“Have you heard the news?” M. asked quietly over the crackly phone line as I dashed out to the porch in search of better reception. “Have you read the Turkish papers yet today?” he asked, with intent. “There was a big riot in protest of the Sivas massacre case being dropped as a result of a statute of limitations. It is just awful, just terrible. This is one reason why I fear for the nation of my birth.”
In his comments, M. is referencing the Sivas massacre (in which 33 Alevi intellectuals were murdered in 1993). M has spoken about this massacre many times in the course of our years together. You can see the news he is reacting to here and here and you can read more about the massacre here.
According to bianet.com, “The trials would have continued if the Sivas Massacre would have been accepted as a crime against humanity….at the hearing on 6 December 2011, (the) Prosecutor…put forward that after 15 years the statute of limitation had been reached…The plaintiff lawyers had demanded to handle the Sivas Massacre as a crime against humanity…the statute of limitations could not be applied to the case in the scope of a crime against humanity…Lawyer Mehdi Bektaş reiterated the same demand with regard to Article 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Lawyer Kazım Genç reminded verdicts given related to crimes against humanity and that it was a requirement of the jurisprudence to take these rulings into consideration. Lawyer Süleyman Ateş introduced himself as the nephew of Sehergül Ateş who died at the Madımak hotel in the course of the massacre. He urged the court, “Dismiss the request for the statute of limitation for the sake of the relief of the heart of sensitive people who have lost a relative and have been waiting for justice for 19 years”….Many people gathered in front of the courthouse upon the call of the Pır Sultan Culture and Solidarity Association. They were outraged about the court decision. Members of political parties, non-governmental organizations and trade unions carried photographs of the victims of the Sivas massacre and a banner reading “We did not make the massacre be forgotten and we will not forget”. The group chanted slogans like “No to statute of limitation, we want justice” and “The light of Sivas will not go out. ”
According to most reports, the Alevi who died had gathered for a cultural festival in honor of Alevi poet Pir Sultan Abdal (who you can read more about here, a fascinating person), two hotel employees and two members of the twenty-thousand-strong group of Sun’ni Islamists that allegedly set/celebrated the fire. It was a horrible instance of the dangerous and evil power of group think, if you ask me…
Occurring about a year before M. left Turkey for the U.S., this incident has clearly left its mark on my husband’s psyche. Clearly,the persecution of the Alevi as well as limitations on living as an atheist in Turkey had an indelible impact on his life. For example, once, when our niece asked him why he prefers the U.S. t0 Turkey, this massacre was the first thing he listed – stating that at least the civil rights movement has some power in this country. Although M. is not an Alevi, he is an ardent supporter of both the freedom of religion and freedom of expression – and worries at the increasing limitations on both he sees in Turkey over the decades – sometimes in the name of liberal to left causes. But that is a topic for another time.
Part of the reasoning behind the firesetting at the Sivas massacre, as I understand it, was the idea that one of the Alevi authors at the cultural celebration was allegedly promoting atheism. And this, in part, may be behind M.’s longstanding feelings about the Sivas massacre. Let me tell you a story about that. Once, M. tells me, as a young and naive 15 year-old student, he and his dear friend decided to take a stance with respect to their right to proclaim themselves as atheists in secular Turkey. They were, you see, essentially protesting the default listing of religion on their national identity cards. And the default listing was Sun’ni Muslim. In recounting the tale, M. channels the teenaged version of himself, who proclaimed “Why not test the secular-ness of our country, by changing our identity cards?”
Now before I go on, let me say that M. does come from Sun’ni roots, he was raised in a primarily secular family (his Bosnian grandmother was the only one who prayed 5 times a day while he was growing up), but explains with some sadness that while he desperately wanted to “feel God” the way others he knew did, God just never came to him. Coming into his adolescence in the 1970s, M. lived through news reports from Iran – and became fearful of the potentially negative power of religion. It seems that the Sivas massacre was the straw that broke the camel’s back for him.
Once he and his friend were in the belediye(that’s akin to a city hall, folks) requesting that their identity cards be changed, a generous and wise soul took pity on them. As M. tells it, the kindly amca (gentleman, uncle) at the identity card window encouraged them to reconsider their request. “Yes it is true,” he said, “you have the right to do this – but do you really think this is a wise decision? You will need to go to court for this. What would happen if you were stopped by the cops and they saw that you were atheists? Do you really want to test this out? Is it really worth it to you? There are times that standing on principle is not worth it, I ask you to consider this.” Uncharacteristically, my protest-oriented odd duck of a husband thought better of the move to test the limits of what is supposed to be a secular state – and left the Sun’ni Muslim marker on his identity card.
As I write this, Esma, the tiny hippie puppet, is sighing through a blue-grey funk. She is dejected today, not even able to continue her celebration of our win of the Liebster award I wrote about yesterday. Instead of her usual buoyant flitting about the house, she sits by the window, looking out at the rain on the water in Provincetown bay. Without even turning to face me, the words slip sadly out of her mouth, “it is a sad day when it comes to this Sivas massacre verdict, and I feel M.’s pain left over for years – the pain that made him let go of his right to proclaim his lack of religion” she says, her words are accompanied by sad, wilty white gladiolas, a traditional funeral flower in the United States. Esma, you see, emits flowers from her mouth and ears depending on her mood. If she is in a wicked mood, it’s usually the sharp-edged but boldly-colored ginger flower or birds-of-pardise whereas if she is joyful and light it is often soft and airy jasmine and rose petals. But today, it is those aforementioned wilty, white gladiolas, their soft plopping sound hitting the floor with a maudlin regularity.
“It is grey indeed today. It feels as though the sun is nowhere in the world,” Esma continues, sighing deeply, “and I remember all of the pain of July 2, 1993. What I have never told you, m’lady, is that my interest in Sufism is actually an offshoot of being raised as an Alevi. As you may know, Alevis are a minority group in Turkey, who have roots in Shi’ia Islam with a twinge of Sufism. We are a group of critical thinkers, who reject gender oppression and embrace social change. You can read more about us here”
“Allah, hallah,” Esma continued, using Turkish slang to indicate a big emotional sigh of surprise or intensity, “if I let myself think about it, I would think about the Sivas massacre and the Maraş massacre and so many others all the time – but although Wikipedia has a page devoted to “massacres in Turkey” this is not the spiritual or moral core of the majority of the home country I know…and I fear that people will not see that. I wish for peace on this matter, and resolution – and a more tolerant Turkiye.”