The October 9 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), stating that compulsory religious instruction in Turkey violates the rights of religious minorities, has highlighted the discrimination suffered by the country’s substantial Alevi community (Aksam, Milliyet, Radikal, October 10).
On September 12, 1980, the Turkish military staged a coup after factional fighting between leftists and rightists had brought the country to the point of collapse. In 1982 the ruling military junta promulgated a new constitution that made religious education compulsory in all Turkish schools, primarily in the hope that the inculcation of religious values would serve as an ideological bulwark against communism. In theory, the lessons are in “Morals and Religious Knowledge.” In practice, they are used to instruct students not in only the precepts of Sunni Islam but also in its practices. More contentiously, religious textbooks teach schoolchildren that their religion – which they are told means Sunni Islam – is one of the unifying national characteristics of the Turkish nation, with the clear implication that non-Sunni Muslims are not “real” Turks and that their beliefs are a threat to national unity.
There are no reliable statistics on the number of Alevis in Turkey, although they are conservatively estimated to account for at least 10%, and perhaps more than 15%, of the country’s total population of 75 million. The Alevis are often described as a branch of the Shia Muslim tradition. This is misleading. Although they share with Shiites veneration for the Prophet Muhammad’s nephew Ali, Alevism is not so much a form of Shia Islam as a syncretic, pluralistic tradition, including elements from Islam, shamanism, Christianity, and the pre-Christian religions of rural Anatolia.
Most Alevis regard the rituals prescribed in the Koran, such as fasting during Ramadan and the pilgrimage to Mecca, as allegorical and thus not compulsory in a literal sense. Alevi theology is based more on oral traditions of ritual and belief with a strong emphasis on mysticism and personal morality. Unlike in Sunni Islam, Alevi women not only do not cover their heads, they also participate alongside men in prayer rituals in the Alevi places of worship known as cem evis.
Alevis have traditionally been regarded with suspicion by Turkey’s Sunni Muslim majority and suffered both discrimination and occasional pogroms. In July 1993 37 people were killed when a Sunni Muslim mob set fire to a hotel in the Anatolian city of Sivas that was hosting an Alevi cultural festival. Although it fielded a few token Alevi candidates in the July 22 general election, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is an almost exclusively Sunni Muslim . Both publicly and privately, leading AKP members have frequently refused to recognize Alevism as a distinct religious tradition, regarding Alevis as renegade Sunnis rather than having an identity in their own right. In September 2005, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly dismissed Alevism as a culture rather than a religion and said that the only place for prayer was a mosque.
The October 9 ruling by the ECHR followed a case brought in 2001 by an Alevi called Hasan Zengin who argued that forcing his daughter to be inculcated with Sunni beliefs and practices was an infringement of her basic human rights. The AKP government has announced that it will appeal the court’s ruling (Hurriyet, Sabah, Milliyet, October 10). But there seems little awareness that if, as is almost certain, the appeal fails, Turkey, as a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights, will have to amend its education system.
Government ministers continue to insist that they have no plans to change the law to allow Alevis to opt out of what are effectively compulsory lessons in Sunni Islam or to make provision for Alevis to teach their children their own beliefs (Radikal, October 11). On October 3, the Turkish Ministry of Education announced plans to introduce a 10-page section on Alevism in textbooks for students in the final year of high school in the 2008-2009 academic year.
Turkish religious textbooks already include sections on other major religions, such as Judaism and Christianity. However, they are presented as the faiths of outsiders. Even if the proposed amendments are introduced in the next academic year, the current drafts of the textbooks make it clear that the section on Alevism also describes “others”, and students will only read the textbooks after many years of being inculcated with Sunni Islamic precepts and practices (Radikal, October 4).