Turkey’s crisis and the crisis of the left

IN EUROPE we have grown accustomed to hear about the Kurdish movement of independence and about the colonial war to suppress it waged in south eastern Turkey. However last week’s events in Istanbul and in other major cities of Turkey brought forward a relatively little known aspect of Turkey and its people which also tears the society apart.

The Alevi community constitutes about one third of Turkey’s population. Despite the European media’s confusion in presenting Alevis as Kurds, the two problems are quite separate. Although there is a smaller Kurdish Alevi community, Alevism has been historically the popular religion of Turks. The Kurds in Turkey in the main follow the most conservative Shafi sect of Sunni Islam and never accepted the Alevi Kurds as religious and tribal kin. Historically this led to alliances of Kurdish tribes with the Ottoman court against Alevi uprisings.

Previously Kurdish nationalist movements were vehemently against any mention or movement of Alevi Kurds as they feared this would lead to a split within their midst. However in recent months, as Alevism has shown its potential in Turkey, this attitude is being changed and attempts to create a Kurdish-Alevi movement in support and under the control of the nationalist movement has emerged.

Despite the fact that the Alevis follow the main tenets of the Shia sect of Islam, their religious ideas and practices do not have much in common with the Shia Islam of present day Iran. The Iranian Shia, by becoming the state religion, through its use as an instrument of oppression of the Shahs, lost its earlier aspects of opposition. The Alevis in Turkey however have always remained the popular religion of peasants, craft workers in the towns and nomadic tribespeople, who always stood against the central and brutal power of the Ottoman court. The Ottoman Empire adopted Sunni Islam as its official religion.

This social conflict gave way to a great many uprisings of Alevis and the brutal suppression of these revolts.

The result of this process is today’s Alevi community. A community which does not trust officialdom and which has a vested interest in the existence of a secular state system, which has a basic belief in social justice and egalitarianism and which has a culture based on humanism and tolerance. Consequently the Alevi youth have always been over-represented in revolutionary youth organisations and movements. Many Alevi ballads are still sung in working class socials.

As Islamic fundamentalism has been on the rise across the Middle East and North Africa, Sunni Islam in Turkey has also enjoyed a new revival. During the military regime of the 1980s Sunni Islamic fundamentalism was supported by the state as a measure to counter socialist ideology and also against the upbeat Shia Islamic fundamentalism of Iran. The last remnants of the secular state were removed one by one under the army generals. The same policy was continued by the civilian governments following the Junta.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent decline in socialist appeal, the Alevi community began to organise under its own banners to stand against this rise of Sunni Islamic fundamentalism. Many associations were formed and the spiritual leadership was pressurised into taking a more active stance in political life.

As they began to make their presence felt they also became the targets of the Islamic fundamentalist terror campaigns, as did other democratic forces.

Last week’s deliberately provocative attack was intended to force the Alevis onto the defensive. In one sense it was successful. The attack killed four people, but more than twenty were killed in the streets by police forces which are heavily and openly infiltrated by Sunni Islamic reactionaries.

However, the attack has also brought about a positive aspect. Many Alevi organisations have seen the limits of their movement and have also seen the urgency of cooperation with other democratic forces. On the other hand, despite their lip service, many of the democratic associations (and especially the trade unions) stayed aloof with a distinct fear of getting involved in a religious communal split. Small and extremist left organisations have shown their inability to understand realities and have called for an immediate revolution.

The events have also shown how divided the ruling class of Turkey is and how incapable of forming a government with a popular mandate. This split has also indicated that many illegal and secret organisations with their own agendas are active within the crevices of the state monolith in Turkey. The events showed how deep the social crisis is and how this in turn deepens the crisis of the left.

Above all the events of the last week have shown the desperate and urgent need of a revolutionary Communist Party in Turkey.

Aziz Demir