The Persistence of Pirs

The Persistence of Pirs

These are the markings of a pir, a holy site usually associated with the grave of a holy person. While the tradition predates Islam, the pirs in Azerbaijan have grown rapidly since the collapse of the Soviet Union in both the Sunni north and Shiite communities in the rest of the country. Religious scholars say their popularity is as much a product of the country’s secular orientation as they are monuments of faith.

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[slideshow] Mustafa* hosted me for two weeks in Afyonkarahisar while I wrote about the province and he treated me with all the hospitably Turkey is famous for. Like many people in this small city he seemed to know someone on every block. He has hosted so many couchsurfers and exchange students that a local web forum listed 'walking with Mustafa' as a sure way to spot a foreigner.

As a veterinary student at the Afyon Kocatepe University, Mustafa’s main concern on May 28th were the back-to-back final exams he had to pass – but the day also marked a dubious anniversary. It was exactly one year since a group of men viciously attacked him for being gay.

“Five or six or seven people took me from the store and kick me on the street. I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t hear anything, I just screamed for people to help me and said, ‘stop, it is enough,’” said Mustafa, “One of them used a stone for my head… I don’t know how many kicks I had, but my face was fucked up. Finally one of them used a scalpel on my back. And then they left, I heard one of them say ‘okay, it’s enough.’”

The attack took place around 9 pm in the city center, the part of the city where university students – a more socially liberal segment of the city’s population – typically hang out and couples are sometimes so bold as to hold hands or sneak a peck on the cheek.

Mustafa said the attack took place at the location and time of a meeting he had made with an internet user who had contacted him a few days before. “He said he wanted to know me because he was also alone and gay and wanted to make a friend,” he said.

Mustafa required 38 stitches to close the gash on his back.

At first he told the police it was just a random attack. “But after one month I was so sorry for me, for my humanity, I thought I should tell them the true story,” said Mustafa, “I told them the whole story, I gave them the messenger address - but they said probably they cannot find them, because it is not enough. Then I talked with a lawyer, and he told me if I don’t have any witness, [nothing] will happen. I know the shop seller saw everything, but he told the police he cannot tell them who these people were.”

I asked Mustafa if the police could set up a sting and he replied, “If they want, they can find them.” One month after the attack, Mustafa signed on with a new instant messenger name and encountered the same internet user. “I said nothing about the attack,” he said, “At that time I was sure, and I am still sure, he was also gay. Probably he is attacking to other gay people because he wants to hide himself.”

According to a Nevin, a representative of the Ankara-based gay rights group KAOS, such inaction is the default for attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in Turkey. Perpetrators who are caught often have their sentences reduced because of an “unfair provocation” article in the criminal code.

“[The punishment for] stealing could be the same with killing an LGBT,” said Nevin. Her group is aware of fifteen “hate murders” in 2009.

Mustafa has an unusual interpretation of his sexual orientation: “I am non-alcoholic person because it is forbidden,” he said, “I don’t eat pork, I pray, I fast for Ramadan, but I am gay. Everyone is thinking if you are gay – if you have sex with a guy – you can do whatever you want [because] this is a really big deal. But I do not think like them. If I go to hell because I am gay, well – God is the most forgiving and I hope God will forgive me. I know I will go to heaven one day – maybe a few years in Hell first – but I don’t want to be there long so I try not to commit other sins.”

His belief is based on an interpretation of the Koran says Hell is not necessarily the final destination for sinners. According to a scholar on “Ultimately, God will remove from Hell those believers whose sins were not forgiven nor atoned for by good deeds in their lifetimes, and they will then enter Paradise. The remaining inhabitants of Hell will stay there eternally.” (That link is current down, but this notion is widespread.)

“How can I be gay and be a Muslim? How you cannot chose your eye color [is how] I cannot chose myself. It’s not a selection, it’s not genetic thing, it’s from God, I think,” said Mustafa, “I know a lot of the gay community does not think like me… they do not care about the religion, but I care, I believe. I think if we are on the exam in this world, for heaven and hell. We have to pass these problems.”

He came to this decision after what he referred to as an eight-year Jihad that he undertook in his teens. “First I believed it’s forbidden. You can be gay, you can think about it, but you have to stop yourself – you cannot act upon it. I was thinking: I am Muslim and I am Turkish and I cannot be a wrong person. I didn’t know anything about gay life, gay community, other gay people, I thought I was alone.”

He spent several years talking to psychologists, many of whom consider homosexuality to be an illness that needs to be treated. He spent some time on American religious sites such as

Mustafa embraces the original definition of Jihad, one rarely mentioned in today’s media: “Jihad is not like Taliban wars,” he said, “Jihad is war for God in your inside. It should be like this. You cannot use a gun or bombs for this Jihad, you have to use your brain and your heart.”

“Eventually I accepted myself,” he said, “Because for the first time I fall in love with a guy. Before him it was like a game or a fantasy or something – I had girlfriends, all that. But after that it was so clear and I told [my girlfriend] I fell in love with a guy. After this point I accept myself – I am gay – and the Jihad was finished. I lost this Jihad.”

Mustafa is also a pacifist and the subject of Turkey’s mandatory service in the armed forced came up in our conversation. “When it is my time, I will tell them I need to be taken to the hospital because I am sick,” he said, “I am ashamed to do this, but they will agree I am sick because of this accident – I call it an accident,” he laughs, “But of course it is not an accident.”

Mustafa said – and KAOS confirmed – that the Turkish Army's version of “don’t ask, don’t tell” has a peculiar twist. The army psychologist may require the applicant to bring in a photo where his face is visible and he is engaging in sex with another man. “He must be the bottom too,” said Mustafa rolling his eyes, “Or else it does not count.”

Turkey’s attitude to homosexuals is not framed in the same left-right politics of the West. According to Sedef, of the Istanbul-based LambdaIstanbul, “the homophobic tendency can be seen in all parts of the turkish society despite their political view, and definitely not limited to religious groups. The LGBT associations in Turkey are still fighting with the homophobia within the leftist, socialist or even some feminist groups. In Turkish society, homosexuality or trangenderism is more accepted as an "illness" than a "sin."

Turkey’s current governing party is the AKP, which acknowledge the country’s Islamic history and have made religion an issue in Turkey’s otherwise staunchly secular politics. But according to everyone I’ve asked – from students in Istanbul to villagers in Afyon to taxi drivers on the Eastern border town of Hopa – everyone said the AKP is very careful to remain within the social mainstream. Mustafa, for example, supports the AKP because he thinks they are moderates and distrusts the nationalist sentiments of the secular opposition.

LGBT rights advocates have stuck to a pragmatic approach, fending off legal challenges, staging pride marches and releasing studies. In the words of Sedef, “When it is about politics, it is very hard to find a political party which sincerely believes and advocates that LGBT rights are civil rights… we generally have contacts with a couple of parliamentarians rather than the party itself.”

*While Mustafa originally agreed to be identified by his real name, he has recently asked me to substitute a pseudonym and remove the photos of his face.