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Turkey’s Alevis: Who are They and What Do They Want?

Turkey is often described as a secular country where 99 percent of the population is Muslim. Few people know or bother to mention that there is great diversity among Turkish Muslims. For some, the statement that Turkey is predominantly Muslim can be considered accurate. But only if we are also ready to accept as accurate the statement that Germany is three fourths Christian. In the German case, most people would feel it necessary to mention that there are Catholics, Protestants, and the Orthodox in the country. It is, however, often deemed not important to point out that Turkey’s Muslims are deeply divided among Sunnis (79 percent), Alevis (20 percent), and Shi’is (1 percent).
These divisions once again came to the forefront this year on November 9th during a peaceful demonstration of the Alevi in the capital of Turkey. The so-called “Great Alevi March” brought together hundreds of associations and over hundred thousand demonstrators from around the country in Ankara. Alevis used the opportunity to protest the policies and practices of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, and raised their voice against the Sunni prejudice and discrimination against the Alevi minority. Many in the Western world of politics and journalism rightfully wondered who the Alevis are about whom so little is known. As a social anthropologist of Sunni background who has spent the last twelve years of his life studying Turkey’s Alevis, I present in this essay the basics concerning the Alevi community, its beliefs, practices, and demands. I aim for this introduction to provide the necessary background for the readers to make sense of the sectarian divisions and tensions in Turkey.
The world is familiar with the Sunni-Shi’i division in Islam, at least since the Iranian revolution. There is, however, widespread ignorance of Turkey’s Alevi religious minority, a community of 14 million people. It is also noteworthy that there are also a million Alevis living either as residents or as citizens of various European Union countries. It is, therefore, quite imperative to pay attention to the Alevi since when Turkey joins the EU in the next decade or two, one out of forty EU citizens will be Alevi.
Alevis are similar to twelver Shi’is in the way in which they refuse to recognize the authority of the Sunni caliphs and pledge allegiance to the twelve imams who were descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. Alevis also share the millenarian belief in Mahdi who is expected to return to reinstate peace and order in the world. These, however, are pretty much the end of the list of similarities between Alevis and Shi’is. An observant Shi’i from Iran, for example, would have a very hard time accepting the various elements of the Alevi faith, ritual, and practice. Alevis neither attend mosques nor perform daily prayers. Instead, they congregate in worship halls called cemevi where men and women pray together as part of a religious ceremony called ayin-i cem where there is music and ritual dance. Some Alevi communities also consume alcoholic drinks as part of this ritual. The Alevi women do not veil and often play a prominent role in public and private life.
What is the source of the Alevi doctrine and teachings which differentiates it greatly from the Shi’i, and for that matter, also from the Sunni belief and practice? Alevis believe in the concept of the speaking Qur’an (Kuran-i natik), that is, in human beings’ ability to speak out divine words. There is also the belief in the stringed Qur’an (telli Kuran), that is, the ability of minstrels and their musical instruments to play the lyrics of the divine truth. These abilities stem from the belief that human beings themselves are divine, although only a few individuals bring their spiritual journey through four gates and forty stations to an end to become one with the God.
Alevi religious congregations are led by religious guides (dede) who in most cases demonstrate putative descent from the twelve imams or holy lineages called hearths (ocak). The moiety of religious guides is separated from the moiety of the disciples (talip). Each moiety is endogamous in itself and intermarriage among two groups is considered to be incestuous. Religious guides not only provide religious services but they also lead people’s courts (görgü) where community disputes are settled without recourse to the state courts and formal law. Another important institution in Alevism is the ritual of siblinghood (müsahiplik) of two married couples who then become responsible for each other in all aspects of life including moral, economic, and legal. Their children are considered to be siblings and intermarriage among them is considered to be incestuous.
For the Sunni majority of Turkey, the abovementioned features of the Alevi, the perceived heterodoxy and heteropraxy, are often considered to be heretical. Since the sixteenth century, the Ottoman state systematically oppressed and persecuted Alevis as part of an attempt to eliminate Alevis through propaganda and massacres. Sunni caliphs and their functionaries spread rumors that Alevis practice incestuous orgies in their congregations and that they are ritually polluted since they fail to perform the full bodily ablution following sexual intercourse. Conservative Sunnis, to this day, refuse to eat the meat of animals sacrificed by Alevis. During the violent intersectarian clashes of the Cold War, there were Sunnis in Turkey who still believed that those who killed Alevis would be rewarded with the paradise. This was responsible to some extent in the numerous pogroms of the 1970s in which hundreds of Alevi men, women, and children were tortured and killed in several cities around the country.
The history of the Alevi certainly looks gloomy. One might wonder whether the Alevi prospects are brighter in Turkey of the new millennium. Following the end of the Cold War and with the subsequent rise of identity politics, Alevis have given up their policy of dissimulation (takiyye), that is pretending to be Sunnis in the presence of Sunnis out of fear for their own security. They came out in public and established over three hundred faith-based voluntary organizations and three federations in Turkey. Many other associations, federations, and a confederation were also established in the European Union countries. Today Alevi books, journals, radios, TV channels, and websites are ubiquitous features of the Turkish and European religious and public life. What is also significant is the establishment of hundreds of worship halls (cemevi) particularly in metropolitan centers where Alevis have been settling since the 1950s.
All of these developments, however, did not necessarily mean that the relations between the Alevi and the Sunni have normalized over the years. On the contrary, with the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in Turkey, Sunni conservatism and discrimination have intensified for many non-Sunnis. Alevis increasingly feel vulnerable and marginalized. In their opinion, the secular principles of the republic are eroding fast. The left wing parties, which they have wholeheartedly supported since the 1960s, are neither at their strongest nor very responsive to their demands and suffering. The Alevi, nevertheless, are hopeful, particularly since the election of Barack Obama as the American president. They feel that the wind of change is in the air. The Alevis seem to be enthusiastic more than ever to take their calls for rights, freedoms, and equality –not only for themselves but also for all of Turkey’s minorities– to the streets of Turkey and Europe. It is their hope that their call will be heard in Ankara, Brussels, and Washington among other places.
Aykan Erdemir is the Deputy Dean of the Graduate School of Social Sciences at Middle East Technical University, Ankara. He is one of the founders of the Alevi Institute (AL-EN) based in Ankara, and an outspoken critic of the discrimination against non-Sunni minorities in Turkey.