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The search for identity in Dersim Part 1: Identities in Dersim


Standpoint of Armenia

The search for identity in Dersim.

Part 1: Identities in Dersim

Hranush Kharatyan


Hranush Kharatyan


Hranouch Kharatyan, ethnologist from Armenia, analyzes the phenomenon of Turkification since the establishment of the Turkish Republic and its impact on the people of the region of Dersim. From the Ottoman Empire to the present day, the people of Dersim had different definitions of their identities. Whatever the definitions, they were closely monitored by the authorities of each era.

Developments of the “Law of Identity” in the Republic of Turkey.

In creating a modern national state, the plan of Kemal Atatürk on “upgrading” the “Turkish” etnonim and on extended introduction of the “Turkish” identity of the Turkish population through political, ideological, cultural and administrative methods (Turkification of education, history, journalistic articles, place names (toponymy) and names of citizens (anthroponimics), dismissal of people not possessing a Turkish identity from administrative and even pedagogical work, fiction and so on) has been a real success until the 90s of the previous century. As a result, a huge number of the Kurds, Arabs, Greeks, Laz people and other peoples of Caucasian origin, peoples of the Balkans (the Albanians, Bulgarians, Serbs etc.), the Armenians, who survived the Genocide, was either Turkified indeed or was like “Turkified”. In the end, they had no other choice.

Besides the fact that “non-Turks” were officially subordinated on different levels (the Christians were on the lowest scale, the Alevized ones were a scale upper, Sunni Mohammedan Arabs and Kurds were a scale upper than the ones mentioned above and Sunni Turks were on the top of the scale), only “Turks” could change their social status, be an official, build up a career, be a teacher in a public school and keep themselves away from various political, cultural and financial harassment etc.

It was easy to “become a Turk” by speaking Turkish, being a Sunni Mohammedan and by calling themselves “a Turk”. In this way one can escape from public sympathy as well as from administrative and political pressure, and give a chance at least to the coming generation to be integrated into the Turkish political and socio-cultural life. A plan on secularization of society and on Turkification-Sunnification of identity was successfully implemented in Kemalian Turkey without any serious resistance, as a result of which the ethno-religious picture of multi-ethnic and multi-religious Turkey was sharply changed, thus, increasing the component of the “Turkish” identity at least ten times.

Public success of the political plan on “Turkification” was mostly due to the illiteracy of the greater part of the Turkish society and limited information about the past. On the whole, knowledge on the past was a verbal memory, which was either within the groups or families. The new historiographic interpretation of the Turkish national history in multi-religious and multi-ethnic Turkey successfully disregarded the “non-Turkish” past of the Turkish territory and even the records about “non-Turkish” peoples. Official national minorities, which were imposed upon Turkey by the Conference of Lausanne, such as the Armenians, Greeks and Jews, out of which the Armenians and majority of the Greeks were almost annihilated in the first half of the 20th century, had the right to teach merely official interpretation of the Turkish national history at their national schools, teachers were the Turks only, and, of course, every year the way the history was taught was severely checked (it is checked nowadays as well).

De facto there was no any other source about the past and history, except for the official interpretation of history (this does not include verbal recollections which exist within separate groups and are shared between generations). Still alive after the Genocide, even the literate generation of Armenians and Jews with rich historiographic traditions did not have an alternative source of information but the verbal recollections about the past. Under such conditions the Turkish “national history”, in fact, became the powerful factor that formed the Turkish chauvinism of the middle stratum of society, thus, concealing even the presence of other ethnic units, especially the recollections about the past.   The “national history” taught everywhere after the 50s was the only general knowledge of the Turkish society, hence, the main if not the only creator of the arguments in public discourse.     

In the 70s there was a change in the Turkish plan on the official secularization. Department of Religious Affairs became more active and the facultative religious education at schools became a compulsory subject. The construction of new mosques and Sunni imam prayers therein became to be imposed on the Alevi communities, not possessing any mosques and not having any practice in saying imam prayers. It is natural that the Alevis perceived this change as another compulsion of Sunnification, especially when the authorities laid down a condition (construction of a mosque and compulsory participation of the Alevi children in the Sunni religion) in return for the reconstruction of the Alevi villages[1]. This became a reason for the Alevis to “show up” and announce about their actual existence. The word “alevi”, being used on the level of folk lore, revived in the Turkish society and became the subject of different discussions.

