Turkish Shias in fear of life on the edge

Sectarian hatred is moving from Syria  into the mainstream  of Turkey’s political life. Patrick Cockburn explains the complex battle lines

The poison of sectarian hatred is spreading to Turkey from Syria as a result of the Turkish government giving full support to militant Sunni Muslims in the Syrian civil war.

The Alevi, a long-persecuted Shia sect to which 10-20 million Turks belong, say they feel menaced by the government’s pro-Sunni stance in the Shia-Sunni struggle that is taking place across the Muslim world.

Nevzat Altun, an Alevi leader in the Gazi quarter in Istanbul, says: “People here are scared that if those who support sharia come to power in Syria, the same thing could happen in Turkey.” He says that the Alevi of Turkey feel sympathy for the Syrian Alawites, both communities holding similar, though distinct, Shia beliefs and the Alevi oppose Turkey’s support for rebels fighting to overthrow Syria’s Alawite-dominated government.

Sectarian faultlines between the Sunni majority and the Alevi, Turkey’s largest religious minority, have always existed but are becoming deeper, more embittered and openly expressed. Atilla Yeshilada, a political and economic commentator, says that “anything [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan says against the Alawites of Syria is full of sectarian innuendoes for the Alevi”.

Alawites who have fled to Turkey to escape the violence in Syria often find they are little safer after they have crossed the Turkish border. They say they dare not enter government-organised refugee camps because they are frightened of being attacked by the rebel Free Syrian Army as soon as it is discovered they are not Sunni.

Syrian refugees in neighbouring border camps Syrian refugees in neighbouring border camps

 

Some Alawites have found their way to Istanbul where they are being looked after by the Alevi community. “A month ago we found Alawites wandering the streets of Istanbul and sleeping in parks where they earned a little money selling water and paper bags,” says Zaynal Odabashi, the head of the Pir Sultan Abdal Alevi cultural and religious centre in Gazi district where 180,000 out of a population of 520,000 are Alevi. He says that “we decided to take them in though the governor of Istanbul told us not to”, explaining that some 40 Syrian Alawite refugees are living in large tents at his centre alone and another 400 have been found places to sleep in houses nearby. The three million Syrian Arab Alawites may differ in religious practices from the Turkish Alevi, but they both follow core Shia beliefs such as reverence for the Twelve Imams. They both feel threatened by Sunni militants and know they are easily identifiable as even the poorest house has pictures of the Shia saints on the walls.

“They consider us as non-believers,” says Mr Odabashi, adding: “Of course, our people feel sympathy for the Alawites and we are against Turkey’s involvement in the war in Syria.”

Alawite refugees fed and housed by the Alevi tell grim tales of torture, disappearances and death. On a mat outside a big tent at the Pir Sultan centre lay an elderly looking man who said he is a Turkoman Alawite from Damascus whose district had been captured by the Free Syrian Army that held him and his 12-year-old daughter for up to 27 days.

His frightened eyes darted nervously around as he said his name was Ali Jabar and he was not sure of some details of what had happened to him because he had been blindfolded all the time he was held. His captivity began when there was a ring at his door at midnight and a voice said a neighbour needed to see him, but when he opened the door a man hit him on the head with his gun butt.

He was blindfolded by his captors whom he identified as the Free Syrian Army. They asked him if he believed in Bashar al-Assad and demanded he curse Imam Ali, but he had said: “No, not even if you cut my throat.”

They whipped him and set fire to a plastic bag so molten plastic dripped on to to his back. He rolled up his shirt to reveal half-healed whip marks and burns and took off his shoes to show where several of his toenails had been ripped out with pliers. He expected to be killed, but instead the men who held him threw him out of a car on a country road where he was found by a shepherd. He does not know what has happened to his daughter.

Ali Jabar later met other Alawite Turkomans who had fled from Aleppo and were sleeping in parks in Damascus. They managed to secure enough money to take 42 of them to Turkey in a bus, but they thought it was too dangerous for them to enter Turkish refugee camps. They finally reached Istanbul where they did not know where to go until the Alevi of Gazi offered to help them. Turkish government supporters deny or play down the connection between the Alevi and the Alawites but there is a common bond as both feel endangered by growing Sunni hostility to all Shia sects, regardless of their precise religious beliefs. Dogan Bermek, the president of the Alevi Foundation, a lobbying group mostly made up of better-off Alevi, asserts: “In Syria and in Turkey we are all the same Alevi. The differences between us are only regional because we have developed in different regions without contacts. We are on the same road though it has a thousand paths.”

