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Turkey: Court Ruling Shows Authorities' Refusal To See Alevism As A Religious Community

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Until a few years ago, Kurdish separatism was the only movement in Turkey that openly challenged the official view that the country was a homogeneous nation-state. But the past two decades have seen a resurgence of Alevis, a minority religious group that has had difficult relations with both the state and Sunni Islam, Turkey's predominant religion. Turkish authorities recently banned an Alevi cultural center in Ankara. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch talked to regional experts about the origins and the recent history of the group.

Prague, 18 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's judiciary imposed a ban on a cultural center belonging to the Alevi community on 13 February, raising concerns about renewed tensions between the minority religious group and the secular government.

An Ankara court ruled that the Cultural Association of the Federation of Alevi-Bektashi Institutions -- where members perform ritual dances and songs -- was promoting a sectarian belief and religious separatism. Turkish laws forbid associations and political parties from carrying names pertaining to religion or ethnicity.

Although the name of the center refers directly to the Bektashis - an ancient dervish order whose history is closely linked to Alevism -- it is believed to be a purely Alevi institution.

The court decision sparked a wave of protests, both inside and outside the large Alevi community. The Turkish Association of Human Rights condemned the ruling, while even state officials criticized the rigidity of the legislation. The attorney general of the supreme court of appeal, Sabih Kanadoglu, said that in his view, "the ruling shows that laws must be improved."

Turkey, which stands last among 13 candidates for European Union membership, has pledged to bring its legislation in line with democratic standards -- a prerequisite set by the 15-nation bloc to start accession talks. But amendments made so far to existing laws have not appeased European concerns over human rights issues in Turkey.

Speaking to reporters on 15 February, the chairman of the European Federation of Alevi communities, Turgut Oker, said his organization will turn to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge the ruling. He also denied charges brought by the prosecution against the Alevis.

"While Turkey is on its way to joining the European Union and while it is bringing its legislation in line with that of the EU, the closure of Alevi foundations is not a wise decision for those who rule [the country]," Oker said. "The Alevi-Bektashis are not a religious sect. Alevism, which recognizes man as its founding principle and supreme value, is a culture, a doctrine, a way of life, a philosophy, and even a social reality."

Some scholars believe Alevism, which seems to have emerged in the ninth century, is the product of a schism within Shia Islam. Other scholars link the group to the Kizilbash, or "Redheads" -- an ancient nomadic Turcoman tribe that resisted Ottoman rule in 16th-century Anatolia with the active support of Iran's Safavid dynasty.

Thierry Zarcone is an expert in non-traditional Islamic religions at the Paris-based National Center for Scientific Research, better known by its French acronym CNRS.

He told RFE/RL that although both movements are radically different, Alevism is sometimes mistakenly linked to Alawism -- a religious Shia group based in Syria that originates from Shia Islam through Ismaelism (an Islamic religious belief that sees the Arabs as the descendants of Abraham's son, Ismael).

"Alevism is really on the fringe of Islam," Zarcone said. "Culturally, it is linked to the Muslim world. But it represents an Islam that has distanced itself [from] everything that represents Muslim orthodoxy, even with Shiism. The big mistake is to consider Alevis as Shia Muslims. In fact, Alevis are crypto-Shias."

Zarcone describes Alevism as "a kind of religious syncretism based on ancient Turkish beliefs which still has some elements of animism and shamanism in it and which, at some point in its history, has integrated some ideas borrowed from Shiism."

Alevis are concentrated in Central Anatolia and in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeastern provinces. There are also large Alevi settlements in western Anatolia, along the Mediterranean coast, in Istanbul, and in Ankara. Alevis are also well represented in the 3-million-strong Turkish diaspora. Altogether, Turkish and Kurdish Alevis are believed to number somewhere between 10 and 20 million -- making up between 15 and 30 percent of Turkey's population.

Martin van Bruinessen teaches Islamic studies at Utrecht University in The Netherlands. He told RFE/RL that despite some internal political divisions, Alevis all see themselves as belonging to a distinct, united community.

"Originally, Alevism is a different form of Islam. It is a syncretistic religion, which has still very recognizable elements of other religions in it. The major rituals of that religion are very different from Islamic rituals. But most Alevis do not believe in that religion. I mean that they have been secularized much more than Sunni Muslims have," van Bruinessen said. "So, being an Alevi now is an identity. People define themselves as Alevis. It is a social group that has long been discriminated against and that has a strong awareness of always having been second-rate citizens."