The - already - started Kurdish national liberation and/or identity restoration activities, armed conflict between the Turkish army and Kurdish Labour Party, as well as frequent usage of the word “Kurd” within its ethnic sense by the public and mass media questioned the issues of “Turkish unity”. Society began to discuss the dualism of combinability of “secular” and “Islamism”. The refugees, who found themselves in Europe due to the suppression of socialist ideas in Turkey in 60-70s, clashed with the alternative interpretations of the Turkish history and already in 80-90s, analyses, doubting the truth of the national history and even critical interpretations appeared in Turkey. One may say that the 90s was a turning-point in the sense that the overall identity crisis of the Turkish society intensified and separate groups became more and more fearless in showing their identities.  Some researchers even call this period as an “identity permit” period. Since the minorities in Turkey have lived with unrevealed identities for a rather long period and they have been somehow altered, in principle it can be also called a period of “building or rebuilding of ethno-religious identities”.      

“Identity permit” displays in Dersim.

In the period of the “identity permit” launched in Turkey in 1990, “All over the country, as well as among the migrant communities in Europe, Alevi associations sprang up. Alevi intellectuals and community leaders set out to define the Alevi identity, Alevi tradition, Alevi history.”[2]  If, according to Martin van Bruinssen, in the Kemalist period the Alevis were used to perceive the Alevism rather as a democratic social ideology than a religious identity, then the official policy of the religious unity made them resume the debate on the social-religious identity of the Alevis, resulting in the resurgence of Alevism and discussion of the issues referring to the personal identity of the Alevis. The Alevi associations resumed activities focusing on the interpretation of the religious feature of the Alevis, new discussions were launched regarding the origin of Alevism. Initially, a new search of Dersim people for the Alevi identity was supported by the authorities, maybe because they wanted to oppose and isolate Dersim from ethno-nationalist movement of the Sunni Kurds, which was only starting then. The word “Alevistan”, meaning Dersim, appeared even in one of the articles of the Turkish daily “Hyuriyet” of 1976[3]. However, such powerful revival of the Alevi identity in Dersim terrified the authorities. The Alevis were self-organized not as a part of the Turkish collectivity against the Kurdish movements, but rather as a minority with its own identity and own requirements.   Terms, such as Alevi, Zaza and Kyzylbash, which had never been spoken about, came into use.  Some Zaza-speaking Alevis and Sunnis in Europe even launched publications in Zaza language by privatizing the marginal and private place of Zaza-speaking people within the Kurds. In the late 1980s, the Zaza journal coined the new name of Zazaistan as the ancient homeland of these Zazas, meaning Dersim and upper streams of Murat River (Eastern Euphrates), settled by Zaza-speaking Sunnis.        

This stormy process of discussion on the Alevi identity got a counter-attack by the nationalists in Turkey on July, 1993: an angry mob set the Madymak Hotel in Svaz (Sivas) hosting an Alevi cultural conference on fire. Thirty-seven intellectuals, along with two hotel employees, died inside the hotel. After the explosion of the Madymak Hotel on the day of the Alevi cultural conference and the death of the Alevi intellectuals, the authorities organized a violent displacement of the Dersim Alevis from mountainous settlements.

Those were the inhabitants who survived during the Dersim massacres of 1938 and whose forefathers (some of them) managed to return to their native settlements after the massacres, restore both the traditional ethnic-racial-religious ties and continue the Alevi traditional culture. In the future the displaced people were not allowed to return to their settlements guarded by the gendarmerie[4], their houses were demolished. As a result, most people, having been deprived of even simple survival opportunities, found themselves in different cities in Turkey, some of them found refuge in Europe, especially in Germany and either the cultural or “identity” reformulations of the Alevi reglued collective “we” in Dersim again entered the field of uncertainty.     

Identity discourse in verbal discussions of today’s Dersim people.

In today’s Dersim people’s opinions regarding which term should be selected to best define the identity collide very often. When having worked in Dersim in the summer of 2011, Besides the terms I heard from the Sunni Kyrmanji-speaking Kurds and the Sunni Turks, who were small in number,  I am presenting the following terms: “Alevi”, “Alevi Kurd”, “Kyzylbash”[5], “Alevi Kyzylbash”, “Kurd Kyzylbash”, “Zaza Alevi”, “Zaza Kurd”… It is not always when the “Zaza Kurd”, for instance, is a Zaza-speaking Sunni, he might pertain to the Alevism religious group, but consider himself a “Kurd”. And similarly, it is not always when a “Zaza-speaking Alevi” doesn’t consider himself a “Kurd”. However, the most common, comprehensible and acceptable are the following terms: “Alevi” and “Kyzylbash”.

