Istanbul – On an otherwise calm day in Istanbul’s Gazi neighbourhood, TOMA riot control vehicles engaged in a lopsided skirmish with a throng of young schoolchildren.
Smaller armoured police cars whizzed by and were pelted with rocks by the children, who lit several small fires in a vain attempt to prevent the TOMA tank from crossing onto the main street.
Gazi is home to a large population of Alevis, a minority group practising a distinct form of Islam, who number an estimated 12.5 million in Turkey and share a culture and belief system that runs heterodox to the Sunni identity of the Turkish state.
Alevis have suffered a long history of massacres and systematic discrimination, since as early as 1937 when 13,000 Alevis were killed after the Turkish military suppressed a rebellion in Dersim province. And in 1993, extremists set fire to a hotel hosting an Alevi conference in Sivas province, killing 35 of the participants. Police did not intervene.
Today, Istanbul neighbourhoods with big Alevi populations such as Gazi are the sites of frequent protests that often descend into intense clashes between left-wing groups and police. Following Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s approval of a controversial security bill on April 3, police are now able to open fire on protesters using Molotov cocktails, and arrest those brandishing slingshots and covering their faces – the latter of which will be punishable by up to five years in prison.
The government said that the law is supported by the majority of the country and corresponds to EU standards, and Internal Affairs Minister Efkan Ala said in February that as much as 80 percent of the public is in favour of the legislation and that its implementation would be in the best interests of society.
“It is not possible to discuss this law without questioning why it came to the government’s agenda,” said Orhan Miroglu, a Kurdish politician and candidate running for parliament under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Government officials and ruling party pundits alike framed the law in conjunction with riots that broke out in numerous southeastern provinces last October, over the government’s indifference towards the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) siege of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane. Clashes between rival Kurdish factions led to 52 deaths.
Miroglu does not think the law will enable police to use excessive force, and says that the presence of police brutality in Turkey is exaggerated. “It’s an evaluation that is the result of false perceptions. In instances where disproportionate force is used by police, the same levels can be observed during protests in Germany and the United States,” Miroglu told Al Jazeera.
Additionally, skirmishes in Alevi neighbourhoods, often waged between police and outlawed leftist armed groups such as the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front-Party (DHKP-C), which constitute a formidable presence in Istanbul’s Alevi quarters, contribute to the heavy police presence in the area.
However, the new law has created concerns that demonstrations and street clashes could become considerably more violent and one-sided. “Things will become more problematic. [The police] were already doing these things; now they will able to do them much easier. It will be very harmful,” Nevzat Altun, who is in charge of Gazi’s neighbourhood affairs, told Al Jazeera.
“The law has unofficially been in charge in Turkey’s working-class Alevi neighbourhoods for years, and I don’t think that it will heighten the already existing tensions. Arbitrary detentions, arbitrary house raids and arbitrary police violence have been part of the ordinary in these neighbourhoods since the 1990s,” she told Al Jazeera.
street. They grow up in an environment where violence is a part of everyday life.”]
For instance, in March 1995, demonstrations sparked by the drive-by shooting of an elderly Alevi community leader in Gazi were brutally dispersed by the police and gendarmerie. Twenty-three people were killed, and video footage shows police firing rounds into the crowd.
And last year, 30-year-old Ugur Kurt was killed by a stray bullet in Okmeydani, where many Alevis live. The bullet was fired by police at protesters gathered in honour of Berkan Elvan, a 14-year-old who was shot in the head with a tear gas canister in Okmeydani during the 2013 Gezi Park protests. Elvan was in a coma until his death last year.
“Such events make Alevis believe that there is a state tradition in Turkey that is against them and that violence against the community is always a possibility,” said Yonucu.
The AKP has long vowed to make headway on what it describes as its “Alevi initiative”, but critics say the pledges have been in vain. “Even in the most liberal phase of the AKP, seriously addressing Alevi concerns proved impossible. There have been periodic efforts to do so, but the AKP just hasn’t had the will,” said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St Lawrence University in New York.
Politicians including Erdogan have previously declared Alevism to not be a religion, while the government has refused to officially recognise Alevis’ house of worship, the cemevi. This prohibits them from receiving funding for electricity bills from the Directorate of Religious Affairs. However, a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling in December of last year declared that Turkey must officially recognise the cemevis. Local municipalities have since begun to do so, and the government will – if reluctantly – have to follow suit as ECHR rulings are binding.
“[The AKP] has been able to make inroads with the Kurds by relying on Islam as a key component of national identity. The Alevi form a natural challenge to that vision precisely because they are both Muslim and clearly distinct,” Eissenstat told Al Jazeera.
But according to Miroglu, the party is the only political actor in the republic’s history to make any progress with Alevis. “Whatever steps have been taken regarding the Alevi and Kurdish issues, we owe it to this government. The Madimak Hotel where Alevis were killed [in the 1993 Sivas massacre] was turned into a museum. A memorial museum is being built in Dersim, and Erdogan apologised for the Dersim massacres,” Miroglu said.
Meanwhile, the reality in some of Istanbul’s Alevi quarters remains bleak.
“In neighbourhoods such as Gazi and Okmeydani, children socialise under the shadow of military tanks and witness their parents being beaten by police forces on [the] street. They grow up in an environment where violence is a part of everyday life,” said Yonucu.
“Police pressure here got much worse after the Gezi Park protests,” said one young woman who requested to remain anonymous for security reasons. “But I’ve never once seen a uniformed police officer on the street,” the lifetime Gazi resident added, explaining that police operations are usually conducted at night, while plainclothes cops roam the area during the daytime.
The Gazi police precinct declined a request to comment, while no one from the Istanbul Police Directorate was available to speak with Al Jazeera.
The increased security presence in Alevi areas is likely to continue in light of the death of Mehmet Selim Kiraz – the prosecutor in the Berkin Elvan case – following a shoot-out between police and members of DHKP-C, who had taken Kiraz hostage at Istanbul’s Çaglayan courthouse on March 31. While the reasons why he was taken hostage remain unclear, he was making progress on Elvan’s case. There were several demands, among them a live confession from the policeman responsible for Elvan’s death.
Clashes then broke out between demonstrators and police in Gazi on the evening of March 31. And on April 1, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu referenced the bill in a harsh warning to protesters, saying that any unauthorised street demonstrations would be granted zero tolerance.
“I see the security package as one element in a series of steps that the government has taken to prepare for what is likely to be one of the most tumultuous years in Turkey’s recent history,” said Eissenstat, noting that Turkey purchased 1.9 million teargas canisters and gas grenades this year, an amount 10 times higher than what it had purchased annually prior to 2013.
“Turkey is gearing up, both in its arsenal of crowd control weapons and in its legal structure,” he said.