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Susam-Sokak in English

Searching for the roots of present Turkey, by Etienne Copeaux

Sivas, 1993 (2) - Was Aziz Nesin a Provocateur?

Publié par Etienne Copeaux sur 12 Septembre 2020, 18:30pm

[This article is the continuation of "Sivas, 1993 (1) - Nationalism, or the Need for an Enemy". It was initially published in French on susam-sokak.fr, on June 15, 2017.]

Everything was going rather gently.

A dense public had come from all over the country, mainly Alevi people, many of them in groups of young members of local Alevi cultural associations affiliated to the “Pir Sultan Abdal” (PSAD) federation. They were glad to meet well-known writers, singers, to attend theater and music performances, to partake in the ritual dances of the semah, this ceremony which is severely criticized among the reactionary Sunni circles because mixed. In brief, these people were glad to meet each other, glad to experience the joy of being in mass, and glad to freely celebrate their own culture, as it is the case every August 18 at Hacibektas-i Veli, where is celebrated the annual Alevi festival.

In Sivas, the festival begins around 4 p.m. on Thursday, July 1st, with a wreath-laying at the Atatürk monument, an inescapable ceremony in Turkey, and then with the inauguration of a new and controverted monument, erected by the decision of the Ministry of Culture in front of the Cultural Center, and representing a troubadour (ozan) holding his saz (or baglama, the traditional Turkish long-necked lute), himself flanked by a Kangal dog, another symbol of the region.

Then, the program unfolds, apparently without trouble, even though, as writer Lütfiye Aydın's witnesses, “the girls were getting annoyed, above all those wearing shorts”. Other witnesses record some “negligible” facts like aggressive questions to Aziz Nesin, irascible behavior towards those who were holding shops selling “shameful” (serefsiz) books or tapes like those of the singer Ruhi Su.

One of the very rare photos of this monument which existed only 24 hours, extracted from an article by Murtaza Demir, "Pir Sultan'ı, Aşık Veysel, Uğur Mumcu, Hrant, Aziz Nesin, Ape Musa'yı da, bizi de istemiyorlar!" habersol.org.tr, March 19, 2012 (link below)

One of the very rare photos of this monument which existed only 24 hours, extracted from an article by Murtaza Demir, "Pir Sultan'ı, Aşık Veysel, Uğur Mumcu, Hrant, Aziz Nesin, Ape Musa'yı da, bizi de istemiyorlar!" habersol.org.tr, March 19, 2012 (link below)

In the previous days, a leaflet distributed in town and in front of the mosques strongly attacked “atheist Aziz Nesin”, who was translating Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, and “all those people who are friends of the devil”. “It is time now, it is written, to give again Islam its true place”. Groups of radical Islamists and far-right nationalists already roam the streets, claiming for the sharia, “which will put an end to oppression”: “Sivas will be the tomb of Aziz!”.

The vali (governor) is targeted too. Newly in function in Sivas, being himself a Kemalist secularist, he had allowed Aziz Nesin to come in Sivas. “He allowed Aziz Nesin to walk around insulting the Muslims”, say the protesters. At least on the first day, this does not worry, neither the organizers nor the guests. As for the authorities, the prefecture, the municipality, and the security forces, as a whole, they denote worrisome irresponsibility.

Who reminds that, fifteen years before, on September 3, 1978, in Sivas itself, an anti-Alevi pogrom had already occurred, ending with five people dead and more than fifty injured?

July 1st, 1993. Aziz Nesin's speech


The first day's decisive moment undoubtedly was a speech delivered by Aziz Nesin in the Cultural Center, before a crowded hall, with, in the front row, the Islamist mayor of the city Temel Karamollaoglu, the prefect, and other authorities. In his speech, improvised as he confesses, but full of spirit, the writer begins by playing with the word “Abdal”; on the one hand, “Abdal” is an honorific name, often given to wandering dervishes, and to Pir Sultan among others; on the other hand, “aptal” means “ignorant”. The writer then dares to slip a joke on the Turks, of whom 60% would be, according to him, “aptal”: a useless slippage unrelated to the thread of his lecture but warmly applauded. Is it an allusion to the results of the last general elections, held in October 1991, when more than 60% of the votes went to reactionary parties like the DYP (center right, 27%, 178 MPs), the ANAP (center right, 24 %, 115 MPs) and an Islamist outsider, the Refah (16 %, 62 MPs), which is successful then for the first time?

