Today Turkey mourns the 20th anniversary of the Sivas Massacre.
On 2 July 1993, poets and other artists, mostly of the Alevi faith, met in the town of Sivas for a festival celebrating the 16th century Alevi poet Pir Sultan Abdal. Aziz Nesin, a writer and humourist had, on the previous day, given a newspaper interview in which he acknowledged that he was an atheist.
Though it is far from true that all Alevis intellectuals are atheists, they are sometimes perceived as unbelievers by Suni Muslims, because they are not required to engage in public displays of their faith – most Alevis do not observe the fast of Ramazan, or prescriptions about drinking alcohol or eating pork – and because they favour secularism – many Alevis are Kemalists. Alevism is also known for promoting a greater gender equality than other Muslim sects: Alevi women do not cover their heads and are not required to dress ‘modestly’, Alevi men and women pray together, at home, (as opposed to women at home and men in the mosque), and are strongly encouraged to go to school and university. Alevi Muslims represent around 30 % of the Turkish population.
At prayer time, on 2 July 1993, the festival goers in Sivas were preparing to watch a play, adapted from a poem by the revolutionary writer Nazim Hikmet. The actors were banging drums, which angered those who were on their way to prayer. The anger spread to a crowd, who demanded that Nesin be expelled from the town, and who pulled up and destroyed a statue of Pir Sultan Abdal from the square in front of hotel where the festival was taking place. The town officials and the police did little to contain the crowd, and according to some reports, even encouraged them. At the end of a long day of terror for the intellectuals trapped in their hotel with their families, the crowds set the hotel on fire. 37 died.
Can Dündar’s excellent documentary retraces every moment of that terrible day, with filmed evidence, interviews from survivors, their relatives, and the then mayor of Sivas.
Films of the moving, shouting crowds form a striking contrast with the peaceful demonstrations Turkey has witnessed in the last four weeks. The desire for blood, the need to destroy all traces of the artists’ presence and of their (lack of) belief, is palpable and frightening. Before the riots started, a journalist interviewed Nesin to verify the newspaper claim that he is indeed an atheist. Upon receiving confirmation the journalist was unable to contain himself and cried out: “Why do you disrespect our beliefs!”
Another contrast is that the crowds in Sivas were mostly male – the men who were coming out of their friday prayer – as were the poets and artists who participated in the festival (at one point one survivor states that their children and ‘women friends’ were in the hotel with them).
The Gezi park protestors have already expressed solidarity with the survivors of the massacre. It is highly likely that tonight, the protestors will find a way to commemorate the victims.