Martyrdom in Alevism

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Alevis understand their historical origin with the saying ‘allegiance with the oppressed (mazlum)’ and ‘standing up to the tyrant (zalim)’. They seal their destiny in allegiance with Ali. His right to claim the caliphate was overruled by his political powerful rivals. Then, his two sons, Hasan and Hussein, were killed in their search for justice. The murder of Hussein with his 72 followers in Kerbela in 680 has significant importance in defining Alevi’s group identity.

Following his death, many people took side with Ali’s cause throughout history and they were punished for their advocacy of Ali. The execution of these people per-fectly articulates the perception of being an eternal victim in Alevism. What is common in these historical events is that “they were killed by a superior state authority which was either de jure or de facto Sunni Islamic” (Reinhard Hess 2007: 282). Reinhard Hess further differentiates the notion of Martyrdom in Alevism and Sunnism. The “absence of violent details… or aggressive interpretation… oriented towards an outward enemy” (ibid. 276) differentiates the notion of Martyrdom in Alevism from that in Sunnism. He also underlines that this album of martyrdom in Alevism is open to further affiliations.

For instance, the abolishment of the Janissary Organisation in 1826 is understood as insistent continuation of the Ottoman oppression against Alevism. The Janissaries were an infantry unit formed in the 14th century as the household troops of the Sultanate. The Bektashi order was appointed as the patron lodge to this special military force. The Janissary system became politically corrupted during the recession period. As a part of modernisation reforms, Mahmut the Second attempted to abolish this force in 1826 and the Bektashi lodges were also aggressively targeted during the massive military cam-paign against the Janissaries.

It is popularly claimed that Alevis welcomed and venerated the establishment of the Republic in 1923. However, this is not true for all Alevi communities, especially, those, who contravened or did not give support to the Republic, were targeted by the military campaigns in 1921 in Koçgiri and 1937-38 in Dersim. The abolishment of the main Bektashi Lodge in 1925, due to secularism caused irreversible devastation in their spiritual and social organisation.

This articulation gains obvious political characteristics in the 1970s. Alevi communities were victimized by right-wing Islamic militancy in the Middle and South-Eastern Anatolian regions during political polarisation in the 1970s. An example of this victimisation can be seen when 111 Alevis were killed in a civil war-like clash in Maras in 1978. Reinhard Hess indicates that these civil victims as well as Alevi leftist militants are “quoted in an Alevi source in a line of continuity with traditional Alevi martyr figures” (2007: 281)

On July 2nd 1993, during the second day of the Pir Sultan Abdal Cultural Festival in Sivas, Turkey, a crowd of thousands assembled after their Friday prayers, to protest against the festival. Upon surrounding the hotel, where the festival participants were staying, the protest got out of control and 37 people lost their lives in the fire set by Islamic militants. Of those who died, two were from among the protestors and another two were from hotel personnel. The rest of the 33 killed, including a Dutch female anthropologist, took their place in the line of martyrdom for Alevis.

Two years later, on the evening of March 12, 1995, anonymous assailants opened fire from a car at three Alevi café houses in the Gazi District, which is a historically left wing and Alevi shanty-town area of Istanbul. An elderly Dede, Halil Kaya, and another Alevi lost their lives during the shooting. Following this attack, the local residents organised a protest and marched to the police station in the district. The police responded aggres-sively to the protest and this resulted in it developing into a civil uprising and spread to other Alevi shantytown districts which were placed under partial curfew. 19 people lost their lives in three days during this massacre.

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