Turkey's Alevi strive for recognition
By Daan Bauwens
ANKARA - A political initiative to eliminate discrimination against the Alevi,
Turkey's main religious minority, risks being stymied by the Diyanet, the
country's powerful religious body that does not recognize anything but Sunni
Between June 2009 and January 2010, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development
Party (AKP) organized seven different workshops to discuss a roadmap towards
equal citizenship for the Alevis.
Dede Ali Yaman, who attended a workshop in January, told Inter Press Service
(IPS) that the theologians of the directorate of religious affairs were still
resisting Alevi demands. "I have the impression that the AKP government is
afraid of them. If not for
them, decisions to solve the Alevi issue are easy to make."
Yaman predicts that the results of the workshops will lead to a standoff
between Diyanet and the Alevi community. "Of course, this initiative is a
historic move. But the results are more important than the initiative. If the
AKP chooses status quo and agrees with the theologians of Diyanet, the world
will see that this government opposes religious freedom."
According to Yaman, legal changes will not be enough to stop discrimination:
"It's a process that can take centuries. People's negative thoughts about
Alevis have to change. But we already can feel conditions for Alevis in this
country are getting better every day. I am optimistic."
Although there is no official information available about their number or
distribution, most sources state that 15% to 30% of Turkey's population is
Alevi. According to some, Alevism is a humanist branch of Shi'ite Islam. Other
say Alevis are not Muslims but have beliefs and practices that are pre-Islamic.
Alevis reject a literal interpretation of the Koran and take a progressive
stance on various controversial issues: most of them are in favor of abortion,
equality between the sexes and strongly believe in pacifism and monogamy.
Because of their left-wing political views - they have always strongly
supported the secular state - they have repeatedly been persecuted by military
regimes and Sunni religious traditionalists.
"There is systematic discrimination of the Alevites on religious grounds," says
Aykan Erdemir, assistant professor of sociology and deputy dean of the graduate
school of social sciences at Ankara Middle East Technical University. "Although
Turkey is a secular state and there is no official state religion, everybody
knows the dominant element in Turkish society is Sunni Islam."
"Since the beginning of the republic, both Kurdish and Turkish Alevites have
been marginalized,'' Erdemir told IPS.
"Currently, there are practically no Alevis in the parliament, while there are
plenty of high-ranking Kurdish bureaucrats as long as they belong to the Sunni
sect. There is discrimination in all political parties: you can't find Alevi
deputies, nor Alevi under secretaries, only one provincial governor out of 81
Erdemir's statements are backed by his own research. As a member of the
scientific board of Ankara's Alevi Institute, he conducted 252 interviews with
Alevites from various backgrounds in 14 cities. "They are well-educated, but
bump into a glass ceiling," he told IPS.
"Do you see that mosque?" asks Huseyin Yildiz, professor of law in Dersim, a
remote Kurdish Alevi city in the east of Turkey, pointing at a building.
''Nobody goes there - it is against our faith to enter a mosque. Despite
knowing this, every year the government is building more and more new mosques
on our hills. They keep sending imams, paid by the state as civil servants.
Alevis pay taxes but don't receive any services."
According to Yildiz, mosques started to appear in this region after the
military coup of 1980.
''It is the work of a huge constitutional body, the presidency of religious
affairs or Diyanet, which denies any other religion than the Sunni faith.'' he
told IPS. ''It says these mosques are built for us, that it provides services
to everyone. It also says there is no difference between Sunni and Alevi. It is
a campaign for assimilation."
It is illegal for the Alevis to build their own place of worship, called a cemevi.
The government systematically refuses building permits and the Alevis are
obliged to perform their rites in secret.
When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul, he ordered
demolition of the Karacaahmet Cemevi because of "unlicensed construction". In
2008, the mayor of Ankara Melih Gokcek also tried to destroy a cemevi.
Alevi children are also subjected to discrimination. After the military coup of
1980, compulsory religious classes were introduced in Turkish schools. Although
the class is called "Religious Culture and Ethics", children are only taught
the principles of Sunni Islam.
Following a complaint filed by Hasan Zengin and his daughter Eylem, both
Alevis, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the content of
these religious classes violated human rights and contradicted the principles
of plurality and objectivity.
Besides, the court commented that the pupils do not receive any general
information about Islam, but are taught how to pray and how to perform cultural
rituals. Children are expected to memorize verses from the Koran.
According to Erdemir, it goes even further: "Alevi children are humiliated by
their teachers, there is hate speech against them, there are even proven cases
of beatings when Alevi children did not want to practice prayers in class. The
children have one choice: they perform dissimulation and hide their identity,
or they resist being beaten or humiliated."
Since the ECHR decree, the AKP government has postponed the adjustments to be
made to the curriculum.
In 1993, a mob of 20,000 Sunni Muslims coming out of their mosques after Friday
prayers surrounded the Madimak hotel in Sivas and set it on fire, killing 37
Alevis trapped inside. Several reports said the police, army and fire
department did nothing to stop the arson.
In 1995, a drive-by shooting in Istanbul's Gazi neighborhood and the
indiscriminate police violence in rioting that followed left 15 Alevis dead.
But the violence proved to be a turning point.
"It was only after these clashes, which were heavily debated and received a lot
of attention in the media, that the Alevi identity revived. It was then that
Alevites got organized and founded associations to voice their complaints,"
says Dede (religious leader) Ali Yaman, member of one of the Alevi spiritual
By 2009 the government had begun addressing Alevi leaders' demands for equal
An early workshop in November was accompanied by a massive rally by 200, 000
Alevites in Istanbul's Kadikoy district, calling for "sincerity" from the
In all, more than 400 people took part in the seven workshops and the report
was presented to Erdogan this week.
According to the report, all participants agreed that the cemevi had to
be granted legal status, although not as places of worship because this could
be problematic and even offensive to other Muslims.
The report also stated that the majority of the Alevi community called for an
abolition of the religious affairs directorate. Instead, they proposed that
every religious community pay for its own religious services on a voluntary
basis, which they emphasized would contribute to peace between different
Regarding compulsory religion courses, all sides agreed that the curriculum
should be written down in a neutral language that is acceptable to all the
segments of the society.
Erdogan has promised that the first political steps based on the
recommendations of the report will be taken in one to two months.