The Ramadan drummer, a sleepless family and Turkey's sectarian fears

What began as a minor dispute in a remote village has led to worries that simmering tensions between Sunnis and Alawites may reflect the bloody conflict next door in Syria.

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ISTANBUL // On one side, a traditional Ramadan drummer waking the village faithful for the suhoor meal.

On the other, an Alawite family who do not observe the fast and objected to having their sleep disturbed.

In the middle, politicians and religious leaders in Ankara insisting the ugly incident that followed was a one-off, and not a harbinger of simmering sectarian tension exploding into violence.

It began on Friday when the Evli family in the village of Surgu in eastern Anatolia told Mustafa Evci, a Sunni, not to beat his drum in front of their house before sunrise. A heated discussion turned violent. Mr Evci says the family threw stones at him and beat him with belts.

The next day, a group of around 150 Sunnis gathered in front of the family's house, threw stones and demanded that they leave the village. "They came to kill us," Leyla Evli said.

Military police dispersed the crowd by firing into the air. There were no arrests.

Alawite leaders say this was the latest example of unacceptable pressure being imposed by the Sunni majority. Alawites, who do not fast and do not pray in mosques, say they are victims of assimilation attempts by Sunnis. Alawites make up a sizeable minority of up to 20 million in Turkey, a country of 75 million.

"This was not an isolated incident," Vedat Kara, a leading member of the Haci Bektas Anadolu Kultur Vakfi, one of the main Alawite associations in Turkey, said yesterday. "This is happening all the time," he added. He accused the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), dominated by Sunni Muslims, of fanning sectarian divisions to attract Sunni votes. "It is a dangerous game that can set the whole of Turkey alight," he said.

The government has rejected the Alawites' main demand to have their religion recognised as a faith of its own.

The cabinet in Ankara discussed the Surgu incident this week, while politicians flocked to the village to investigate.

On Monday, protesters in central Istanbul demanded an end to Turkey's "assimilation policies" towards Alawites.

They vowed that "Malatya will not become Sivas", which is a reference to the province where Surgu is located and where 37 people died in a 1993 arson attack by Sunni Islamists on a meeting of Alawite intellectuals.

Bulent Arinc, a deputy prime minister and government spokesman, said after the cabinet meeting on Monday that it was "very natural" for a family to ask a Ramadan drummer not to make noise in front of their house.

Mr Arinc also pointed out that Mr Evci had not stopped beating his drum when asked, and that "bad things" were said later against the Alawite family.

But he insisted there was no reason to regard the incident as anything more than a village row.

The incident had not been as grave as media reports suggested, he said.

"There is no spark that could set off a conflict between Alawites and Sunnis."

The government in Ankara has been keen to play down the Surgu affair, perhaps because it is worried about sectarian tensions reflecting the conflict in Syria, where divisions between the Sunni majority and the ruling Alawite elite play a major role, Mehmet Gormez, the head of the state-run religious affairs department that oversees Sunni Islam in Turkey, said: "No one must be criticised for his religious beliefs and no one must become a victim of religiously motivated violence."

There have been anti-Alawite incidents lately in other cities in Turkey, Mr Kara said.

Anti-Alawite slogans were smeared on the doors of Alawite families in the western province of Aydin and in Adiyaman in the east.

"Every time it happens, the government tries to play it down," he said.

"It is the same pattern we saw before Sivas and other massacres: they find a pretext, then there is an attack, then the government plays it down, then Alawites are asked to leave the region. It is always the same."

In Surgu, tensions remained high. Mr Elci, the Ramadan drummer, told a newspaper that the Evli family had to leave because they had blackened the other villagers' names with their account of the attack on their house.

"If necessary, we will give them our own money to move and to find a new house," he said. "But they must go.

"How can they look anybody in the eye after such lies? They will have to go, they will have to."