News / Europe

Istanbul Residents Skeptical of 'Risk Area' Declaration

Alevi demonstrators shout anti-goverment slogans during a protest against the latest violence in Okmeydani, a working-class district in the center of the city, in Istanbul May 25, 2014
Alevi demonstrators shout anti-goverment slogans during a protest against the latest violence in Okmeydani, a working-class district in the center of the city, in Istanbul May 25, 2014
Dorian Jones
— Istanbul city authorities have announced the destruction of an area containing thousands of people's homes because they say they are unsafe.

The decision has caused outrage because the area is a center of anti-government unrest and home to a minority religious sect.

Istanbul’s Okmeydani district is a hot bed of anti-government protests, many walls are covered in graffiti critical of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  There also are written names of people who have been killed here by security forces.  

But the residents face a new threat.  The ruling AK Party has designated the area an earthquake risk and ordered the destruction of buildings.
 
For Hasan, a shopkeeper, there is no doubt as to what lies behind this decision.  He says he believes it is absolutely a political move because the prime minister wants to break up the fabric of the society here. 

He said in the current political environment the government sees this place, and the Alevi people living here, as a threat and an enemy.   
 
The Okmeydani district is home to many Alevis, who follow a progressive form of Islam that allows men and women to pray together and does not require women to wear religious headscarves.

Traditionally, many Alevis, who make us as much as a fifth of the population in Turkey, support left of center political parties.

Analysts say it is a coincidence the dozen or so people killed by security forces in a year of political unrest were Alevis.  

But they warn the coincidence is exacerbating deep suspicions of the sect by the ruling AK party and its supporters, many whom are pious orthodox Sunni Muslims.
Professor Istar Gozaydin of Istanbul's Dogus University says the current political strife is stirring ancient tensions.  

"They (Alevis) are sort of heretics in the eyes of Sunni Muslims.  The Alevis have been experiencing all sorts of atrocities, discriminations.  Unfortunately that is still continuing today," he said.

Tensions are on the rise as Prime Minister Erdogan hits the campaign trail.  He is expected to run for president in elections this August.

Critics accuse him of using increasingly sectarian language to drum up support among pious supporters and of implying that Alevis are part of a plot against him.
  
In response, thousands of Alevis have been on the streets of Istanbul protesting prejudice and police brutality.

This teacher who did not give her name says she is worried the AK party is stoking a religious polarization. 

"I feel that I am not a part of this country.  I feel the government wants us to live the way they want.  Some conservative Muslims do not like Alevis.  Alevis (have been) massacred in this country, 50, 100, 200 people were killed.  It can happen to us to, so I am afraid."
 
The religious affairs directorate that administers the Muslim faith in Turkey is the Diyanet.  Its deputy head, Mehmet Pacaci, says the tensions need to be confronted. 

"Actually the Diyanet, will have a role to ease this tension.  Of course there is a tension.  There is a kind of stereotype.  Misconceptions are on both sides as well.  So yes there are many things to do, for Diyanet as well, and we will find a way to solve this problem," he said.

Last year’s mass protests were provoked by a plan to redevelop Gezi Park, and now that the homes of the Alevis are due to be pulled down, Turkey's next battleground could be the Okmeydani district.

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