On November 10 Turkey’s Alevi community, a religious group that differs from Sunni Islam, organized a "Grand Alevi Rally" for the first time in the history of the Turkish Republic. Approximately 50,000 Alevis from different cities came together to demand rights for Alevi communities. The Alevis demanded the abolishment of compulsory religious classes in high schools; recognition of Alevi praying houses (Cem Evleri) as places of worship; turning the Madimak Hotel, where 37 Alevis lost their lives during a Sunni protest in 1993, into a museum; and the abolishment of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Taraf, November 10).
The rally sparked a controversy among Alevi communities and Turkish intellectuals about the intention of the rally. Izzettin Dogan, the head of a major Alevi Foundation, Cem Vakfi, stated, “We do not support those who are organizing the rally, trying to portray Alevism as a belief that is separate from Islam. They do not recognize God, the Prophet, and the book Qur’an as their God, Prophet, and Book” (Zaman, November 11). The head of the Hasandede Alevi Bektasi cultural association said, “Those [who are organizing the rally] are mainly dominated by the Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK] group. Those who were behind the violent protest in the eastern cities now want to bring the Alevi people into the streets for their [the PKK’s] political interests” (Zaman, November 11). The Kurdish nationalist Democratic Society Party (DTP) did, in fact, issue a declaration supporting the rally (CNNTurk, November 7). It is in the PKK’s strategic interest to gain Alevi support. For this reason, imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan suggested to his followers to develop better relations with the Alevi communities. In March Ocalan suggested a new focus on “democratic politics” and the establishment of a Democratic Politics and Alevi Culture Academy in Dersim (see Terrorism Focus, September 10, 2008).
Whatever the aim behind the Grand Alevi Rally, it brought the Alevis has into Turkish politics. The first response from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was not very positive. State Minister Sait Yazicioglu said that “the demand to abolish the Directorate of Religious Affairs is an extreme idea” (CNNTurk, November 9); but the Minister of Education warmly welcomed the Alevi criticism concerning the information about Alevism in the high school textbooks that are used for religious courses (CNNTurk, November 11). To be fair to the AKP government, one should mention that it has taken several steps to reform traditional Sunni-dominated state policies. This year, for first time in Turkish history, a prime minister attended an Alevi religious ceremony, while Alevism has become a part of the high school curriculum (Milliyet, January 11). The AKP has failed, however, to maintain its reformist agenda. It has not produced any tangible results beyond symbolic gestures toward the Alevis. The architect of the AKP’s reformist agenda toward the Alevis, an adviser to the prime minister and an AKP deputy, Reha Camuroglu, resigned his advisory position because “the promises have been broken” (Sabah, May 13).
Camuroglu was another opponent of the recent Alevi rally because, he said, “the rally was not organized to highlight the Alevi demands but to target the AKP government, to erode the AKP’s credibility on the eve of the upcoming local elections in March 2009” (Yeni Safak, November 12). Yet Camuroglu and the AKP government both fail to understand that in a civil society it is perfectly legitimate to organize a rally to highlight the Alevi demands while criticizing a ruling government that has not implemented major reforms on the Alevis’ behalf.
In the following days, Camuroglu revealed that the AKP had resumed its short-lived attempt at reform to address the Alevi demands: “The first step should be to legalize the Alevi praying houses, but some articles of the constitution need to be amended and it is not easy to do that. Thus, at this stage, the first thing to regulate is for the government to pay the utility and operating expenses of the praying houses” (CNNTurk, November 14).
Some Alevi intellectuals vehemently criticize the AKP’s Alevi reform project. They question the AKP’s sincerity about its attempts to improve the situation of the Alevis. The party’s attitude toward their religion, they believe, is an attempt to gain Alevi votes, a project to merge the Alevi communities into Islam (www.alevihaberajansi.com, April 19). Another Alevi intellectual criticized the AKP’s Alevi reform as “an attempt to ‘Sunnify’ the Alevis” (www.alevihaberajansi.com, May 8). Like the AKP’s response to the Alevi rally, the Alevis’ response to AKP reform efforts is also highly politicized. The Alevis who criticize the AKP’s attempt fail to understand that it is alright for a political party to implement reforms to win Alevi votes.
No matter how the AKP government approaches the question, the Grand Alevi Rally has made Turkey’s Alevi communities more visible than ever. For the first time in Turkish history, Alevis have come out of their hiding places and openly demanded their rights. What is significant about the recent rally is that it won support from many different segments of society. From Sunni religious newspapers, such as Zaman and Yeni Safak, to the liberal Radikal and Taraf, center-right Hurriyet and Milliyet, and center-left Sabah and Vatan, almost all the Turkish daily newspapers warmly welcomed the rally and asked the government to address the Alevi demands. Furthermore, the AKP government has not closed its doors to a possible solution.
What seems to be problematic, however, is how to unify the Alevi communities and decide who will lead the reforms. Some Alevi organizations oppose AKP deputy Camuroglu as a possible organizer of those reforms. Alevi associations are deeply divided and accuse each other of being “agents of the AKP,” “agents of outside forces,” or “agents of the PKK.” Thus, it is unlikely that it will be possible to find a common ground for unifying Alevi associations. Under such circumstances, even if there is a reform, it could further divide Alevi communities over sharing the benefits of the changes.