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Erdogan, Iran, Syrian Alawites, and Turkish Alevis

1:07 PM, Mar 29, 2012 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a habit of shifting positions toward his country’s neighbors, while pursuing the “soft Islamist” political agenda of his Justice and Development party (AKP). Erdogan’s Turkey was a close ally of Assad’s Damascus clique until the Syrian massacres, and the escape of at least 17,000 Syrians across the border into Turkey, compelled the Turks to oppose Assad’s grip on power. On Sunday, April 1, the “Friends of Syria” will hold their second meeting, grouping 80 countries, in Istanbul—the first was held in Tunisia in February. Turkey’s current leaders are anxious for action on Syria, according to The National, a newspaper based in Abu Dhabi. Erdogan has suggested that a “buffer zone” be established on the Turkish-Syrian border to handle an anticipated surge in refugees. As the Assad regime keeps its hold on the state, and continues slaying Syrian citizens, Turkey appears stymied, notwithstanding its anti-Assad rhetoric.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan has turned his frustrations over Syria against Turkey’s heterodox Alevi religious community. Alevism represents a fusion of pre-Islamic Turkish shamanism, Shia Islam, and spiritual Sufism. Its followers are known for their commitment to gender equality and secular governance. Although the pre-Erdogan Turkish political system was militant in its secularism, it controlled Muslim observance by recognizing Sunnism as the only legitimate form of Islam in Turkey. Alevis, as non-Sunnis, have long been victims of discrimination in Turkish education, social services, and religious life.           

Beginning last year, AKP leaders including Erdogan accused Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the Alevi leader of Erdogan’s main political opponents, the secularist Republican People’s party (CHP), of support for Assad, and alleged “sectarian solidarity” between Turkish Alevis and Syrian Alawites. With about 2.5 million believers, or 12 percent of the population in Syria, Alawites account for most of Assad’s bureaucratic functionaries and military elite. Kilicdaroglu has been outspoken in his condemnation of Erdogan’s alienation from Israel but has argued against military intervention in Syria. On March 22, the leading Turkish daily Hurriyet quoted Erdogan in a direct accusation that Kilicdaroglu and the CHP are Alevis, and therefore Alawites. According to Erdogan, “Don’t forget that a person’s religion is the religion of his friend. Tell me who your friend is and I’ll tell you who you are.”

Erdogan’s allegation that Alevis and Alawites are co-religionists is inaccurate and irresponsible. Alevis, who speak Turkish and Kurdish, count up to 20 million adherents in Turkey and among its Western European émigrés, or one in four Turks at home and abroad. Less than half a million Alawites, speaking Arabic, live on the Turkish side of the border with Syria.

Alevis, unlike Sunnis, do not go to mosques and do not pray. Rather, they hold their rituals, featuring music and dancing and known as “cem,” in Alevi meeting houses, or “cemevi.” Alevis complain that they are excluded from the Turkish national budget for religious and educational activities. AKP finances large and overbearing mosques in Alevi villages in Turkey, where they typically remain empty, as well as in foreign cities such as Cologne, where they feed anti-Muslim resentment among German Christians. But Turkish government funding for construction of religious buildings is denied the Alevis. In addition, Erdogan supports Sunni-only Islamic instruction in public schools.

Turkish and Kurdish Alevis have almost nothing in common with Syrian Alawites. The similarity of their names is misleading; Alevis and Alawites both honor Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad and the fourth caliph to succeed the Muslim prophet. Alevis and Alawites are offshoots of Shia Islam. Iran backs the Syrian regime, having proclaimed the Alawites as an accepted Shia variant. Tehran views the Turkish Alevis as Shias who have strayed, and should be induced to accept official Iranian Islam, known as “Twelver” Shiism because of its belief in 12 imams or outstanding religious authorities. Alevis honor the 12 imams, but lack the clerical apparatus visible in Iranian Shiism. And there any resemblances between Alevis, Alawites, and Iranian Shias end.

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