Orhan Kemal Cengiz
Maras 1978 (3): An Alevi genocide that is called a massacre
In the final part of my series, I would like to discuss what the Maras massacre means for Turkey today. Can a society lead a peaceful life by turning a blind eye to events of this magnitude that happened just 44 years ago?
Turkish society, as per usual after traumatic “events,” continues as if nothing has happened, as if an Alevi massacre never took place. As I mentioned in part two, if there had not been resistance by a handful of people, this massacre could have left tens of thousands of people dead, as the actions and rhetoric of the perpetrators evidence that they intended to kill every single Alevi they found. In this sense, the massacre constitutes a genocide on a smaller scale.
If this massacre is confronted holistically, we will start to question many other things. The role of the Grey Wolves and the Turkish far-right in this genocidal persecution is obvious. Beyond that, however, is there a connection between Turkey’s treating the far-right as a normal political wing, and the denial of massacres and atrocities in the past? Would the far-right be treated like this in a Turkey that could fully face atrocities that took place on its lands? I do not think so.
We know from the testimonies of the victims that local imams and mosques played a crucial role in provoking and emboldening attackers. If we had an honest approach to this Sunni versus Alevi massacre, would the Directorate of Religious Affairs in Turkey, which is a Sunni institution, dare to comment on Alevism, on whether it constitutes a religious belief, on whether Cemevis are worship places, and so on, or would they hem and haw instead?
The same questions apply to many different groups in Turkey. Would the public and the state of a Turkey which confronts head-on its atrocities against Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Kurds, and many others, still be discriminatory in its treatment of these groups?
If Turkey had come to terms with its past, would the matter of national identity be so black and white, with Sunni-white Turks characterized as always right, honorable, and heroic against the rest of the public which is presumed to be ungrateful, treacherous, and second-class citizens?
Where is Turkey on a spectrum of reckoning with the past and sympathizing with the losses and sufferings of those it victimized? To be frank, in a country in which even the commemoration of a victim of the Maras massacre is not possible, it would seem we have not even begun the journey.
The first commemoration of the victims of the 1978 massacre could have been held in Maras in the year 2010. It is difficult to imagine that no one could dare go to Maras to commemorate these deeply traumatic events before 2010. Yet what happened when Alevis went to Maras to remember the victims is perhaps even more shocking. In 2010, when the first commemoration took place in Maras, Alevis were met with an angry crowd composed mostly of Grey Wolf members chanting chilling slogans: “This is Maras, there is no way out of here!”
This slogan is not merely a threat to those who came to the city to commemorate the victims, but through its reference to the event, it shows that the same murderous spirit that animated the massacre is still alive and well. In the face of those who want to remember and mourn the past, those who would embrace this history and proudly claim its horrors present their ugly faces.
It is not only an angry mob who prevented the Alevis from commemorating their victims. During the 2012 anniversary of the Maras massacre, all vehicles coming from outside the city were stopped and searched by security forces. Evidently, the state was not comfortable with the commemorations. In 2013, the townsfolk were not allowed to attend the commemoration, and from 2014 onwards, commemorations were banned altogether. Although right-wing nationalist counterdemonstrators had been the only aggressive and threatening elements at these commemorations, and although those gathering to remember the victims had exercised their right of assembly in a peaceful manner, the Maras Governor’s Office justified the ban saying, “those who organized the meeting and the march might go beyond their stated good intentions, which, once out of control, could evolve into crime.”
In 2017, though commemorations were still banned, one was held anyway at the insistence of participants. This was the last year the event was held publicly. In 2018, on the 40th anniversary of the massacre, its commemoration was once more forbidden. Any meetings and demonstrations in Maras from December 12th to the 31st were prohibited, supposedly “in order to maintain national security and public order with peace and safety, to protect the rights and freedoms of others, and to prevent crime.” Although the announcement of the ban referred neither to the December 1978 massacre nor to its commemoration, and although it was written as if a general security measure had been introduced in the city, it was obvious that the ban’s sole purpose was to prevent commemorative activities.
After lengthy negotiations with the Governor’s Office, a 2018 commemorative gathering was permitted at the Narli Cem House in Maras. The commemoration was thus made to withdraw from the streets of the city into a Cemevi. The gathering was not treated as a commemoration of the victims of a horrific massacre, as an event everyone ought to respect. In 2019, 2020, and 2021, the pattern persisted. In 2022 too, public commemorations were forbidden. Alevis could only mourn their victims behind the walls of their Cemevis.
When we talk about reckoning with the past, some people think it nothing more than an unnecessary fantasy. But I believe that coming to terms with the past is an indispensable process if Turkey is ever to ever reach a state of normalcy, to become a democracy in the truest sense, to establish the rule of law, or to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable and that crimes do not go unpunished.
In this regard, our refusal to acknowledge and deal with the ramifications of the Maras massacre shows how far removed we are from such a point of social awareness and genuine transformation of the political culture. We cannot even face a genocide that took place a mere 44 years ago in the middle of Anatolia.