Then does the writer deal with Alevism, keeping a distance from it, qualifying as “semi-legendary” the existence of Pir Sultan, and as Alevi “propaganda” the poems transmitted from generation to generation by the troubadours. That distance does not prevent him from denouncing the marginalization of Alevism in the state discourse, particularly in education, and the state's posture towards Sunni Islam, regarded as the one and only religious truth. And Nesin concludes: “We saw in Kahramanmaras that such a teaching can be deadly”. There, 111 Alevis were massacred in their homes in December 1978.

Although there is, in theory, no official or state religion in Turkey since 1928, it would be very risky, for a Turkish citizen, to proclaim himself or herself as an atheist publicly. During the 90s by the way, the rulers of the society, even moderate leftist, or else high-rank officers of the army (then, allegedly, "guardian of the secularism”), often allowed or even encouraged the broadcast in the media of photographs displaying them as praying in public. The purpose was supposed to demonstrate that “secularism” is not “atheism”. (See my articles on susam-sokak.fr, "Prier ne peut pas faire de mal").

Aziz Nesin during his conference (screenshot)

Aziz Nesin during his conference (screenshot)

At that time, Aziz Nesin was one of the rare prominent figures daring to say “I am an atheist”. During the Sivas speech, he states: “I have no religion and I am against religious creeds. (…) I do respect all believers, but I respect even more the Alevis, and let me tell you why. (…) The Turks have Turkified Islam, and the Alevis have adapted Shi'ism to Turkey. I'm not saying they have Turkified it since a part of them are not Turks, but Kurds. I believe that their sense of humanity comes from the fact that they have adapted to Turkey”.

Specifying then why he does “respect” the Alevis, Aziz Nesin challenges the Turkish vision of nationhood, while implicitly depreciating Sunni Islam: “You know well that, to my mind, the notion of race is irrelevant, but I think the most authentic Turks to be the Alevis since their customs keep alive the authentically Turkish customs. Yes, they do maintain them alive.” This is a dangerous statement when uttered in such a narrow-minded, nationalist, and bigot provincial town, where people consider that only Sunni Islam gives its strength and identity to the idea of the Turkish nation. Stating that a heterodox population, subject to the power's despise and hatred all along the past centuries, could be the very guardian of the most authentically Turkishness, Aziz Nesin commits a blasphemy, both religious and national.

Before he concludes, the writer again claims his atheism, while risking some comments, which no doubt went agreeable to the floor, but could no way been admitted by the majority of the town's citizens: “I'm not Muslim, though there are really fine words in the Quran. But the Quran has aged”. And then, he unexpectedly turns his criticism back towards the Alevism, whose culture, he says, cannot presently suit to the country, but he finally extends this criticism to Turkey itself. The practice of the saz, the traditional Turkish lute so much prized in the Alevi community, he judges as conventional and repetitive, reminds him of contemporary religious architecture in Turkey, which is an infinite reproduction of the Ottoman architecture. “In a remote future, he says, if archaeologists discover the ruins of Kocatepe [the Grand Mosque of Ankara, opened in 1987], they'll exclaim 'My God, they have made so ugly copies of the Süleymaniye! [the grand mosque built by the architect Sinan, in honor of Magnificent Suleiman, achieved in 1557], were these Turks unable for any evolution?” Aziz Nesin thus invites the Turks – and the Alevis as well – to “modernize, adapt, advance in the domains of music and poetry. It is a difficult task, he continues, but Turkey must accomplish difficult tasks, which was not done until now”.

And he concludes: “Pir Sultan Abdal was not only a man; he symbolizes the majority of the Turkish people (…). But we absolutely must refresh his philosophical teaching. If not, Turkey's population might soon consist of 90% ignorant, instead of 60%”.