Alevis have always had a conflicting relationship with orthodox Sunni Islam. That was notably the case in the first years of the republic, when Alevis actively supported the idea of a secular nation advocated by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

During the great rebellion that ignited Kurdistan in 1925, Kurdish Alevi tribes fought against the insurgents, who were not only demanding autonomy for the province but also the restoration of the Holy Law and the Caliphate (Islamic religious leadership), which Ataturk had abolished the previous year.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, violent clashes regularly pitted Alevis -- many of whom then identified themselves with radical left-wing parties -- against Sunni Muslim groups backed by far-right politicians. By the end of the 1970s, anti-Alevi pogroms had left hundreds of people dead.

During the 1980s, confrontations between Alevis and Sunni Muslims became particularly acute, as the political and military establishments became increasingly influenced by the so-called "Turkish-Islamic synthesis," an ideology that imparted to the Turkish nation a quasi-messianic mission against socialism and communism. Van Bruinessen says this period signaled a new stage in the development of Alevi self-consciousness.

"After the 1980s, many Alevis thought that it had hurt the community very strongly to be associated with the left and they started a debate on how to define themselves again," van Bruinessen said. "This happened also because the state, after 1980, tried to impose a [certain] form of Sunni Islam. In spite of the state being very secular, [it] imposed Sunni Islam, [it] made religious teaching obligatory in schools and [it] built mosques [everywhere], even in Alevi villages. So you could see a shift in the way Alevis started looking at themselves. Some tried to redefine themselves again as a religious community, others as an ethnic community with an ethnicity that cross-cut linguistic boundaries."

In July 1993, 36 Alevi artists attending a cultural festival in the central Anatolian city of Sivas died when an angry mob of radical Sunni Muslims and right-wing militants set fire to their hotel. Local authorities and police did nothing to prevent the tragedy, and the culprits have still not been brought to justice.

In 1995, another 15 Alevis were killed in clashes with police forces following an incident in which unidentified gunmen attacked teahouses in Gaziosmanpasa, a poor Istanbul neighborhood with a large Alevi community.

If Alevis have been in open conflict with Sunni Islam, their relations with the state have been more ambiguous, depending mainly on political circumstances.

Given their numerical strength, Alevis represent an important electoral force, and the secular government has attempted to lure them to its side in a bid to counter the growing influence of Islamic parties. Since 1989, government officials have regularly attended the traditional Alevi pilgrimage in Hacibektas, while Alevi communities have been allowed to set up cultural centers even without official permission from the Interior Ministry.

Yet, Zarcone says for all that, the situation of Alevis did not really improve.

"Even if there were attempts at rapprochement [between the state and the Alevis,] they remained sporadic and aimed at putting some distance [between the state and Islamic parties]," Zarcone said. "But the state has never made any genuine, positive attempt at getting closer to the Alevis."

Etienne Copeaux is a Turkey expert at France's Group for Research and Studies on Middle East and Mediterranean Affairs. He says that, while courting the Alevis, Turkish authorities have persistently refused to recognize them as a full-fledged religious community.

To Copeaux's view, the state-sponsored structures of Sunni Islam -- mainly the Directorate of Religious Affairs -- have played a key influence on the government's attitude toward Alevism.

"There has been a persistent refusal, on the part of the government, to recognize Alevism as a community. This is certain," Copeaux said. "The state doctrine is so unitary that, officially, it cannot tolerate any sign of [religious] identity."

Yet, van Bruinessen says there is no consensus among government officials on how to deal with the Alevi community. While some see Alevis as potential allies against Islamic parties, others -- notably far-right politicians and army generals -- believe they threaten the unity of the state.

"The Turkish elite would like the whole population to be homogeneous, to be Muslim by identity, but not too much practicing, to be very secular. Alevis, because they are different, because [they are regrouping themselves] as Alevis and, therefore, separating themselves -- at least socially -- from most Sunnis, are one of the groups that threaten the unity of the nation, like the Kurds," van Bruinessen said.

In an editorial published on 14 February in the liberal "Star" newspaper, columnist Semih Idiz noted that the court decision to ban the Alevi cultural center was made while foreign ministers of the EU and the Organization of the Islamic Conference were gathered in Istanbul to promote dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

Noting that the forum had been a major diplomatic success for Turkey, which sees itself as a bridge between Islamic civilizations and the West, Idiz said Turkey's religious and ethnic minorities should enjoy greater cultural rights.

"Otherwise," he said, "nobody will respect a country that calls for tolerance abroad while intolerance prevails within its own borders."

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