Syria, provocations harden Alevi voters against Erdogan

Hasan from Antakya in Turkey's Hatay Province, says Syrian refugees are a cheap source of labour and are pushing Turkish Alevis out of jobs. (Matthew Clayfield)

Alevis accuse newly-elected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of dividing people along sectarian lines.

Hasan is a plasterer. Or at least he was one. These days he spends his time in the workers’ tea houses of Defne, in Turkey’s Hatay Province, playing cards, shooting the breeze and ruing the day this southern panhandle between the Mediterranean and Syria was inundated with refugees from the latter’s brutal civil war.

The father of five said his workload had more than halved since Syrian refugees arrived in the province and was still decreasing by the day.

“The Syrians aren’t our enemies,” he said, “but they’re taking the bread from our mouths. They are less expensive than Turkish workers and are the reason people like me are losing our jobs.”

Erdoğan’s victory “means more fear, more assimilation and more worrying about employment and our livelihoods,” he said.

They are also one of the reasons that people like Hasan—one of Turkey’s 15 million Alevis, members of a liberal sect of Shia Islam vaguely related to Syria’s ruling Alawites but different from them it important ways—voted so resoundingly against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the country’s first direct presidential election at the weekend.

In Alevi-majority Defne, a municipality created this year when Antakya’s voting districts were split along sectarian lines, Erdoğan garnered a mere 4.4 per cent of the vote, one of his worst showings anywhere in the country. His main competitor, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, won 92 per cent.

While Erdoğan polled much better across Hatay Province as a whole, winning 44.1 per cent of the vote, the results nevertheless suggest that the region’s voters are growing ever more dissatisfied with him and his policies. In March, the CHP won Hatay by less than 1 per cent. On Sunday, İhsanoğlu took the province by more than eight.  Five years ago, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) held it by a comfortable 18 points.

In addition to the AKP’s policy of keeping Turkey’s Syrian border open to facilitate the movement of refugees and aid—not to mention the foreign jihadists who are now cutting swathes through Syria and Iraq along the country’s southern frontier—Erdoğan’s increasingly provocative anti-Alevi rhetoric has all but invited this electoral punishment.

“Erdoğan’s language, particularly since the beginning of the Syrian War, has become increasingly sectarian,” said Soli Özel, a professor of International Relations and Political Science at Istanbul Bilgi University. “In 2011, during the general electoral campaign, he let his supporters boo [CHP leader] Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu when he implied that Kılıçdaroğlu was an Alevi. His statement that ‘53 of our Sunni citizens were martyred’ in the Reyhanlı terrorist incident”—a double car-bombing in Hatay Province that took place in May last year—“sent shockwaves through the Alevi community.” The attack, many hastened to point out at the time, did not kill differentiate between members of one faith and another.

Erdoğan has also referred to 15-year-old Alevi Berkin Elvan, who went into a nine-month coma after being hit in a head with a tear-gas canister during last year’s Gezi Park protests, as a “member of a terrorist organisation” and encouraged his supporters to boo the teenager’s family at a rally two days after the boy’s death. (Six of the people killed during the protests were Alevi.) His accusations that the Alevi community support Syria’s Bashar al-Assad on religious grounds have been met with increasing frustration.

There have certainly been a number of pro-Assad rallies in Hatay—the largest, in September 2012, drew more than 10,000 people—and the Reyhanlı bombings are believed to have been masterminded by Mihraç Ural, a Turkish Alawite who also spearheaded a massacre of 77 Sunnis, including 14 children, in the Syrian village of Baniyas in May last year.

But intelligence officials have claimed that attempts by Ural and other Turkish Alawite groups—also known in Turkey as Arab Alevis, whose religious beliefs and practices have more in common with Syrian Alawism than Turkish Alevism—to recruit Alevi youth to fight for Assad have been mostly unsuccessful. Ural, who has Syrian citizenship, has not lived in Turkey since 1980.

But sectarian tensions inevitably remain. Amer, who asked that his surname not be used, has operated a corner store in Antakya since fleeing Hama, in Syria’s centre-west, two years ago. While 90 per cent of his dealings with Turks were congenial, he said, 10 per cent were marred by the fact that “some people want to fight on the other side.”

“Those people are always Alevi,” he said.

Ali Kenanoğlu, chairman of the Hubyar Sultan Alevi Culture Centre, said the Alevi community didn’t support Assad so much as they opposed the organisations attempting to overthrow him. Groups like the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (IS) represented the same existential threat to Turkish Alevis as they did to Syrian Alawites, he said.

“We prefer that Assad remains in power for a long-term democratic transition,” Kenanoğlu said. “Alevis support a democratic system and oppose dictatorial one-man rule. But no one could expect us to support Alevi-killers just to get rid of Assad.”

Kenanoğlu said Erdoğan’s support for such groups was a result of his sectarian approach to politics.

“Erdoğan’s Aleviphobia has been a constant in his political career,” he said. “It has roots in his Muslim Brotherhood background and has long been visible in his aggressive policies towards our community. His Islamic tradition views Alevis as khafirs [infidels].”

“Alevis in Turkey face economic hardship along with a denial of our religious rights and liberties,” Kenanoğlu said. “Alevis are repeatedly and systematically looked down upon. We are accused of being perverts, atheists and so on. We are denied employment on the basis of our religious identity and get fired on the basis of our religious identity. Alevis who refuse to accept Sunni or Shia Islam’s requirements are subjected to discrimination in every aspect of their lives.”

Erdoğan’s victory “means more fear, more assimilation and more worrying about employment and our livelihoods,” he said.

Back in the Defne tea house, that worrying has already begun. The idea that the worst is yet to come hangs heavy in the air.

“If I lose any more work, I don’t know what I will do,” Hasan said. “I don’t know how I will be able to look after my family. I will not be able to call myself a man.”

“We need to be saved from this man,” he said. “He considers us his enemies and we consider him ours.”

Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent.

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