Aziz Nesin, therefore, committed several “crimes”: to claim his atheism; to deem the Alevi to be the most authentically Turks; and to express a certain disdain for Turkey's silent majority.

July 2nd, 1993. Aziz Nesin's interview


On Friday a signing session is held in the courtyard of the historic medersa for the invited writers: Aziz Nesin, Metin Altıok, Asım Bezirci, Ugur Kaynar, Behçet Aysan are there. There are many visitors, often young Alevis. Among them, a Dutch student poses next to the singer Muhlis Akarsu and the cartoonist Asaf Koçak, who draws his portrait.

The regional daily Hakikat did not appreciate the speech of Aziz Nesin, the day before. This Friday, its front-page headline utters: "They sold snails in the Muslim quarter (Müslüman Mahallesinde Salyangoz sattılar)". This proverb expresses the clumsiness and missteps that a foreigner can show when visiting a country he does not know the customs: Aziz Nesin and his companions behave like foreigners, in a way that is inappropriate and even insulting to the locals.

At noon, a reporter and a cameraman from the Ihlas group (owner of the reactionary daily Türkiye and the TGRT channel) come into the medersa to interview Aziz Nesin and get him to give justification for what he said the day before. The writer sits at a table, surrounded by a tight and standing audience, this time partly hostile. He is in an inferior position, such as the public, the reporter and the camera are looking down on him.

The journalist - You came to participate in the Pir Sultan Abdal Festival, you gave a lecture at the Cultural Center. You said interesting things such as "I am without religion". Obviously, quite a few of us, especially in the Muslim community, feel uneasy.


Aziz Nesin - What can cause unease? I don't feel uncomfortable because of Muslims; why do I bother them?

The journalist - They mainly blame you for translating Rushdie's Satanic Verses.

Aziz Nesin - Muslims have to get used to it... they should not be disturbed by what I do. You don't have to be a Muslim, but I am respectful, very respectful indeed because I come from a Muslim family. That's their problem. I'm not on the side of Islam or Islamist movements. That's my business.


[The journalist shows him an anonymous leaflet distributed in the morning, "in the name of Muslims," which attacks Aziz Nesin.]


The journalist - "They say you provoked them.

AN - So what? You don't attack people because they provoke you. Provocation leads to a reaction. A civilized man does it in writing, in words, he explains himself. But without attacking, without hitting, without killing.

The journalist - If you want, we can discuss it...

AN - Of course! By the way, Aydınlık [a left-wing daily at the time] opened the debate and Muslims, Muslim intellectuals participated, they answered (...) but no book should be banned. Turkey is secular, this is not possible, Muslims who feel offended can reply ...

The journalist - Yes, but not everyone reads Aydınlık, which only prints 13-15,000 copies ...

Aziz Nesin - This is not a small print run!


[Aziz Nesin then criticizes the Muslim press as "false" and shows the headline of Hakikat] :


AN - In reality, they are the ones who are provocative. They will strike, they will strike, in the name of Islam, and then they will lift up their eyes to heaven!

The journalist: Yes, Sivas has become cosmopolitan and therefore it is a sensitive place. We remember 1978 [the pogrom of September 3], disturbing memories...

AN - You can't say 'cosmopolitan'. Istanbul, yes, it's a mosaic. Besides, we must respect all mosaics.

Journalist - But Rushdie insulted our Prophet, can that be a basis for debate?

AN - Yes, it is possible. I wouldn't propose it, but I am against prohibitions.

Journalist: There are verses [from the Quran] about that, sir.

AN - Of course; each side has its verses. I am not in favor of attacking a family of prophets or any human family. It's not done. I am not in favor of attacking someone who has allegedly rebelled, let alone killing for that reason.


[Aziz Nesin reiterated that he is not a believer].


Journalist - One may not be a believer, but of course this can be inconvenient for Muslims.

AN - To be inconvenienced does not mean that one should call to kill, my friend.

