One can successfully direct a mob against an "enemy" and incite it to commit murder, rape, loot, arson, provided that the "enemy" already exists in the conscience or even in the subconscious of any individual of the group. Hatred of the enemy must exist in the minds long prior to the event, for the violent reaction to be perpetrated without the need to weigh one's act, to question its validity; and the accomplishment of the act will even be felt as an imperative necessity, as an urgent operation to save the group as a whole, within "a generalized field of war"
(First published in French on June, 15, 2017, on susam-sokak.fr. Translated and updated, June 2020)
In the early days of July 1993, a festival was to be held in Sivas (250 miles east of Ankara) in memory of Pir Sultan Abdal, a most famous Alevi poet, who lived in the 16th century but remains alive in the culture and in the mind of the Alevis. The members of this heterodox and Shiite branch of Islam are about 20% of the Anatolian population, mainly living in the center of the country, but also in very important districts of the major Turkish towns. Permanently has Alevism been persecuted by the majority Sunni Islam, which considers its followers as “infidels” (gavur), even as atheists. In spite of the size and weight of their communities, they are discriminated against, have no place in official Islam, and a very reduced place in Turkish politics, and in addition, are totally ignored in history as it is taught.
Sivas, the head of a prefecture, was then a city of about 200,000 inhabitants, with a minority Alevi population; but the department itself, especially in the east, had several hundreds of villages wholly Alevi. The municipality, like the population of the town, was and still remains mostly reactionary and Islamist. The vote for Islamist parties (successively Refah, Fazilet, and later Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or AKP, the Erdogan's party) was predominant at the municipal elections of 1989, 1994, 1999, 2004. The BBP (Great Party of Unity), even more reactionary, won the elections in 2009. In 2014, the AKP and the BBP won 84% of the votes. At the time we are interested in, the mayor, Temel Karamollaoglu, was a member of the Refah. His successor from 1996 to 2004 was Osman Seçilmis, a member of an ultra-nationalist Islamist group, Millî Görüs (The National Vision).
The city of Sivas, however, is emblematic of the history of the republic. There, from September 4 to 11, 1919, the rebel general Mustafa Kemal [Atatürk] gathered in a congress the political forces opposed to the Allies' military occupation and to the Sultanate's defeatist policy. In Sivas were made the founding decisions of the future republic. The “congress building”, a former Ottoman high school, stands in the city centre, not far from the prefecture. "The republic was born here, it will be overthrown here!" was one of the slogans shouted by the rioters, on July 2, 1993.
The 1993 celebration was officially supported by the Prefecture and the Department's Directorate of Culture, and organized by the local branch of the “Pir Sultan Abdal Association” (PSAD), the most influential Alevi organization in Turkey. Numerous artists and intellectuals had been invited: poets (Metin Altıok, Behçet Aysan, Hasret Gültekin, Ugur Kaynar), writers (Aziz Nesin, Asım Besirci), musicians, Alevi troubadours (Arif Sag, Nesimi Çimen, Muhlis Akarsu, Edibe Suları...). The programs, venues, information, accommodation for the guests, everything was ready.
Many young people, sent in teams by the PSAD from all over Turkey, had come to Sivas to enthusiastically participate in semah, the traditional Alevi ceremony largely using music and dance. An exhibition of books with signing sessions, theater performances and conferences were planned.
A part of the group of artists invited to the Sivas festival in July 1993. A the front row, with a tie, the poet Metin Altıok. The beard man on his left is the poet and troubadour (ozan) Ugur Kaynar. The picture was most probably taken in Sivas the first day of the festival. Published by the daily Cumhuriyet on July, 3, 1997.
But on July 3, the celebration tragically ended in an uncontrolled lynch mob with 37 victims. To describe what happened, the word “massacre” might not be really appropriate, as it is not certain that the participants in this crowd movement actually intended to kill. Even if they shouted “To death!”, such slogans are not necessarily taken at face value. The word “pogrom” would be perhaps more relevant.
Indeed, there was a massive uprising of a crowd of several thousand people, especially furious about the “provocative” presence in Sivas of the writer Aziz Nesin, who used to publicly claim his atheism, and had undertaken the translation of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. Nesin was targeted as a symbol of freedom of opinion and expression, and of secularism.
Pogrom or riot, the event was not spontaneous, even if thousands of people were pushed there simply by circumstances. The violence was fueled by the Islamist movement; its instigators, and those who let it happen, came from the parties of Sunni political Islam and the national-Islamist trend in Turkey: the Refah party who was then experiencing its first great political successes (62 MPs elected in 1991); the BBP (Great Unity Party), newly founded and even more Islamist than the Refah. Hatred was stirred up by supporters of the ultra-nationalist MHP, by members of Sunni religious factions such as Nizam-i Alem, Millî Görüs, or by members of brotherhoods (tarikat) advocating violence against the “infidels” (gavur), the “communists” and the allegedly “atheist” Alevis.