The past of the collective and personal identity/identities of the population in Dersim.

The collective identity of the Dersim population, anyway visible in the past, has always been disputable.  Until the late 19th century distinct displays of personal, “private” collective identity of the Alevi-Kyzylbashs seems to be unknown.  The term “Kurd” was much more general. After paying a visit to Dersim in 1878, Armenian clergyman Garegin Srvandztyants wrote: “These Kurds’ language is Zaza and Kyzylbash is their religion.”[6]: It is obvious that G. Srvandztyants distinguishes between ethnicity-“Kurd”, language-“Zaza” and religion “Kyzylbash”.    

In the work “Debate on the Ethnic Identity of the Kurdish Alevis” Martin van Bruinessen wrote “I have found no references prior to the republican period that call these tribes anything other than Kurds or Kızılbaş.”[7] In reality, when speaking about the population in Dersim, Armenian authors often tried to distinguish between the “Dersim Kurds” and alongside with the term “Kyzylbash” they often used the terms, such as the “Alevi” and even “Zaza”. The author Andranik, who used to live in Dersim and who knew the province quite well, and who was the one who used the terms “Kurd” [8] and a “Dersimian” [9] most often, in one case called all people in Dersim (except the Armenians and Turks) “Kurds”, in the other case only Sunni Kyrmanji-speaking Mohammedans, and in other more often cases “Kurds” were  the “Kyzylbashs”, who differ from the Sunni Mohamedan Kurds, and whom he called “non-Mohamedan Kurds” or “Kyzylbash Kurds”[10]. And, for instance, Gevorg Hallajian, who was born in Dersim, worked as a teacher until 1914 and collected materials all over Dersim, when speaking about the same population again mainly using the term “Kurd”, started to use the words “Alevi” and “Alevi Kurds” instead of “Kyzylbash”.[11]

The same alternative versions exist for the language. For instance, G. Hallajian recalls his conversation with the Kurdish agha (title) Munzur from Torit village: “My uncle’s sons…speak Alevian language.”[12] Here the word “Alevian” is merely evidence about Zaza language, but because Sunni Mohammedans, the “Kurds”, were speaking Zaza language as well, saying Alevian, the priority is given to the “Alevian” collectivity, to the “Alevian” “We”.     

During the years of the First World War, when calling the people of Dersim “Dujik” [13], as a group with an identity other than Kurds, a renowned historian N. Adontz said: “The origin of the Dersim Kurds, the so-called Dujiks, is also very disputable” [14] by using the term “Zaza” as well: “Why are the earliest settlers among the Kurdish population in Armenia called “Zaza”? The point is not in the terms, which can be easily explained, but rather in their self-fencing.” [15]       

Thus, it is obvious that in the times of the Republican Turkey along with the terms “Kurd” and “Kyzylbash”, such terms as “Alevi” and “Zaza”, though with little usage, were used. 

Those living in Dersim generally did not use collective terms. They knew each other by their ashiret (tribal-racial) names (Andranik lists the most important ones among them, such as the Izolians, Palanaghs, Khrans, Haytarans, Chipans or Chiprans, Alans, Tujiks, Khuts, Apasans, Halvoriks or Halvoruks, Sheykh-Hasans, Mamygs, Mirageans or Mirags, Kureshans, Kharachols, Yusufans, Khuzuchans)[16]: Among these names G. Hallajian marks out the Alevi ashirets: “On the territory stretching from Khutats gorge till the slopes of Tujik-papa mountain over 120 thousand natives used to live under the names of such ashirets as the Haytarans, Khrans, Chiprans, Alans, Mirags, Apasans and other ashirets, all of them being Alevis”[17].

Hans-Lukas Kieser sees the grounds of the formation of the Dersim Alevi’s personal identity in the official negative treatment of the Ottoman Empire towards the Kyzylbashs still in the 17th century, as well as in the public negative opinion, deducted from the former, about the Alevi Kzlbashs, which made them isolate and defend themselves. In other words, according to Hans-Lukas Kieser Turkey’s official political refutation and pressure of the very collectivity underlay the formation of the identity of the Dersim Alevi-Kzlbashs.[18] He finds it possible that the creation of the Kurdish-Hamidian detachments under the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II played a pivotal role in the identity personification of the very minority. In the 1880s enabling numerous tribal groups of the Sunni Kurds to create privileged cavalry units,  Sultan Abdulhamid II did not allow them to join the Alevi-Kyzylbashs, who were called the Dersim “Kurds”. The reasoning was discriminative – only the Sunni Mohammedans could study in Mekteb-i Ashiret and be involved in the armed paramilitary groups.[19] The Kyzylbashs accepted this rejection as a political non-acceptance, which made the Alevi-Kurdish alienation more intense.