Journalist - Obviously, the idea of killing is not defensible.

AN - On the other hand, one has the right to demonstrate, well, let them demonstrate!


AN - If Aziz Nesin is killed, another Aziz Nesin will come, another Ahmet, another Mehmet will come. Man has a brain, he thinks, you can't be against thinking. One can think against, one can oppose. (...) One must be tolerant. If we start slitting our throats, Turkey will not get out of it: no thought will come out of it, no progress.

Aziz Nesin during his interview by the TGRT, July 2, 1993 (screenshot)

Aziz Nesin during his interview by the TGRT, July 2, 1993 (screenshot)

[The writer then defends tolerance and says that Alevism is the best example. The journalist criticizes him for his remarks on the relationship between Alevism and Turkishness.]


Aziz Nesin - Yes, Alevism is Turkish Shiism, that is to say, civilized Shiism. In Shiism there is no tolerance, whereas Alevism is tolerant.

Journalist - Have you read their interpretation of the Quran?

AN - Which one? How many interpretations of the Quran are there!?


The journalist quotes interpretations to him:


AN - I haven't read, I've read others. (...) I have read many interpretations of the Quran, and the Quran itself, so many times. But I have found my own way.

Journalist: You said that the Quran has aged.

AN - There is no word, whatever it is, that can keep its truth after a thousand years.

Journalist - But it is the word of God!

AN - God is your god, he is not my god! (...) I repeat, there is no word, no philosophy anywhere in the world that does not lose its value [with time]. The most beautiful word, the greatest word, is that of Mustafa Kemal... (...) I do not believe in this word of God. Because in order to believe it I would have to lose my intelligence.

Someone in the audience - Why? Why don't you respect the ideas of humans?

AN - I respect them, but I want to be respected too! Our friend here doesn't respect me, I respect him. I am expressing my thoughts to you; they are right, they are wrong, you don't admit them, well, express your ideas, I am not going to oppose them...

Journalist - Thank you...

The day before, Aziz Nesin had spoken in a room, to a favorable or even admiring audience, mostly Alevi, within a small secular sphere, isolated among a hostile city. He was warmly greeted by a long round of applause. The speaker and his audience were in a state of connivance.

Out of this small sphere, Aziz Nesin and the other guests were plunged back into a non-secular, Sunni and reactionary, anti-Kemalist milieu, which considered him the figure of the enemy. The conditions of the interview - obviously not planned - are harsh for the writer. Aziz Nesin, a rather small, elderly man, is sitting surrounded by the standing audience around him; a copy of Hakikat is on the table; he has seen the hostile reactions of the local press.

Like a boxer pushed into the ropes, he could not choose a conciliatory attitude and has reaffirmed his convictions several times. Harassed by the journalist who constantly brings him back to his own terrain, religion, the prophet, and the verses of the Quran, Aziz Nesin increasingly is annoyed and impatient. He tries to get back the advantage by opposing the words of Mustafa Kemal to those of the Quran - which is God's word to the mind of the journalist and attendants. Additional misstep. But was it possible to react otherwise? He simply should not have accepted the interview, or he should have imposed his own conditions.

Anticipating some violent reaction, the prefecture had granted the writer two bodyguards, under the protection of whom he goes to his hotel, Madımak, where most of the guests of the festival are also hosted. Neither Aziz Nesin, nor the other festivalgoers, nor the authorities could have imagined the riot that would follow and cause the death of 37 people.

Riot or revolt? Freedom of opinion or provocation?


Before detailing the course of events of July 2, it is useful to compare Aziz Nesin's words with the reactions of the mainstream press and the political class after the tragedy.

The reactions of the daily Milliyet are characteristic. This daily fulfill all its duties towards Kemalism and, like Hürriyet or Sabah at that time, devotes its whole front-page to Atatürk's glory when are held national celebrations, with multiplied portraits, quotations from the Great Guide, wide and generously illustrated articles about official ceremonies.

