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Jeffrey Gettleman On The Alawites (And Alevis) Of Turkey
In an excellent article in today's New York Times, Jeffrey Gettleman gives some sense of what the Alawis fear from murderous Sunnis. He notes that there are plenty of Alawis across the border, in Turkey, too, whose sympathies are with Assad. But when he refers to 15 to 20 million Alawis, he is treating, as identifcal to Alawites, the Alevis of eastern Turkey. This is understandable. But it is not quite true that the Alevis in Turkey (as opposed to the often Arabic-speaking Alawis in Turkey on the border with Syria) are exactly the same as the Alawis. There are differences, which he might have pointed out if only, then, to minimize them, or to explain why those differences, under Sunni pressure, are lessening. He might also have noted the veneration of Mary that is everywhere apparent in Alawite villages, and how the Alawis are clearly not Orthodox Muslims, either Sunni or, as some now assert, Shi'a Islam, but practice a syncretistic faith with a lot of Christian belief intermixed. If, for protective coloration, Syria's Alawites managed to get an Iranian cleric to declare them to be full-fledged, Shi'a Mulims, and if, for further protective coloration, Syria's Alawites have been ostentatiously, even hysterically, anti-Israel in their propaganda, that doesn't turn them into orthodox Muslims. And their problem, in a Muslim sea, not only remains, but now cannot be undone. For the Camp of Islam, that's a bad thing. For the Camp of Infidels, that's a good thing.
Here's Gettleman's piece:
As Syria War Roils, Unrest Among Sects Hits Turkey
by Jeffrey Gettleman
Many Turkish Alawites, estimated at 15 million to 20 million strong and one of the biggest minorities in this country, seem to be solidly behind Syria’s leader, Bashar al-Assad. [Gettleman makes no distinction between Syrian Alawites and Turkish Alevis, There is one, but it's becoming less important in response to Sunni hostility]
ANTAKYA, Turkey — At 1 a.m. last Sunday, in the farming town of Surgu, about six hours away from here, a mob formed at the Evli family’s door.
Ayman Oghanna for The New York Times
A tapestry for sale in the Turkish town of Harbiye showed an image of a widely supported President Bashar al-Assad.
Ayman Oghanna for The New York Times
Turhan Sat, an Alawite, showed a necklace with a mingling of Alawite and Christian iconography.
The New York Times
“People here love Assad,” a vendor in Harbiye said.
The ill will had been brewing for days, ever since the Evli family chased away a drummer who had been trying to rouse people to a predawn Ramadan feast. The Evlis are Alawite, a historically persecuted minority sect of Islam, and also the sect of Syria’s embattled leaders, and many Alawites do not follow Islamic traditions like fasting for Ramadan.
The mob began to hurl insults. Then rocks.
“Death to Alawites!” they shouted. “We’re going to burn you all down!”
Then someone fired a gun.
“They were there to kill us,” said Servet Evli, who was hiding in his bedroom with his pregnant wife and terrified daughter, both so afraid that they urinated through their clothes.
As Syria’s civil war degenerates into a bloody sectarian showdown between the government’s Alawite-dominated troops and the Sunni Muslim majority, tensions are increasing across the border between Turkey’s Alawite minority and the Sunni Muslim majority here.
Many Turkish Alawites, estimated at 15 million to 20 million strong and one of the biggest minorities in this country, seem to be solidly behind Syria’s embattled strongman, Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey’s government, and many Sunnis, supports the Syrian rebels.
The Alawites fear the sectarian violence spilling across the border. Already, the sweltering, teeming refugee camps along the frontier are fast becoming caldrons of anti-Alawite feelings.
“If any come here, we’re going to kill them,” said Mehmed Aziz, 28, a Syrian refugee at a camp in Ceylanpinar, who drew a finger across his throat.
He and his friends are Sunnis, and they all howled in delight at the thought of exacting revenge against Alawites.
Many Alawites in Turkey, especially in eastern Turkey where Alawites tend to speak Arabic and are closely connected to Alawites in Syria, are suspicious of the bigger geopolitics, and foreign policy analysts say they may have a point. The Turkish government is led by an Islamist-rooted party that is slowly but clearly trying to bring more religion, particularly Sunni Islam, into the public sphere, eschewing decades of purposefully secular rule. Alawites here find it deeply unsettling, and a bit hypocritical, that Turkey has teamed up with Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive countries in the world, and Qatar, a religious monarchy, both Sunni, to bring democracy to Syria.