Indeed, by the end of the 19th century the Alevi-Kyzylbashs of Dersim did not face the problem of proving their identity. The Alevis and Sunnis of Dersim were living under the actual independent conditions and had a high social status as compared to the native Armenians living in Dersim, who were little in number as well. The structure of social relations on the territory of Dersim was based on kinship-ashiret relations, and although the ashirets themselves were formed by the religious principle (the Sunnis, Alevis, Christian Armenians), however, the relationships were formed not by the principle of the collective group identity but were rather inter-ashiretive, guided by power criterion.  By the end of the 19th century there was no a pyramid of authorities in Dersim, similarly there was no court, police, and army and consequently disputes were resolved through ashiret chieftans and by customary law. Everybody was armed and every person in the ashiret and separate people protected their rights, using their weapons and power. These stabilized relationships did not result in the collision of ethnic-language-religious identities; consequently there was no cause for the assertion of ethnic-language-religious group identities. Neither Alevism nor Sunnism was an advantage in Dersim. It became an advantage after the Sunnis were granted the status of privileged cavalry units.   Since the main objective of the Hamidiye Kurdish units was the oppression and massacres of the Armenians in the eastern areas, it seems possible that such treatment of the Turkish sultanian authorities was conditioned by a huge number of the converted Armenians among the Dersim Alevis.               

[1] David Zeidan, December 1995, THE ALEVI OF ANATOLIA,

[2] Kurds, Turks and the Alevi revival in Turkey  by Prof. Martin van Bruinessen,  (Originally at

[3] TARİH DEFTERİ, 15.11.2009, Ayşe Hür, Dersim, Alevistan, Zazaistan,

[4] Nowadays it is still prohibited and guarded by gendarmerie, added by Hranush Kharatyan, as a result of which it was very difficult to see the displaced villages.

[5] Some researchers differentiate the Turkish/Turkmen Alevis (Bektashi [Bekta§i] и Taktaji [Tahtaci]) from the Dersim Kyzylbashs and both from the Kurds. Paul White, in particular, thinks that the Dersim Kyzylbashs agreed with the term “Kurd” only under the certain political situations, when it was necessary to involve the Kurds of Anatolia or the “Alevis” in their anti-Turkish struggle and, in terms of the struggle issues, to arise interest in the outside world, which had no idea about the “Kyzylbashs”. (Paul White,   Ethnic Differentiation among the Kurds: Kurmancо, Kizilbash and Zaza,

[6] Garegin Srvandztyants, Yerker [Works], Vol. 2, Yerevan, 1982, Page 396,

[7] Martin van Bruinessen, "Aslını inkar eden haramzadedir!"The debate on the ethnic identity
of the Kurdish Alevis,

[8] Andranik, A trip to Tersim, Tbilisi, 1900, Pages 22, 23 32, 90, 98, 100, 134, 137, 138140, 141, 142, 143, 144, 145, 148, 149, 199, 200, 213…:

[9] Andranik, Pages 15, 100, 102, 103, 105, 106, 120, 122, 128, 139, 140, 152, 153, 155, 160, 161…

[10] Andranik, Pages 157-158:

[11] G. Hallajian, Ethnography of Dersim Armenians, “Armenian Ethnography and Folklore”, Vol. 5, Yerevan, 1975, Pages 69, 76-77, 96, 254, 256, 263

[12]Hallajian, page 256

[13] Dujik, Tujik – a famous mountain in Dersim, some authors of the 19th century were defining the Dersim population with this name 

[14] Nicholas Adontz, The Armenian Question, 1996, Yerevan, page 112

[15] Nicholas Adontz, The Armenian Question, page 108

[16] Andranik, page 151.

[17] G. Hallajian, page 263.

[18] Some Remarks on Alevi Responses to the Missionaries in Eastern Anatolia (19th-20th

cc.), Hans-Lukas Kieser, Basel, Switzerland,

[19] Sunar, Mehmet Mert, "Do¤u Anadolu ve Kuzey Irakt'ta Osmanli Devleti ve A?iretler: II. Abdèlhamid'den II. Me?rutiyet'e", in: Kebikeç, no. 10, Ankara, 2000, p. 123.




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