A few days before the riot, anonymous leaflets had been put in circulation in Sivas, calling on “the Muslims” to jihad against the “atheist Aziz Nesin”, and to “give back to Islam its true place”. Buses and convoys of cars had come from neighboring departments, including the reactionary town of Elazıg, to “welcome” the festival-goers. A week earlier, the Islamist municipality had organized a sporting event, the “Hegira Race”, for which many sportsmen and activists had come, housed in the hearths of brotherhoods, and, according to the testimony of Rıza Aydogmus (2013), had not yet left the city.
The event is well documented with testimonies, many photographs, and some videos. It horrified the whole country, because of its violence, of the fame of the victims and of their number, in all, 37 dead. Among them, fourteen artists, musicians, singers, writers, poets, a photographer, a caricaturist, and no less than nineteen young people from 12 to 24 years old (including a female Dutch student); in addition, two employees of the hotel, and two rioters. The shock wave has brought about, until today, commemorations, theater plays, films, documentaries, books, and countless articles, especially around July 3rd of every year. The trial of the instigators, which was conducted from the autumn of 1993 until the statute of limitations date in 2012, had a great impact, constantly prolonging the memory of the event, and maintaining anger because the real perpetrators were never punished.
The riot of Sivas is well in line with the previous massacres of Marash (Kahramanmaras) (1978, 111 dead) and Çorum (1980, at least 57 dead) by its scale and especially by their target, the Alevis. In Marash and Çorum, however, the target was the local Alevis, whose houses were marked in advance, while in Sivas, it was a group of people well-known in the country, but mostly strangers to the city; by the way, the notoriety of the victims has helped raise awareness of the event outside Turkey. Another important difference lies in the course of events: in Marash and Çorum, the massacre was prepared with extreme-rightist organizations, and above all, in Çorum, the authorities had previously placed reactionary administrators in key positions. In Marash and Çorum, there was a clear intention to commit mass murder; it is not sure that it was the case in Sivas. According to the prefect (vali) of the time, the great fear of the authorities precisely was that military intervention by the gendarmerie might tenfold the anger of the crowd, which might have turned against the Alevis of the neighboring villages, therefore provoking “a new Marash”.
The Sivas riot, as it unfolded, is also reminiscent of the one that shook Istanbul on the night of September 6-7, 1955, when, at the instigation of a far-rightist organization, a dense crowd gathered in Taksim Square and devastated the Pera district (currently Beyoglu), then mainly inhabited by an Orthodox and Greek-speaking population ("Rum"). Three murders "only" were perpetrated, but perhaps 200 rapes; hundreds of shops, workshops, apartments, places of worship were destroyed. This pogrom led to exile, then to the expulsion of the Orthodox population of Istanbul between 1955 and 1964 (Theodorides, 2016).
In 1955, as in 1993, a crowd, essentially a male crowd, manipulated by provocateurs belonging to extreme right-wing religious movements (even though in 1955 the pretext was the defense of Atatürk's memory), has reacted to a presence considered intrusive or even "foreign" - here the Rum, there the Alevis -, has not just hurled death threats but has acted by serious material destruction and/or assaults that can go as far as homicides.
Individuals clustered in crowds are not necessarily murderers or perverts. But as have shown Le Bon, then Freud, and more recently Serge Moscovici, the consciousness of one integrated into a crowd is regressing. The crowd is characterized by "the weakness of intellectual ability, the lack of emotional restraint, the incapacity for moderation and delay, the inclination to exceed every limit in the expression of emotion and to work it off completely in the form of action” (Freud, 1921: 116). The individual is subjected to "the magic force of words"; the "notion of the impossible" vanishes in him; he is "installed in certainty" with "the idea that common opinion can only be the expression of truth" (Enriquez 1983: 63-65).
In any case, the rioters in Sivas were individuals living bulk of frustrations, as they did not benefit from the higher level of the state culture, did not share the officially advocated values, had been worked for decades by the national-Islamist discourse and saw in Kemalism and secularism long oppression of their own values. They were mostly modest people, living in towns and cities that had not yet been affected by economic prosperity, they suffered from inflation and were often unemployed. Their "ego ideal", to use Freud's words, was a confusing mix of nationhood, Sunni Islam, a sense of solidarity experienced "shoulder to shoulder" in mosques, symbolized by both the ezan (the call to prayer) and the flag.
