Will Turkey See a Sunni-Alevi Confrontation in the Near Future?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 242

On December 18 the Turkish media reported that the Kotku Mosque in the Uskudar district of Istanbul had become the city’s 12th mosque in 11 days to be set on fire (Anadolu Ajansi, December 18). It was the second case of arson at the mosque in three days (Hurriyet, December 19). The first attempt was on December 16 (Zaman, December 16).

This followed a series of acts of arson against Istanbul mosques: Yunus Emre Mosque in Karta on December 8; Hacı Mehmet Sahsuvaroglu Mosque in Umraniye on December 10; Veysel Karani and Hacı Akif Demirci Mosques in Sancaktepe district, Medine Mescidi and Kucukbakkalkoy Merkez Mosques in Kadikoy, and Ulu Mosque in Pendik on December 14; and Mavi Evler Mosque in Adinevler district on December 15 (Anadolu Ajansi, NTV, December 15).

Almost all the fires occurred on the Asian side of Istanbul, where Alevi and Sunni people live side by side. Police sources indicated that most of the incidents took place close to Alevi communities (Evrensel, December 18). Moreover, the mosques that were affected are reportedly not within the monitoring area of the MOBESE closed-circuit camera system, which is operated by Istanbul police units (Taraf, December 18).

Another interesting thing was the timing of the fires. The first fire was set on the eve of the religious holiday of Kurban Bayrami, when people are the most sensitive about religious values. In addition, the fires have coincided with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s resumption of its Alevi reform policies. One should note that one of the main Alevi demands is to turn the Madimak Hotel, where 37 Alevi intellectuals died when angry Sunnis set fire to the hotel, into either a museum or a cultural center (see EDM, December 9).

So far no fatality has been reported in these fires, and there was little damage to most of the mosques. The police are still investigating the incidents; but the media have already decided that the mosques were set on fire to incite the Sunni majority against the Alevi minority. The police have warned the Alevi communities about possible provocations (Vatan, December 15). It seems that the Alevi communities are well aware of the fact that they could become the target of repercussions if the fires continue and claim lives. To avoid a possible Alevi-Sunni confrontation Alevi leaders have strongly condemned the fires (Zaman, December 17)

As with similar incidents, people from both sides believe that “outside forces” are behind the fires. A columnist from Yeni Safak, for instance, implied that the United States was behind such actions in the Muslim world (Yeni Safak, December 18); and Alevi communities also blame the incidents on outsiders (Zaman, December 17). Ahmet Yildiz, the head of the Diyanet labor union, which advocates imamic rights, made the same argument, saying that “It is not coincidental that the PKK uses U.S.-made guns and German-made hand grenades. Foreign intelligence services are behind many of the incidents like the mosque fires” (Vakit, December, 18).

It is interesting that people on both sides, Sunni and Alevi alike, think that the mosque fires were carefully planned to create tension between the two groups. The central question remains though as to why these mosques were targeted, particularly if neither group wants to provoke the other

One possible explanation is that this is being done to create fear by giving the impression that Istanbul and other big cities are no longer safe. This fear could be one way of controlling political debate and weakening the ruling political party. It would not be the first time that fear tactics have been used for political means. One of the main strategies of the Ergenekon network, for example, was using fear to create chaos in order to weaken the civilian government.

Second, despite the fact that Alevi and Sunni leaders speak out against confrontation, neither the Alevis nor the Sunnis are homogeneous groups. It is likely that continuing agitation could eventually lead to strife between various factions within the Alevi and Sunni communities. Once these factions come into conflict, it could trigger more turbulence between the two communities in general. The existence of some leftist militant organizations that are recruited predominantly from among the Alevis may further complicate the issue, if the Alevis and Sunnis come into contention.