The Alawites point to the surge of foreign jihadists streaming into Turkey, en route to fight a holy war on Syria’s battlefields. Many jihadists are fixated on turning Syria, which under the Assad family’s rule has been one of the most secular countries in the Middle East, into a pure Islamist state.
“Do you really believe these guys are going to build a democracy?” asked Refik Eryilmaz, an Alawite member of the Turkish Parliament. “The Americans are making a huge mistake. They’re helping Turkey fight Assad, but they’re creating another Taliban.”
American officials recently disclosed that a small group of C.I.A. agents were working along the Turkey-Syria border with their Turkish counterparts, vetting which rebels receive weapons. American officials have acknowledged concerns about Syria turning into a magnet for jihadists, but they believe that foreign fighters still make up only a small slice of the Syrian resistance.
Ali Carkoglu, a professor of international relations with Koc University in Istanbul, said Turkey’s government was increasingly using sectarian language and trying to play the role of “the Sunni elder brother” in the region. Like Syria, Turkey’s population is predominantly Sunni.
The Alawites here are worried they could become easy targets. Historically, they have been viewed with suspicion across the Middle East by mainstream Muslims and often scorned as infidels. The Alawite sect was born in the ninth century and braids together religious beliefs, including reincarnation, from different faiths.
Many Alawites do not ever go to a mosque; they tend to worship at home or in Alawite temples that have been denied the same state support in Turkey that Sunni mosques get. Many Alawite women do not veil their faces or even cover their heads. The towns they dominate in eastern Turkey, where young women sport tank tops and tight jeans, feel totally different than religious Sunni towns just a few hours away, where it can be difficult even to find a woman in public.
“We’re more moderate,” explained Turhan Sat, a Turkish Alawite who works at a gas station in Bridgeport, Conn., and was on vacation in Turkey. He was swigging tea the other day in the leafy town square of Samandag, a predominantly Alawite town not far from the Syrian border.
“We’re all with Assad,” he said.
Not far away in the Alawite-dominated town of Harbiye, there is a new best-selling item that cannot seem to stay on the shelves: cheap tapestries bearing Mr. Assad’s portrait.
“Everybody wants them,” said Selahattin Eroglu, a vendor, who had just sold his last one. “People here love Assad.”
Part of this sentiment may be self-protective. The Syrian rebels hardly conceal a vicious sectarian antipathy. Khaldoun al-Rajab, an officer with the rebel Free Syrian Army, said he witnessed two Alawites in a car take a wrong turn in Homs and end up in a Sunni neighborhood. “Of course they were arrested and killed by rebels,” he said. [this may remind many of the two Jewish reservists who made a wrong turn and were lynched by Arabs in Ramallah, who gleefully held up, from a window for a crowd of fellow frenzied Arabs to see, in their hands dripping with blood, intestines and other parts of the two murdered Israelis]
Few in Turkey expect such bedlam to break out anytime soon in this country, which is tightly controlled and has escaped violent sectarianism, for the most part.
But the threatening mob at the Evli family’s home in Surgu reminded many Alawites of the killing of more than 30 Alawites in 1993 who were burned alive by a group of Islamists in the Turkish town of Sivas.
It was only after police officers reassured the mob that the Evli family was moving out of the neighborhood, which was news to the Evlis, that the mob dissipated.
Though the Evlis are also Kurdish, another minority group in Turkey, which may have contributed to the nasty feelings against them, Songul Canpolat, a director of an Alawite foundation in Turkey, said, “The idea that Turkish Alawites should be eliminated is gaining ground.”
Turkish government officials denied any bias against Alawites, saying they had made extra efforts to be “attentive and sensitive” to Alawite fears.
“Of course, we do not claim that all issues are resolved,” said Egemen Bagis, minister for European Union affairs.
A few months ago, Mr. Eryilmaz, the member of Parliament, who belongs to an opposition party, went to see Mr. Assad in Damascus. He said that Mr. Assad was actually quite relaxed and that this whole conflict was really about religion.
“What’s happening inside Syria is the Syrian leg of an international project,” he said, with the Turkish government aligning with Saudi Arabia and Qatar to make this part of the Middle East more religiously “radical.”
He was sitting in a cafe in Antakya, a border town with a large Alawite population, and digging into a plate of baklava during the bright, sunny hours of the afternoon, when Muslims observing Ramadan usually fast.
“Look at my people,” he smiled, spreading his hands wide and encompassing families eating ice cream and one young couple nuzzling on a couch. “My people are free.”