All these frustrations were temporarily abolished during the course of the 1993 riot. For a few hours, the congruence between the ego and the ego ideal in these individuals regaining "self-contentment" was equivalent to "a magnificent festival for the ego”. The rioters, “in a mood of triumph and self-satisfaction, disturbed by no self-criticism, [could] enjoy the abolition of [their] inhibitions, [their] feelings of consideration for others, and [their] self-reproaches" (Freud: 1921, 130-131).
Some conspiracy theories related to the events of Marash, Çorum, and Sivas have circulated. The CIA would have played a role in the triggering of the Çorum pogrom; or else, the pogroms of Çorum or of Sivas would have resulted of manipulation by the secret services or by the “deep state”, with the goal of provoking a military coup, what actually occurred a few months after Çorum (September 12, 1980).
But the hypothetical intervention by a secret hand, dark forces, or conspirators, is not enough to explain the "success" of a pogrom. In order for individuals to come together, obey orders, and act like automatons by the thousands, mechanisms are needed that act deeply and over a long period in society.
One can successfully direct a mob against an "enemy" and incite it to commit murder, rape, loot, arson, provided that the "enemy" already exists in the conscience or even in the subconscious of any individual of the group. Hatred of the enemy must exist in the minds long prior to the event, for the violent reaction to be perpetrated without the need to weigh one's act, to question its validity; and the accomplishment of the act will even be felt as an imperative necessity, as an urgent operation to save the group as a whole, within "a generalized field of war" (Enriquez. 1983: 72).
In fact, those who do not enjoy the benefits of "culture", at the very bottom of society, are comforted by the conviction that they are better, superior to others, as Freud points out in The Future of an Illusion (Freud, 1927: 11). This has always been the function of religion, and in the modern world, it is the function of nationalism. In many countries, especially in the post-Ottoman area, the fusion between the religious and national ideas strengthens comfort and often transforms frustration into a hostility directed against Otherness. As a result, religious intolerance added to nationalist extremism is highly efficient to move a group against another.
Narcissism, which infuses nationalism, makes the Other contemptible. In Sivas, on July 2, 1993, it is the case for these intellectuals, musicians, poets, actors, coming into a provincial town influenced by political Islam, and behaving as if they were in Istanbul or Ankara - at least, that's how they are perceived. People of both sexes walk around, discuss, joke freely, side by side; they don't interrupt their activities for praying, they have a different language, a different behavior. They advocate freedom of expression, conscience, opinion. Some of them claim for the freedom to publicly express their atheism, and the freedom to drink alcohol. And in addition, as the Alevis do, the freedom to practice a religious ritual in which men and women are side by side, and where music and dance are of great importance. In short, they do everything that rigorist Muslims forbid themselves to do. Therefore, those freely roaming in the centre of Sivas at the beginning of July 1993 "are not in their place" and cause in the religiouss and reactionary milieu of the town an "anxiety of infection".
Indeed, one of the decisive factors of the event is proximity. Before 1993, the celebrations of the mystic poet Alevi were held in Banaz, his native village, twenty miles away. But the 1993 festival is to be held in the city. Some of the manifestations take place at the Cultural Centre on the Station Avenue, rather remote from the very center, but others are held in an old historical medersa, the Buruciye, right in the old city. And it just so happens that these two festival venues are adjacent to a mosque: the Kale Camii near the old medersa, the Selim Aga Camii near the Cultural Centre; and in both case the Grand Mosque is not far away.
The distances between the sensitive places (the festival venues, the Grand Mosque, the prefecture, the hotel Madımak, where the guests are accommodated) never exceed a few hundred yards. On Friday, July 2, at the time of the great prayer, such a vicinity of the differences could have set off the riot. But here again, neither that nor any of the elements that various medias and authorities later described as "provocations" are enough. The "building of the enemy" must precede and be firmly rooted.
Among the "enemies of Islam" killed on July 2, 1993: Asuman and Yasemin Sivri, 18 and 20. Carina Cuanna Thuys, their friend, a Dutch student. Koray Kaya (12) et Menekse Kaya (14) on the portraits presented by their mother.
As a matter of fact, Turkey has been built up through a series of violent episodes which have contributed, step by step, to the creation of a "99% Muslim" nation, by the way of the gradual elimination of the non-Muslims of Anatolia: successively unfold the expulsion of Christian Orthodox from the Black Sea before the Great War; the genocide of Armenians in 1915; the expulsion of Orthodox from Anatolia in 1923; the anti-Jewish pogroms in 1934; the massacre and deportation of Alevi Kurds from Dersim (1938); the measures of discrimination of non-Muslims along with the seizure of their properties in 1942; the pogrom of the Orthodox from Istanbul (1955) followed by their expulsion (1955-1964); the expulsion of the Orthodox from Northern Cyprus by the Turkish army (1974); the massacre of the Alevis of Marash (1978) and Çorum (1980); and the pogrom of Sivas (1993).
