Turkey’s Alevis Outraged by ‘Executioner’ Name for Bridge

Turkey’s Alevis, the country’s biggest religious minority, expressed outrage at a decision to name a new bridge after an Ottoman sultan who massacred their ancestors.

The government gave the name Yavuz Sultan Selim to the planned third bridge over the Bosporus in Istanbul during a May 29 ceremony. The emperor, also known as Selim the Grim, crushed the Alevis during a 16th-century military campaign against the Persian Safavid Empire.

Selim I was “the executioner of Alevis,” Huseyin Aygun, an Alevi lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People’s Party, said in a phone interview. Ali Balkiz, former head of an Alevi umbrella group, said his name “brings out feelings of hatred rather than sorrow.”

Alevis, members of an unorthodox offshoot of Shiite Islam, may make up one-fifth of Turkey’s population. They have complained of discrimination under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose party has been in power since 2002 and has roots in Sunni Islamist movements.

Erdogan has promoted Turkey’s Ottoman past, when the sultans were also religious leaders for the world’s Sunni Muslims, over the secular system created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the 20th century. Selim, the first sultan to take the title of Caliph of Islam, also added lands as far afield as Egypt to the empire.

As conflict in the Middle East divides the region along sectarian lines, Turkey has been increasingly pulled onto the Sunni side. It’s backing Sunni-led rebels in Syria seeking to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite sect is also derived from Shiism. Turkey has also quarreled with Shiite-led governments in Iraq and Iran.

‘Great Sultan’

The government has denied discrimination against Alevis. The bridge’s name was chosen “to pay tribute to a great sultan who expanded the boundaries of our empire and who brought sacred relics” of the Prophet Mohammad to Istanbul, President Abdullah Gul said at the ceremony.

It was held on the anniversary of the 1453 capture of Istanbul by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, after whom the second Bosporus bridge was named in the 1980s.

The $3 billion suspension bridge will be the world’s widest. Erdogan asked the builders, who include Hyundai Development Co. (012630) and Astaldi SpA (AST), to finish it within two years, months earlier than scheduled.

There are no official figures for the size of Turkey’s Alevi minority. Hasan Cem Yilmaz, general secretary of an Alevi group in Ankara, the Pir Sultan Abdal Culture Association, puts the figure at between 10 and 15 million, out of 76 million.

Ottoman Past

Ilter Turan, a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, said he didn’t think the name was intended as a “message to Alevis.”

“I see it as a preference by the government to romanticize and accept the Ottoman past as a whole,” he said in a phone interview.

Balkiz said Erdogan’s government has ignored Alevi demands for religious equality and recognition of their houses of worship, which are denied state funding unlike more than 84,000 Sunni mosques.

“We wanted an end to compulsory religious culture and ethics classes with a Sunni bias” in schools, he said. Instead, “they introduced new elective lessons, including the Koran and the life of the prophet.”

Violent History

Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs finances Sunni mosques. Its budget increased 18 percent this year, triple the rate of inflation, to 4.6 billion liras ($2.5 billion), according to the Finance Ministry.

The European Union has flagged discrimination against Alevis as a problem for Turkey’s membership bid. “Alevis continue to experience difficulties in establishing new places of worship,” EU enlargement chief Stefan Fule said May 13.

Alevis, who do away with many customary Islamic practices, including the separation of men and women in prayer and taboos on alcohol, are considered heretics by many Sunni and Shia traditionalists.

There is a history of violence against Alevis in Turkey.

An arson attack on a hotel in the central city of Sivas in 1993 left 37 people dead, including several Alevi writers and singers. They had gathered to commemorate Pir Sultan Abdal, a 16th-century poet hanged for preaching rebellion. Nationalists and religious extremists went on a weeklong rampage in the southern province of Kahramanmaras in 1978 that left more than 100 Alevis dead.

Before those killings, Alevi houses were marked with red paint. Yilmaz said by telephone that he was “worried for the safety of Alevis” because he’d heard reports that the practice has recurred recently in cities including Istanbul and Bursa.

To contact the reporter on this story: Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara at shacaoglu@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

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