In a sign of their continuing suspicions of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), representatives of Turkey’s Alevi religious minority spurned what the government claimed was an olive branch by boycotting a banquet organized for them in Ankara on January 11.
No reliable statistics are available on the number of Alevis in Turkey, although they probably account for at least 10%, and perhaps as many as 15%, of the country’s total population of 75 million. Historically, the Alevis were mostly concentrated in relatively isolated rural areas of Anatolia. As a result, Alevism developed not as a single homogenized doctrine but as a pluralistic tradition with local variations in rituals and practice. Although Islamic mysticism and a veneration of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s nephew, are the dominant elements, Alevism also includes traces of shamanism, Christianity, and the pre-Christian religions of Anatolia.
The question of whether Alevism is truly Islamic or whether it represents a distinct religious tradition in its own right is one on which not even all Alevis are agreed. Turkish Sunni Muslims have traditionally regarded Alevis with suspicion and often hostility, frequently considering them as wayward Sunni Muslims at best and as heretics at worst. Their suspicions have been exacerbated by the fact that elements of Alevism, such as veneration of Ali, are shared by the Shia Muslims of what is now Iran. During the Ottoman Empire, there were occasions when some Alevi tribes sided with the Persian Shah in disputes with the Ottoman Sultan.
As a result, Alevis have suffered discrimination and occasional persecution. Unlike Sunni Muslims, Alevis receive no state funding for their places of worship, known as cem evis. Indeed, the Turkish courts still refuse even to recognize them as places of worship. Although the Turkish Constitution describes Turkey as a secular state, the inculcation of Sunni Islam is compulsory in all Turkish schools. In October 2007, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in favor of a case brought by a Turkish Alevi who claimed that the Turkish education system violated his children’s right to freedom of belief (see EDM, October 12, 2007).
Tensions between Sunnis and Alevis have sometimes resulted in communal violence. The most recent pogrom occurred in July 1993, when 37 Alevi intellectuals died as the result of an attack by a Sunni mob on an Alevi festival in the Anatolian city of Sivas. The perpetrators were eventually tried and imprisoned. However, in its coverage of the trial, Turkey’s Sunni Islamist press repeatedly attempted to shift responsibility for the massacre elsewhere by perpetuating highly improbable conspiracy theories. Perhaps more alarmingly, the Welfare Party (RP), which was the main Islamist party at the time, failed to issue an unequivocal condemnation of the massacre. One of its leading members, Sevket Kazan, even volunteered to defend the perpetrators in court. Few Alevis have forgotten that most of the leading members of the AKP began their political careers in the RP.
There is no reason to believe that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who first came to prominence when he was appointed RP mayor of Istanbul in 1994, has ever supported violence against Alevis. However, until relatively recently, he repeatedly rejected Alevi calls for recognition, describing Alevism as a “culture not a religion” and maintaining that their only place of worship should be a mosque (Milliyet, January 12).
The first sign of a softening in the AKP’s attitude toward the Alevis came in the run-up to the July 22, 2007, general election, when Reha Camuroglu, a prominent Alevi intellectual, successfully stood as an AKP candidate in Istanbul. But many Alevis noted that Camuroglu was very much an exception on the AKP’s list of candidates. They described his selection as a combination of tokenism and an attempt by the AKP to defuse claims that it is essentially an Islamist party. Their suspicions have not been assuaged by the fact that the decision-making core of the AKP remains dominated by Sunni Muslims with a background in the Islamist movement of the 1980s and 1990s.
Perhaps not surprisingly, representatives of the Alevi community were less than enthusiastic when Camuroglu announced that the AKP would host an Alevi fast-breaking meal during the month of Muharrem, when Alevis commemorate Ali’s death. In the run-up to the meal on January 11, Alevi elders held a press conference to warn that any Alevis who attended would be subject to the Alevi equivalent of excommunication. Most of the Alevis probably needed no such persuasion. In the aftermath of the meal, the Islamist Today’s Zaman, which is run by followers of the exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen, ran several reports detailing how the banquet had revealed deep divisions within the Alevi community (Today’s Zaman, January 13). In fact, the Alevis’ response was almost unanimous. Of the 298 Alevi organizations invited to the banquet, just five sent representatives, and none of them from the larger Alevi organizations (Radikal, January 13).
In an unfortunate coincidence, the meal was held the day before the Ankara Sixth Administrative Court issued a ruling stating that cem evis were not places of worship. In theory, at least, this not only makes it impossible for Alevis to open new cem evis but also means that all of those already functioning are technically illegal (Milliyet, Hurriyet, Vatan, Radikal, January 12).
The AKP has responded by announcing that it will draw up a comprehensive program, including opening an “Alevi General Directorate,” establishing Alevi institutes, and supporting academic work on Alevism. Some AKP officials have even promised that they will defy the recent court ruling and attend the opening of new cem evis in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir (Anka News Agency, January 13). However, even if such promises are sincere and herald a new era in Sunni attitudes towards Alevis, such is the weight of history that it is likely to be some time before the Alevis themselves are convinced.