But in listing these episodes, nothing is explained, because they are only the result of the building of the enemy. Since they most often go unpunished and their motivations and impact are not questioned in-depth by the authorities, each of these events strengthens a sense of legitimacy, an impression of impunity, and the certainty of being right. The result of these events, therefore, is nothing else than Turkey as it presently is. The insurance provided by the cohesion of the group certainly does not prevent the individual inwardly suffering a sentiment of guilt. But the group - the religious community together with the nation - protects him, and at any moment whispers: "You are right and you have done well". And that is why it is so difficult to free oneself from despising the Other.
The reason for this series of violent episodes is stemmed from the Turkish conception of nationalism, which does not conceive a separation between nation and Sunni Islam. "The Turkish nation is Muslim" is a dogma excluding not only Christians and Jews but the heterodox Alevis as well, who make up some 20% of Turkey's population. While the republic is officially secular, Turkey is, de facto and following expulsions, massacres, and genocide, "99% Muslim". The most nationalist parties, such as the MHP, do propagate this religious conception of the nation. But so does the State itself, through schools: since the 1970s, children have been encouraged to identify with a Muslim society. The prevailing community is Islam confused with the nation, even if during those decades, the cult of Atatürk and the affirmation of secularism were also strong in school textbooks (Copeaux, 1997). To take in account this cognitive dissonance is important to understand contemporary Turkey .
Imams and religious brotherhoods, through their sermons, books, pamphlets distributed at the doors of mosques, and through their media, have fostered hatred of both the gavur and the "communist". The republic, in spite of a merciless repression in its early days, was unable to extinguish the resistance to the Kemalist reforms. Religious anti-Kemalism re-emerged freely in society under the government of Menderes and his Democratic Party (1950-1960), then under the Refah-led coalition (1996-1997), and finally with Erdogan's AKP since 2002. The series of violent events in Marash, Çorum and Sivas are its climax. The 1955 pogrom in Pera/Beyoglu had been the last step of the religious "homogenization" process of Anatolia. And as soon as non-Muslim otherness was eliminated, the national-Islamist forces turned against the Alevis.
A few days earlier: Turkey worries
A riot process certainly needs a long-worked potting soil. It also needs sparks to ignite the event. But there is also a more precise context, that of the days before. The war between the Turkish state and the PKK is in its ninth year, and on June 30, the whole of the southeast is shaken by a series of attacks by the rebel movement, which results in 25 casualties, including 14 soldiers and policemen. The following day, 11 more soldiers and militiamen were killed in Palu and Eruh.
The country was deeply concerned with political Islam. In 1991 the election of 62 Refah MPs was the first major success of an openly Islamist party under the republic. Two years later, in 1993, Necmettin Erbakan's party already controlled some municipalities in the metropolises and tried to impose a reaction to the cultural life: thus at Bakırköy (Istanbul), in May 1993, the theatre named after Aziz Nesin was closed. Violent events then fueled fears: in the city of Van on June 30, a hotel housing Russian prostitutes is burned down and eleven people die; Hezbollah is under suspicion.
Within a few days, news had come from abroad, would appear to confirm the eternal thesis of the malevolence of the foreign powers towards Turkey and the Muslim republics of the former Yugoslavia, of which Turkish Islam considers itself the protector.
First of all, on July 1, the press published the worrying conclusions of a report by Morton Abramowitz, former US Ambassador to Ankara, who stated that over the next ten years Turkey could well lose its territorial unity because of the Kurdish problem. On the same day, Helena Bonner, widow of Andrei Sakharov, a human rights defender in Russia, was protesting against the US policy in Iraq and, ironically, wondered why Ankara was not also being bombed, given Turkey's repressive policy on its Kurdish population. This is the kind of statement, always relayed by the media, which is highly appreciated by Turkish political Islam and the Turkish extreme right to fuel the mistrust in regard with the outside world.
The wars in Iraq and Yugoslavia were a powerful stimulus for Turkish political Islam, and the decision of the UN Security Council on June 30 to maintain the arms embargo on the whole of former Yugoslavia, including Muslim Bosnia besieged by the Serbs, has scandalized Turkey and its extreme right and Islamist circles, reinforcing an already widespread image of the "hypocrite (ikiyüzlü) Christian West". And by the way, the Abramowitz report was denouncing political Islam as the second great danger, because of inequalities and unemployment which fuel this new force: Turkey, the report said, is entering an uncertain period.
In Sivas, the fire is smoldering.
(To be continued)
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