AKP’s Dilemma: How To Accommodate Alevi Demands Within the State Structure

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 234

Since the "Grand Alevi Rally” organized by Alevi Bektasi Federation (ABF) on November 10, the Alevi question has been dominating public debate in Turkey. It appears that the Sunni segments of society, secular and religious alike, mostly welcome moderate Alevi demands, although the Alevis themselves remain divided about what they want and who should lead their communities (see EDM, November 18).

A delegation of the Alevi organizations that organized the Grand Alevi Rally visited the president of parliament to ask him to address the Alevi problem. The delegation refused to agree to let Reha Camuroglu, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputy, who is known as AKP’s Alevi face and is one of the architects of the AKP’s Alevi policy, to join the meeting. The delegation stressed that parliament was the right place for a possible solution. Their demands included:

removal of compulsory religion instruction from the national educational curriculum; turning the Madimak Hotel into a “museum of shame” [37 Alevi intellectuals died there when angry Sunni protesters set it on fire on July 2, 1993]; abolition of the Directorate of Religious Affairs; and recognition of Alevi prayer houses [Cem Evleri] as places of worship” (www.pirsultankadikoy.org, November 28).
After the meeting it was announced that the parliamentary president would ask the Parliament Advisory Council to study the problem (Taraf, November 29).

Another delegation, which was composed of Alevi organizations opposed to the Grand Alevi Rally, visited Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan to outline their own demands. Unlike the first delegation, this group had more moderate requests:

to insert acceptable information about the Alevi Islam faith into the books are used for religious courses; to distribute some portion of the national budged to the Alevi communities; to give Alevis an equal opportunity with the Sunnis to broadcast on state-owned radio and TV stations; and to give Alevi religious leaders [Dede] the same government benefits as Sunni Imams, that is, a salary, social security benefits, health insurance, etc. (NTV, December 6).
Minister of State Said Yazicioglu underlined that “it seems that solving this problem [would not be] that hard if we take this meeting as the base of the problem” (NTV, December 6). The AKP government and the Alevi delegation agreed to prepare a draft solution and then meet after the forthcoming mayoral elections. One of the AKP government’s main concerns is whether such reforms would create any conflict between the Sunni and Alevi interpretations of Islam (NTV, December 6). Alevi leader Izzetin Dogan warned that “if the government does not solve the Alevi problem, the Alevi question will be a security problem for Turkey” (Yeni Safak, November 24).

Another concern of at least some Alevi communities is the emergence of a “state Alevism” if the Dedes were to receive paychecks from the state (Radikal, December 8). Those who have concerns about Alevi assimilation have long opposed the AKP’s Alevi reforms. They fear that the AKP government wants to assimilate the Alevi people by giving economical and social support to Alevi Dedes who advocate state Alevism (www.pirsultankadikoy.org, December 7, 2007, January 21, 2008; Cumhuriyet, December 5).

For the AKP government the most difficult thing is how to find a compromise between the demands of the two sides and fit the results into the structure of the state. State Minister Said Yazicioglu recently asked the Governor of Sivas Province, where the Madimak Hotel is located, to expropriate the hotel for a cultural center (CNNTurk, December 4). The Cem Foundation, a major Alevi association, supports the AKP government on this (Zaman, December 8), but the Alevi Bektasi Federation strongly opposes this idea and insists that it should become the “museum of shame” (www.pirsultankadikoy.org, December 8).

In order to address the ABF’s demands, the AKP would have to change elements of the state structure that was established as the foundation of the Turkish republic. The Directorate of Religious Affairs, for instance, is as important in the Turkish state as the Directorate of the Turkish National Police. It is a well known that the Turkish military, despite its secularist outlook, works closely with the Directorate of Religious Affairs in order to control Sunni Islam. Turning the Madimak Hotel into a museum could easily antagonize the Sunni segments of society.

It seems that the AKP wants to implement the Cem Foundation’s policy suggestions as Alevi demands;  but the Alevi Bektasi Federation is a powerful organization that has shown itself capable of organizing big rallies to highlight its demands. The president of the ABF has gone so far as to say that the “AKP government wants to divide the Alevi community. People should realize that the petition term is over and the period of street struggle has begun” (Zaman, December 8).

It remains to be seen how the government will reach a compromise between the two Alevi groups and make it compatible with the foundations of the state structure. One of the most difficult problems is to find a way of bringing the Alevi communities together without a major reshuffle in the state bureaucracy. To find a middle road between the aims of the different Alevi groups, the AKP may support those demands of the ABF that the Cem Foundation does not find objectionable. Yet the problem for the AKP is how to convince the state elites, military, judiciary, and the clergy to initiate reforms that require major changes in the foundations of the state. The AKP may find a compromise between the Alevi demands and the state by adopting the Cem Foundation’s plan, but this would further divide the Alevi communities and could permanently alienate a major part of the community.