The Sivas Massacre is one of the most sordid episodes in recent Turkish history. Sivas is a town in Eastern Anatolia with a sizable Alevi population. In 1993, during the Pir Sultan AbdalFestivities organized by the Alevi community, a Sunni mob circled the Madimak hotel where festival participants were staying and set it on fire. Thirty-seven people died, many of them important activists, thinkers and poets in the Alevi cultural community. Others barely escaped with their lives.
One-hundred-ninety people were arrested as a result, and charges were brought against 124. In the first trial in 1994, 85 people were sentenced to prison terms, ranging from two to 15 years. After the first appeal process, a second trial was held in 1997, this time resulting in sentences ranging from capital punishment (changed to life sentences when Turkey abolished the death penalty in 2012) to 15 years for 47 defendants. The recent decision involves five people who remained at large after all this time and therefore had not had their trials concluded. Charges against them are now dismissed. The decision attracted even more outrage from the Alevi community after they heard Prime Minister Erdoğan’s response declaring the outcome a blessing for the nation and the country, and clearly self-identifying with the plight of those in prison and the fugitives, as opposed to those killed in the hotel. Erdoğan later defended his remarks saying that he was trying to be fair to both sides, and that many had been unfairly sentenced.
Erdoğan may be right about possible miscarriages of justice in a case involving so many defendants. It is also difficult to apportion blame fairly in situations of mob violence. However, there is extended video footage of the fire and the mob. I even remember watching the event unfold in real time on TV as a teenager. The idea that no one from the Sunni community of Sivas is to blame and that they all have been unfairly scapegoated is quite preposterous. The fact of the matter is that the larger Sunni Islamist political movement of which Erdoğan is a part of has been very reluctant to confront their own devils, and are instead always content to blame the Turkish “deep state” for committing or instigating atrocities. Even in the Sivas case, they are now hiding behind this claim, arguing that the massacre would never have taken place had the Turkish military stepped in earlier. However true that claim may be, it does not change the fact that a Sunni mob burned down a fully occupied hotel with the intent to murder Alevi intellectuals and cultural leaders. The community has not chastised anyone for their involvement, let alone take ownership of the event. Further, while no community in Turkey has clean hands, where sectarian violence is concerned, Alevis have been on the receiving end far more often (See also Maraş massacre). As a result, they, as a rule, distrust all political movements emerging out of the Sunni community, including the AKP. Erdoğan’s remarks were interpreted as confirmation of the rightness of that judgment. All of this also has serious implications for AKP’s plans for the Middle East. AKP has made great effort to depict Turkey as a model for the Middle East that blends Islam, democracy, capitalism and cultural tolerance. However, within Turkish politics, whether it is in dealings with the Kurdish community or the Alevi community, AKP is further and further drifting away from that model, increasingly taking ownership of an exclusively Sunni-Turkish identity at the expense of others. What they do not realize is that the road to regional power does not lie in that direction. If Turkey’s claim to regional leadership is not its economic and democratic success but rather its Sunni religious identity, Turkey will find itself soon outmatched by others who can play that card better (i.e., Saudi Arabia, Muslim Brotherhood etc.). Further, a strong Sunni identification will undercut Turkey’s claims to genuinely care for the plight of oppressed groups as in Palestine or Somalia. The Alevi community in Turkey is already asking: Does the AKP care about the ongoing massacres in Syria because they care about human life and democracy, or do they care because it is Sunnis who are being killed, and Assad is an Alawi? Finally, this short-sighted, identity-based foreign policy is what Turkey had always pursued in the past, with dismal results. The only difference is that in the past the emphasis was on the Turkish part of the Sunni-Turkish identity, and AKP is just giving it their own spin. For all these reasons, the juxtaposition of AKP’s criticisms of Assad’s regime with Erdoğan’s delight about the dismissal of the Sivas case is a little jarring, to say the least. The AKP government is running out of time to shift the growing perception that in Turkey plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Ayşe Zarakol is an Assistant Professor of Politics at Washington & Lee University blogging for PONARS Eurasia on Turkey, Russia and Iran relations and their common neighborhood. Images: Sivas from: umag.org.tr; Homs from: latimes.com