Ali Duran Topuz
Kilicdaroglu’s invitation to a better future
While opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s “The Kurds” video was still making the rounds, the presidential hopeful released a new video titled “Alevi.”
The first video, despite all its positive messaging, was a speech constructed within the framework of election strategies, but the latest "Alevi" video was not just an election speech, it was also a protest. It was the final protest in a historical series of activism, a threshold that evidenced the progress made in the Alevi struggle for recognition as equals in Turkey.
STRUGGLE FOR RECOGNITION THROUGHOUT HISTORY
The Qizilbash (Anatolian Alevi) struggle for recognition in Turkey as equal citizens began with a declaration issued by the “Alevi students" in 1963. This effort was led by those like Mustafa Timisi and Seyfi Oktay, who were representatives of the generation right before Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s own. This was followed by intense debates. A cabinet-level ministry in Turkey, the Directorate of Religious Affairs, became involved in the debacle upon its hostile statement claiming, "Alevism is dead.” Dogan Kilic, one of the leading figures of the Alevi recognition struggle in those years, published the magazine "Ehlibeyt Yolu" (“The Path of the Prophet’s Family”) in 1966.
As the debates continued, the infamous June 1966 Ortaca attack occurred. This event was actually an unofficial response given to this "struggle for recognition as equal citizens.” Unfortunately, the attacks continued until they culminated in the Maras massacre.
THE PROBLEM DOES NOT ONLY STEM FROM "RIGHT-WINGERS"
The second phase of the equality movement by Alevi communities began after the military coup of September 12, with cities at the center of the struggle as waves of migration shifted the population out of rural regions. The response to this positive process and the intensification of demands for rights came in the form of the Madimak massacre. The violent response to the struggle for equality was not only coming from the right wing, which held the reins of state power and guarded the exclusionary tendency ingrained in the "system." Deniz Baykal, whom the Alevis turned to as voters and who was then the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), in which the Alevis wanted to be politically involved, was able to say the following sentences after a district election in Istanbul:
"You missed something in the [party’s] Istanbul congress. Our friend Ahmet Guryuz Ketenci, who won the congress, is Sunni and of Turkish origin. His election as chairman shows that ethnic, local, and sectarian politics are being overcome in the CHP..."
Baykal was boasting about the fact that the Alevi members who organized and worked in the party were not elected as "Provincial Chairman.” To Baykal’s mind, to boast about the position being held by a Sunni politician could not be sectarianism; though had the person been an “Alevi” such pride would have been called “sectarianism” or “ethnic discrimination.”
THE ERA OF THE RULING PARTY
Despite the prevailing order still being a refusal to recognize Alevis as equal citizens, a "solution" of sorts had emerged. This “solution” was limited in the state sphere, but widespread among the public. Barriers to public employment had decreased, the need to keep one’s identity secret in society was no longer heavily felt, and [civil society] organizing both at the level of local groups or villagers’ associations and at the national level with large-scale organizations were continuing.
However, this progress began to reverse under the AKP administration, particularly in the social sphere. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) had chosen to exclude from the government and the public sphere anyone who was not a party member or did not bend to the party's will in its 21-year rule. The so-called "advancements" during this period often failed to materialize beyond empty promises. Most recently, a condescending and belittling response was devised to the demand for equal citizenship through the establishment of the "Alevi-Bektashi Culture and Cemevi Presidency.” This effectively relegated the status of the community to a simple touristic or cultural entity. Moreover, no one had any qualms about the harassment Kemal Kilicdaroglu faced at election rallies with people saying, “You know he’s Alevi.”
When Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy for the presidency made the news, it was not only the ruling party that demonstrated a discriminatory attitude, but also some opposition groups who claimed, “Mr. Kemal’s Alevi identity is a barrier to his election.” In subtle ways, the ruling bloc has wielded Kilicdaroglu’s identity like a poisonous weapon, even if they do not mention it explicitly. This contentious matter of Kilicdaroglu’s identity last manifested in the “prayer mat” debacle.
A THREE-LAYERED ACTION
Now, we can take a closer look at the video coming from Kilicdaroglu:
This video is not just Mr. Kilicdaroglu airing out a much-debated issue about his identity; it is actually multi-layered action:
Firstly, this move represents a critical threshold that is evidence of how far the struggle for equal citizenship, which began in the 1960s, has come; it is a sort of final protest in this movement.
Secondly, it challenges the attacks made by some that use Kilicdaroglu’s beliefs as a tool against his candidacy for the presidency. Moreover, by mentioning the "system that says, ‘An Alevi will not do,’” Kilicdaroglu posed an explicit challenge to the prevailing codes within the organization of the state.
And thirdly, it is an invitation to imagine a future where one’s beliefs will not constitute a problem in eligibility for political positions.
If Kilicdaroglu is doing this, he must have faith not only in the conscientiousness of his coalition partners in the Table of Six, but also more generally in the public. In addition to this, we can say that he seems to have confidence in the “youth” whom he addresses throughout the video.
A PERSONAL STORY
Finally, it would be helpful to point out an important (emotional) difference between the response the video elicited from non-Alevi communities and the response it received from the Alevi community. I apologize in advance, for I will rely on my personal history to do this.
After my family migrated to Istanbul, I was given a task during our first Ramadan in the city in 1976. I was to wake up at suhoor time (the pre-dawn meal for those who are fasting) and turn on the lights, [so that people would see we were also participating in the ritual]. We were hiding the fact that we were Alevi. We were told not to reveal it to anyone. I was also sent to a Quran course for the same reason. Of course, we were also supposedly hiding the fact that we were Kurdish, but that identity could not be hidden since language is an indelible stamp.
During Ramadan, we would pretend to fast, but this was the easiest part of the ordeal because secretly eating is not a difficult task. The harder part was during my middle school years when I was fasting during Muharram, a month celebrated by Alevis. Our school (Beylerbeyi High School) was a single session; we would start around 8 AM and finish around 5 PM. Eating secretly [when Sunnis are fasting] is easy, but it is almost impossible to be secretly not-eating during Muharram. Friends would offer food, you would refuse; it would be time to eat, and you would look for a hiding spot; a friend would ask you to buy food and it would be rude to say no, and not eating together would be a terrible feeling…
Of course, I will not even mention the horrible things I heard being said about "Alevites." One last note on this subject: I later realized that my religion teacher in middle school and high school, Ismail Hakki Tabakci, and my Quran course teacher, whose name I cannot remember, had caught onto the situation from the very beginning, and their contributions to me personally are deserving of immense gratitude. If they are still alive, I wish them a long life. It is perhaps this "goodness" that Mr. Kilicdaroglu had faith in when making his latest video.
Kemal Bey's statement corresponds to the pain and the injury caused by the refusal to be recognized, and the deep scars this leaves on the souls of Alevis. As such, his video is not just a simple political statement, but rather, a transformative and healing act — if it finds a response.