Syrian refugees in neighbouring border camps Syrian refugees in neighbouring border camps  

How great is the danger of Sunni-Shia hostilities that have torn apart Iraq, Syria and Bahrain in the last decade erupting in Turkey? There are marked differences in religious observances between the Sunni majority and the Alevi who do not use mosques, but worship in some 3,000 prayer houses where men and women dance and sing during services. As a large Shia minority under the Ottoman Empire, the Alevi were persecuted and massacred as dissidents and potential sympathisers with the rival Shia Safavid empire in Iran. Oppression of the Alevi was much like that of Roman Catholics in Ireland by Britain from the 16th century on and it continued after the foundation of the modern Turkish state, with at least 8,000 Alevi Kurds of Dersim in the south-east being slaughtered in the late 1930s.

The Alevis became the bedrock of opposition movements in Turkey and make up much of the membership of leftist parties. In 1993 their spiritual leaders, intellectuals and artists held a festival in the eastern city of Sivas to celebrate a 15th-century poet. Trapped in a hotel by a mob of thousands of Sunnis protesting, among other  things, at the presence of the Turkish translator of Salman Rushdie, some 35 people were burned to death without the police intervening.

Three years later there was an assault on Alevis by the police, killing 20 people in the same Gazi quarter where Syrian Alawites are now taking refuge.

Since Erdogan won his first general election in 2002 there has been less state violence. But during the protests that started in Gezi Park in Istanbul this summer, all five of the demonstrators killed across the country came from the Alevi community.

This is probably as much a token of their prominence in protests as it is of the police targeting them. It is also a sign that Alevi anger is growing because of memories of past violence against them; discrimination which turned them into second-class citizens and lack of state recognition or support for their religion.

I attended a meeting in an Alevi prayer house called a Cem in Umraniye district on the Asian side of Istanbul, where Alevi activists were setting up an organisation to fight for their rights. Complaints about discrimination abounded: an attempt to set up a joint Sunni mosque and Alevi prayer hall in Ankara was condemned as an attempt to assimilate them and as unworkable because the Alevi would be singing when the Sunni were praying. A delegate said Alevi did not fast at Ramadan but at another time of year, making cohabitation in the same building difficult. There was a lack of state education about Alevi beliefs and resentment at Sunni slanders about their religion.

“The government doesn’t treat us as human beings,” said one delegate. “We pay taxes but we don’t get anything back.”

Resentful though the Alevi are at their treatment, they are at least dealing with a powerful government capable of meeting many of their demands. Mr Erdogan has no difficulty in apologising for events like the Dersim massacres carried out on behalf of a secular authoritarian state in the past. The Alevi do not forget past persecution, objecting to the government’s intention to name the third Bosphorus bridge after Selim the Grim, an Ottoman Sultan of the early 16th century regarded as an ogre by the Alevi, whom he slaughtered by the thousand. Not all the reasons are negative for the greater Alevi sense of identity and willingness to be more vocal in demanding their rights: Turkish security forces under Mr Erdogan are less violent  than they used to be and protesters are less likely to be imprisoned or harassed by the state.

But the Sunni-Shia civil wars exploding in Syria and Iraq are deepening sectarian differences among the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world.

Turkey is no exception to this trend, has a large Shia minority and is close to the heart of the turmoil. There is already talk of the “Pakistanisation” of Turkish provinces like Hatay and Mardin, which are used by al-Qa’ida-linked groups fighting in Syria as their rear bases. Turkey’s open border policy for rebels means that the Syrian war is spilling across the frontier.

Successful though Turkey has been politically and economically in the past decade, the long battle for power between the AK party and an authoritarian, secular state has created lasting divisions in society. The rising political temperature in Turkey and the region makes rising sectarian differences ever more explosive.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?