Selman Yeşilgöz: Protect the ‘castle of the Alevi-Kızılbaş faith’

Uğur Deniz

Dersim in Turkey, which is a place of significance and the starting point for Alevi-Kızılbaş people, is in the grip of Islamist communities and sects. Dersim Research Centre (DAM) has conducted field work and research on the subject which suggests that the epicentre of these sects in the city is Munzur University. Selman Yeşilgöz, the head of DAM, said: “Claiming this place, which is known as the castle of the Alevi-Kızılbaş faith, should not be left only to a few institutions. If there is a total attack, there must be total opposition to it”. Yeşilgöz, in an interview, called upon the diaspora to take heed of these concerns.

Institutions in the city made a joint statement and stated that Dersim is “under the siege of religious sects and foundations”. Dersim Research Centre conducted a field study prior to this announcement. Could you tell us about that work?

Yes, we shared the results of a field study that we conducted at the Dersim Research Centre (DAM) with the public on 23 November, before the joint announcement made by nineteen organizations. We conducted this study together with Dersim Newspaper. Before the study, from time to time, allegations about the activities of religious sect organizations in Dersim reached public attention through coverage in the press.

Therefore, we, as DAM, put this issue on our research agenda. We conducted a field study on this subject in Dersim in September. As a result of our research, we discovered a structural network that spreads throughout Dersim, especially Munzur University, which specifically targets the city centre.

What kind of network are we talking about? Who and which institutions are included in this network?

We are talking about some foundations and institutions that sustain their existence all across Turkey. These institutions have been organizing in Dersim for a while. For example, Ensar Foundation, Unity Foundation, İlim Yayma Association and Turkey Youth Foundation opened branches in Dersim. These four foundations operate not only in Dersim but also across Turkey. These are foundations known for their Islamic discourses and various sects. For example, Ensar Foundation has attracted the public’s attention with reports about harassment and sexual assaults in its student dormitories. The Union Foundation, founded in 1985, has its origin predominantly from the National Turkish Student Union.

Most of the cadres that took part in establishment of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 are in this foundation. One of the organizations operating in Dersim is the Samarkand Foundation which is an organization of the Menzil sect, and Turkmenistan and Shia weighted. It is an institution that carries out its activities in Adıyaman and many provinces in Turkey, has been discussed in the public for the last two years, and come to the fore with the setting up of its cadre in the Ministry of Health. Ehlibeyt Sevenler Education Culture and Social Solidarity Association and Munzur Culture and Education Service Association, which was founded in Dersim, are also within the network that we mentioned. There is also the National Survival Movement Association. This association does not have a branch in Dersim, but it is in contact and has ties in Dersim via social media.

Is Munzur University at the centre of this organizational network?

Yes, it is. Munzur University, formerly Tunceli University, was founded in 2008. The majority of the organizational network at this university dates back to the Gülen Congregation (FETÖ) period. They had a serious organization here in the past: they opened colleges, private teaching institutions and “education houses”. A great effort was made for STV, a television channel owned by FETÖ, to reach a wide audience in Dersim. They also made serious progress in this area. With the elimination of FETÖ in 2016, there was a space for a short period at the university.

In other words, the history of the sect organizations in Dersim today goes back to the past?

Of course, let’s go back a little further. After the 1980 military coup, Kenan Güven, one of the organisers of the coup, started campaigns to build mosques in Dersim. They took the primary and secondary school students to imam hatip high schools and Koran courses in western provinces by bus. We have experienced all these processes. If we go even further back in history, we will encounter a process of intolerance and massacres against our belief and language in 1937-1938. Therefore, names may be changing today: the governor of the 1980’s becomes the FETO of the 1990’s, and the sect organizations we count today replace them. This is a policy. Although the actors change from time to time, this policy is carried out by a system. The scenario is always the same: to assimilate Dersim’s creed, beliefs and culture.

Dersim is one of the symbolic places of Alevism. Could you explain this assimilation strategy a little more, it’s targeting specifically of Dersim?

As you said, Dersim is the starting point of the Alevi-Kızılbaş people. It is a city that has never been integrated into the system. Various policies are being developed in order to draw this city – which stands on an opposing line to the system with its left, socialist and Kurdish identity – into a state-led ground. In other words, the aim is to ‘collapse’ Dersim, and move the Kızılbaş-Alevi beliefs towards an Alevism within the system.

What do mean by Alevism within the system?

I am talking about a Cem Foundation-style Alevism in Turkey. I am talking about dragging Alevism into an Alevism with a Mosque-Cemevi (place of gathering) mentality. Today, we see that in Dersim and other cities with an Alevi population, the policy of “if we cannot sunnize them (forcibly convert them into the Sunni tradition), if we cannot integrate them into the system, let’s make them Shia” is carried out. As a matter of fact, the reason for focusing so much on Dersim is not love, but assimilating this belief and culture. In the past, it was always said: “Dersim is an abscess, and this abscess must be removed”. This policy has been adopted and pursued for decades.