"Thousands of people in revolt", "Bloody revolt" are the headlines of Milliyet on July 3rd. The text of Aziz Nesin's speech is on the front page, together with the reactions of some state officials, like Interior Minister Rahmet Gazioglu and Prime Minister Tansu Çiller, who believe that the writer was guilty of provocation. In fact, the whole front page provides the reader with elements of accusation against Aziz Nesin. The next day, the newspaper maintains the same stance, with the headline: "Big provocation, no precautionary measures", while, however, specifying the role of "sectarian agitators" (mezhep kıskırtçılar). Hürriyet is even more explicit: "In Sivas, revolt against Aziz Nesin".

Thus, there would be on the one hand 'provocation' and on the other one 'revolt'. These words are not neutral. The first is connoted negatively, the second positively. One revolt against oppression, injustice, against an illegitimate regime. Such headlines could be those of an Islamist newspaper. Even if the content of the articles is less ambiguous, the headlines express the climate that prevails in Turkey, ten years before Erdogan's Islamist government: the one who translates a work considered anti-Muslim, the one who publicly claims to be an atheist is at odds with public opinion, and if he is in trouble, he might well have sought it.

So, the day after the Sivas riot, the mainstream media consider Aziz Nesin himself as responsible for its dramatic outcome. On July 5, for example, Milliyet quotes without any criticism or analysis Muzaffer Arıcı, Member of Parliament for Denizli (ANAP, center right), who points Aziz Nesin as “the main culprit” because "it is shameful to proclaim oneself an atheist in a country that is 99% Muslim". Muhsin Yazıcıoglu, president of the extreme-rightist Party of the Grand Union (BBP), goes further and claims the indictment of Aziz Nesin for provocation, under Article 149/2 of the constitution.

A few comments in the mainstream daily press on July 4 well reflect this climate. Altan Öymen (Milliyet), acknowledges the extent of the unease while writing "It is certain that Aziz Nesin's words, for a long time, were not well received by a large majority of us". Yalçın Dogan, in the same issue, believes that "first of all, Aziz Nesin had to be told 'stop'”. For Cengiz Çandar (Sabah), while admitting that the events were also due to the reactionary agitation and to the state's ineffectiveness, "It is Aziz Nesin, with his provocations, who pressed the detonator”. For Fehmi Koru (Zaman, moderate Islamist), "Aziz Nesin, who has written many humorous books, is this time the hero of a tragedy. If thirty-five [sic] people died in the fire and many others were injured, it is mainly because of his provocations at the Cultural Center”.

The verdict is clear: the media admit the responsibility of those who called for the murder but take for granted the first to blame to be Aziz Nesin. For Ertugrul Özkök, editor-in-chief of Hürriyet, known for his conformism, "We must think about that: the reason of what happened in Sivas is the fact that under the guise of 'freedom of expression', people indulge in provocative words and behavior, that would be reprehensible even in the most developed democracies”.

To provoke is to try to make a person or an animal angry or annoyed” (Cambridge Dictionary) or "to excite someone, to push him, by a challenge or by outrages of attitude or language, to an action that is often violent and itself calls for a riposte" (Trésor de la Langue Française). The person or group provoked may consider themselves a victim and consider their reaction justified, the provocation being an excuse. The level of provocation is usually calculated to put the opponent off balance, to make him lose control of himself so that he reacts immediately. The loss of composure and immediacy of response is essential in this notion. But if the lapse of time between provocation and reaction can be accurately assessed, what about composure, self-control, which varies according to people and circumstances? In some countries such as France, These non-measurable subjective elements have excluded from the law, the "excuse of provocation", even if it can be pleaded as a mitigating circumstance. The ideal would be for everyone to remain in control of himself and, when faced with a provocation, to be content with a shrug of the shoulders.

For Turkish law (art. 51 of the former penal code, art. 29 of the 2004 code), "unjustified provocation" (haksız tahrik) mitigates the crime or misdemeanor perpetrated by a person who has felt offended. If the excuse of provocation is used, the penalty can be reduced by a third. In a "blasphemy" case that I studied previously (link) the court judged that a murderer was the victim of a "light provocation" (in that case an alleged blasphemy), the lawyer having invoked his client's religious faith and his rigorous moral education to make the "provocation" more credible.

