important issue – they have always believed in treating men and women equally – and these are goals that Turkey should be aiming at", says Ceyhun.

"It's for this reason that I've chosen to support the Alevis, and to help them become more politically active and to become known among Germans. In Turkey and in the EU, the Islamists are very professional, very dangerous. For this reason, the Alevis have to become more savvy, so they can provide an alternative."

Building an inter-Islamic bridge

Akgün says that requires building a bridge between Alevis and Sunnis:

"The Alevis are a minority within a minority here in Germany, and that's why it's important that they organize – that they finally say, 'We don't want to hide anymore or exist in shadow.' I believe the more they organize, the less discrimination they will face from within the Turkish community", Akgün declares.

"And the more people realize how democratic their structure and society is, the more they will thrive. We're working now on getting a Gem House built right next to a Sunni mosque here in Cologne, and I'm working with Sunnis to get them to accept that a Gem House is just as legitimate a house of worship as a mosque. It's important to build a very visible and beautiful Gem House here in Cologne.

And, maybe, one day, in Sivas as well.

Steve Zwick


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