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Turkey, A Nation Divided -- Religion (Part 2)

Alevi worshipers dance during at a community center in Istanbul. (file photo)
Alevi worshipers dance during at a community center in Istanbul. (file photo)

The thing that divides Turkey first and foremost is not religion. It is the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, an ethnic-military confrontation that has been going on for more than 32 years.

But there is one major religious disparity between two large sections of Turkish society, which creates tensions and potentially threatens to aggravate the ethnic conflict and emerge as an acute threat to the country’s stability: a row between the Sunni and Alevi followers of Islam.

This almost sounds like the 17th-century wars in Europe between Catholics and Protestants.

Well, yes, though not exactly. The Sunni-Alevi conflict started 500 years ago. In the early 1500s, the Alevis of the Ottoman Empire sided with the country's neighbor to the east, the Safavids of Iran, who were fierce Shi'ite believers and made Shi'a the official school of Islam in Iran.

During the wars between these two regional "superpowers" of the time, Turkish Alevis strongly supported the Iranians and helped the Safavid clan rise to power. They were ideologically and militarily trained by Iran and sent back to the Ottoman lands to incite social upheaval. The Ottoman Army and regional tribal forces killed and deported the rebellious Alevis for being "heretic agents of Shi'a Iran." Tens of thousands of them immigrated to Iran while large groups of Iranian Kurds found refuge and support in the Ottoman Empire.

This was the first and largest Sunni-Shi'a/Alevi confrontation in history and its "aftershocks" would be felt for centuries to come.

A Bit Of History

Alevis are Sufi or mystical Shi'ite Muslims who are NOT Sunnis like the majority of Turks. They are followers of Imam Ali, the fourth caliph of Islam who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad in ruling the Muslim world. Unlike the Sunnis who recognize all four caliphs, the Alevis believe that the first three caliphs "usurped" their power from the "rightful" Ali, the prophet's cousin, and his descendants. That is why they call themselves Alevis or "followers of Ali" a group inside "Twelver Shi'a Islam" whose adherents believe in the divinely ordained leadership of Ali and his 11 successors.

Syrian Alevis are usually known as "Alawites" in the Western world.

Sunnis account for around 85 percent of the world's Muslim population of some 1.6 billion people, while the Shi'a make up about 15 percent of that number. Iran is the country with the biggest Shi'ite population.

There are estimated to be around 15-20 million Alevis in Turkey out of a total population of 78 million.

Initially, the Alevis mostly lived in rural areas. Originating in Central Asia, centuries before they settled in what is now Turkey, parts of Iran, the Caucasus, Iraq, and Syria, they lived mainly as Turkic tribal groups and were the last to urbanize and integrate with their new social and political environments.

In the Ottoman Empire, the confrontation with Safavid Iran pushed the Alevis further into poverty as well as into political and social isolation.

Both Alevis and Shi'a are followers of the Twelver Shi'a branch of Islam. But there are major differences between them.

Unlike the Shi'a in Iran and Iraq, Alevis do not pray -- as tradition prescribes in both the Sunni and Shi'ite beliefs. Nor do they fast the same way in the month of Ramadan. They also don't go to mosques to pray or to Mecca for pilgrimage. Alcohol is not forbidden in the Alevi faith, and women don't have to wear Islamic clothing or the head scarf known as the "hijab."

Many scholars believe Alevis have mixed their Islam with heavily mystical or Sufi approaches, which they adopted from the pre-Islamic, Shamanist traditions of Central Asia prior to their migrations westward a few centuries later, as well as from Iranian mysticism.

In the first centuries of Islamic expansion in Central Asia, mainly Iranian and not Arab thinkers and sheikhs taught and guided Turkic tribes to convert to Islam.

While converting to Islam and migrating to Iran and Turkey, Alevis took the essence and dropped the form of their new religion. In daily life, many political observers consider Alevis to be far more secular and "liberal" than most other schools of Islam -- Shi'a or Sunni.

In the last few decades many historians and researchers have argued that, after the Islamization and Turkification of Byzantine Anatolia, thousands of formerly Greek, Armenian, Aramaic, and Iranian-speaking members of the indigenous population had to change their first language to Turkish and convert to Islam.

These scholars also claim that, with respect to religion, a large portion of the converts chose the Alevi faith since it was easier for them to adapt to. For decades if not centuries, they say, these converts have lived as "genuine Muslims and Turks" although their origins once used to be Greek, Armenian, Aramaic, and Kurdish.

This is the essence of a potential split in Turkish society – if the players choose to play with it. And they have -- at least partly -- done so given the rising religious and ethnic tension in the wider Middle Eastern region.

In the next edition of this report, we will take a look at the sociopolitical implications of this religious tension in modern Turkey and the potential threats it poses.

About This Blog

Turkey Notebook is a blog written by Abbas Djavadi, regional director of programming at RFE/RL and a longtime Turkey specialist. The blog presents Djavadi’s personal take on events and is designed for Turkey-watchers and all who want to get the most relevant news, views, issues, and insights on the country that you might not find in the daily news stream. Also check out Turkey Notebook on Facebook or Twitter.