Eight hours passed between the "provocation" (Aziz Nesin's comments, made no later than noon on July 2, on the TGRT channel) and the crime (the arson, around 8 p.m.). Between these two moments, on several occasions, the municipal authority called for calm and dispersion, and the police and gendarmerie did not show any violence that could have been described as "police provocation"; the reverse is the case. Since noon, no more words have been uttered, no more acts committed that could have been considered a new "provocation" by the rioters. Whatever Aziz Nesin's words, whatever they were received by people who are both believers and susceptible, provocation cannot be invoked to excuse or mitigate the gravity of what happened.

The riot, the arson, were not a reaction to a provocation, but a regression in the consciousness of the rioters, "subjected to the magic force of words”. On several occasions, they were about to disperse but they were manipulated by agitators who perfectly were aware of the mechanisms of the emotion in politics, and knew by experience on which elements of discourse one can create the "phase", the connivance between an agitator and his audience.

Yet the mainstream media stigmatized Aziz Nesin: he should not have done so. Or better: he had sought for trouble. Even better: he is responsible for the deaths of 37 people.

Neither secularism nor freedom of belief and opinion can be taken for granted in Turkey, in 1993 as today. Certainly, they are guaranteed (at least until now) by the constitution and by the law, but the one who does not consider himself Muslim is at odds with the society: this is the result of destructing the cultural and religious richness of the country through violence. Excluded out of the community, a non-Muslim, an atheist is a foreigner. He must keep silent and if he speaks anyway, he will be considered as provoking, offending the sensibility of the community. In a situation of crisis as in Sivas, he can die, and the murderer will always feel to be right, so much as he lives in a country where it is constantly and proudly repeated that Turkey is "99% Muslim," and that “the Turkish nation is Muslim”.

This permanent intimidation weighs like a lead screed and induces any person who does not live permanently in a secular, left-wing, intellectual, or Kemalist environment to self-censorship.

A portrait of Aziz Nesin by Bedri Koraman, published by Milliyet the day after his death, on July 7, 1995.

A portrait of Aziz Nesin by Bedri Koraman, published by Milliyet the day after his death, on July 7, 1995.

Aziz Nesin came out alive from the arson, under the booing of the crowd, death threats, even beatings. Two years later, on July 6, 1995, at the age of 80, he died of a heart attack. But the media, then, were unanimous, and there was no longer any question of stigmatizing a so-called “provocateur”: it was just the death of a great writer. On July 7, 1995, columnist Ercüment Isleyen (Milliyet), finally used the appropriate word to designate what happened two years earlier, writing: "His speech served as a pretext for provocateurs”. Pretext, and not provocation: justice is done. A year after the writer's death, Nilgün Cerrahoglu interviewed his son Ali (Milliyet, 7 July 1996). “My father", he said, "couldn't stand these criticisms. The worst was that he was called a provocateur and that even intellectuals told him that he shouldn't have gone. The Sivas affair killed him. We didn't understand then what he meant by '60% of Turks are dummy [enayi]. Finally, we have understood him. Reactions changed with time. But it was too late. Journalists and columnists deeply have hurt him”.

Questioned about the events themselves, Ali Nesin thinks them to have been organized. "It was a trial run to hand Turkey over to Shariah supporters. Now [in 1996] the Refah party is powerful. In the next few days, Erbakan will become prime minister. One day he'll be president of the republic. Our duty isn't to curse the Sivas rioters, but to educate them, to open their eyes". Referring to documentary movies dealing with the drama, which were then presented during a festival, he said: "We must show these documentaries to the population of Sivas. It will be more effective than a punishment".

(The following article will present the scrolling of the events of July 2nd until to its tragic end).


The text of Aziz Nesin's speech at Sivas: https://m.bianet.org/bianet/yasam/165750-aziz-nesin-in-1-temmuz-1993-sivas-konusmasi


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