The Alevi belief of Dersim has its own lifestyle. This is not just a belief: it is a culture, a lifestyle. Middle East-Anatolian Alevism and Dersim Alevism are not one and the same. Whilst we see mosque figures in Middle East-Anatolian Alevism, we see shaman characteristics and ‘nature society’ in Dersim. There is an understanding of blessing human beings and nature in Alevi beliefs. It is not limited to being described within the scope of religion: we are talking here about a culture, a philosophy. Dersim Alevi belief has created a unique life and culture out of many beliefs and thoughts of the geography it emerged from. It is a belief in nature: it takes its holiness from all kinds of creatures living in nature.

Nature in Dersim, to which belief is firmly attached, is actually under attack: each water course is dammed with HES (hydroelectric power plants). Forests burn, but the authorities do not respond to this, and animals – sacred in Alevi culture – are killed. Can you comment?

These are indications of a holistic policy towards Dersim’s people, nature and life. HES is a problem, mine exploration is a problem, and killing of our mountain goats, to which our people in our geography attribute holiness, is another problem. This policy, which is carried out on our belief, language and culture, is all-encompassing. Parts of this whole are under attack by different sections: belief and cultural deterioration is carried out by sects and the slaughter of nature continues through capital. The attack on nature is, of course, not specific to Dersim: nature is being plundered all around Turkey. But what is unique to Dersim is that the attack on nature is accompanied by an attack on culture and belief. So, there are multiple attacks.

Have these attacks been successful? From the research you have undertaken, how have these sects worked in the city?

In the past, there were initiatives to detach many students from their beliefs and culture through FETÖ schools. FETÖ was eliminated in 2016, and then the actors changed. When we assess the situation today, I would like to explain what happened, in particular, to Munzur University. In 2015, Ubeyde İpek was appointed as the rector of this university. In the first congregation after her appointment, she decided to establish an Alevism and Bektashism Institute in Dersim. At the meeting she attended in Ordu after this decision, the following question was asked: “Why did you need such a thing?”, and she gave the following answer, referring to Dersim: “There is space here. We should not leave this space to them, we should fill it. I should gladly state that our government supports our efforts towards Tunceli (Dersim) more than yesterday. We will fill the space in Tunceli with the support of our government”.

What does she mean by ‘space?’

According to them, the ‘space’ is to integrate Alevism with the Sunni-Islamic understanding and to bring in a system of Alevism in the style of the Cem Foundation. It is not a coincidence that the date when the foundations and communities that we mentioned earlier started to get organized overlaps with the date Ubeyde İpek was at the university.

The year 2015, when the rector İpek came to the university, is a critical date since it is also the date of the termination of the peace talks and the resurgence of war in Turkey. From this perspective, how would you evaluate the arrival of the rector with the new war concept?

Certainly, the appointment of Ubeyde İpek matched with the spirit of the policy of the period. These are the cadres created for the creation of that policy: they are not ordinary cadres. The cadres that will act together with the political power and implement its directives are elected. This is usually the case, and such cadres are constantly sent to places that are deemed “important”. This is also the case for the governors in the region. From time to time, moderate people were also sent, but the main goal is always to “win”. The sending of cadres like Ubeyde İpek also serves this goal.

What are the structures and sects acting through these cadres doing in Dersim?

Together with the state’s facilities and institutions, they provide food aid to poor families they identify. They provide scholarships to students with no financial means. So, they try to win people through these means. These institutions may not have won today in Dersim, but this does not mean that they will not win tomorrow. If precautions are not taken today, it may be too late tomorrow.

Are precautions being taken? You made the findings of DAM’s research public. What happened with your report? Has there been any follow-up work done in this area?

As a matter of fact, we are trying to make the known visible, but we are at the bottom of the ladder at this moment in time. On 8 December, nineteen labour and professional organisations, including DAM, came together and issued a statement. Although it is important to provide our reaction to all of this, and make the statement,I think it was late. It is still a positive effort and it needs to be continued. At this point, the duty falls on religious institutions and the Dersimis in the diaspora. The protection of this place, known as the castle of the Alevi-Kızılbaş belief, should not be left to only a few institutions. If there is a total attack, there must be a total resistance against it. We call on everyone to embrace our belief and culture and to act together with us against this assimilation effort. We want all left, socialist, democratic and patriotic institutions, especially those from Dersim, to pay their attention to Dersim, to claim it and to embrace this common struggle. Otherwise, we may be too late tomorrow.

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Selman Yeşilgöz: Protect the ‘castle of the Alevi-Kızılbaş faith’

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