My attention was drawn this week to what appeared to be small news. It was a report shared by Pirha News Agency, which serves the Alevi community in Turkey, about Islamic children’s books that had been distributed in a camp for Alevi earthquake survivors who had become homeless. It made me realize once again that in times of extreme tragedy, slow journalism is greatly needed to really understand all dynamics.
The news has been overwhelming since the earthquakes happened more than two weeks ago, with more than 42,000 people who have died in Turkey alone, a number that will keep rising for weeks to come. It’s horrific, it’s paralyzing, with media of course sending a stream of news and analysis about ordinary people whose lives have been destroyed, about miraculous survivals of both humans and animals, about experts analysing construction fraud and corruption to explain the high death toll, about the countless aftershocks that exacerbates victims’ traumas.
It is logical that hardcore, fast news journalism goes into overdrive in such times. But when the news is so huge and devastating, the risk is that ‘smaller’ news that doesn’t seem so impactful gets snowed under.
The Alevi community is huge and has believers in different ethnic groups, but their rights have never been respected. There is, for example, a decades-long judicial battle going on about the status of cemevis, the Alevis’ houses of worship, to which different rules apply than to mosques. Also, the community’s demand for their children to be exempt from obligatory classes about Sunni Islam, backed up by the European Court of Human Rights, has remained unaddressed for decades.
For outsiders, it may seem like an unintended clumsy mistake that an Islamic children’s book was distributed in an Alevi camp. They may even find it an exaggeration for the community to worry about such a thing in times of huge crisis. But when you know the backgrounds, you know this is not a clumsy mistake. The entrance to the camp leaves no misinterpretation about the religion of the people there, as the Alevi Pir Sultan Abdal Cultural Association is well-known. In schools in Turkey, Alevi children can’t escape Islamic classes, and now they can’t escape Islamic books in their own communities either? ‘A missionary effort to assimilate our children’, one person called it in Pirha’s report.
It’s news, but it’s an expression of a long-time grievance. Just as it is news now that Alevi villages are close to deserted after the earthquakes. People left to bigger cities further away from the fault lines and may never return. For outsiders, it may seem like the kind of news that is not specific for Alevi communities. After all, other villages hit by the earthquake have also turned into ghost towns, with only people remaining there who have absolutely nowhere else to go and try to somehow survive in tents, constantly on the alert for yet another tremor.
But the Alevi villages do have a different story to tell. One incident of a couple of years ago comes to mind. Syrian refugees were coming to Turkey, and the state set up a camp for 27,000 of them in Kahramanmaraş, in an area with Alevi villages with a total population of 6,000 people. A new industrial zone was established as well, intensifying the fear of the villagers that the demography of their ancestral lands would be changed. Their fears were rooted in history: in the 1970s, Alevis were forced to migrate from Kahramanmaraş because of large-scale violence against them against which the state didn’t take any action.
The insufficient search and rescue operations after the earthquake and the lack of proper aid was likewise felt harder in Alevi villages. Was the state aiming on these citizens to lose the last sliver of trust they may have had in the state, forcing them to not only leave the towns where they had lived for generations but also to never return?
The Alevi community itself doesn’t need much explanation to fully grasp the importance of the news about the Islamic children’s books. For them, Pirha’s report is telling enough. For other communities inside Turkey and for audiences abroad, these stories need to be explained properly and put in a wider historical, social, cultural and religious perspective. That’s where slow journalism comes in. Take weeks, months, maybe a year to follow up on what happens to the population of one village. Follow those who stay, follow those who leave. Visit the graves, look at the young ones growing up. How do their lives evolve? How well are they able (and enabled) to preserve their religion and culture?
The bigger the disaster, the more urgent the need to – besides all the crucial fast news – journalistically slow down to grasp the bigger impact on marginalized communities. And that again shows you the true colours of a country.
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her acclaimed weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan.