Erdogan, Iran, Syrian Alawites, and Turkish Alevis
1:07 PM, Mar 29, 2012 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
The Alawites are more a cult than a sect. They appeared earlier in history than the Alevis. As described in an article by Daniel Pipes, published in 1989, Alawite “doctrines date from the ninth century A.D.” from within the “Twelver” Shia current. As Pipes wrote, “In about A.D. 859, one Ibn Nusayr declared himself the bab (‘gateway to truth’),” a major religious title in Shiism. Alawite religion appears to preserve elements of paganism and of the dualist religions of pre-Muslim Iran, of which the best-known is Manichaeism, positing a permanent, cosmic struggle between light and darkness.
According to Pipes, “The [Alawite] religion holds Ali, the fourth caliph, to be the (Jesus-like) incarnation of divinity… [Alawites] celebrate many Christian festivals… They honor many Christian saints… The specifics of the [Alawite] faith are hidden not just from outsiders but even from the majority of the [Alawites] themselves… Religious secrecy is strictly maintained, on pain of death and being incarnated into a vile animal… Women do most of the hard labor; they are prized ‘precisely because of the work they do that men will not do except grudgingly, finding it incompatible with their dignity.’ Women are never inducted into the mysteries (‘Would you have us teach them whom we use, our holy faith?’); indeed, their uncleanliness requires their exclusion from all religious rituals.” Unlike the Turkish Alevis with their cemevi, Alawites “have no… places of worship; indeed they have no religious structures other than tomb shrines. Prayers take place in private houses, usually those of religious leaders,” Pipes noted.
The contrast between the Arabic-speaking Alawites and the Turkish-Kurdish Alevis could not be clearer to those who know the latter. Where the Alawites are esoteric, Alevism is an enthusiastically public faith. Its religious songs and texts are published and widely distributed. Alevi women not only are treated as equal to men, but take a leading role in Alevi rituals. Alevis are descendants of dissident Muslim mystics who found themselves at odds with the Turkish state in the 1300s. In the 1500s, the predecessors of the Alevis sided against the Ottoman sultans in a war with the Sufi-ruled Safavid Persian empire.
Syrian Alawites and Turkish Alevis are not the only Muslims named for Ali. The Ba’Alawi Sufis are a strict Sunni order found in south Arabia, east Africa, and southeast Asia. Similarly, conventional Sunni Sufis in the Balkans are known as “Aliites” or “Alevians.”
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the Turkish opposition leader, is an Alevi, not an Alawite. Does this confusion between two lesser-known phenomena in global Muslim religious life matter to people outside Turkey and Syria? It should, if only because Erdogan’s charge that Alevis and Alawites are the same illustrates the same penchant for wild demagogy the Turkish prime minister has shown in dealing with Israel.
Alevis deserve the support of foreign monitors of religious freedom in their demands for equal treatment by the Turkish government. The Syrian rulers have distorted religious freedom for Alawites, Christians, and other non-Sunnis to perpetuate a brutal tyranny. Alawites are, perhaps against the will of some among them, servants of the dictatorial order in Damascus. Alevis are partisans of democracy and the West; Alawites are exemplars of despotism and lackeys of Iran, Russia, and China.
Observers of the Syrian agony and Turkish intrigues in dealing with Syria should pay attention to these differences, and not be taken in by Erdogan’s propaganda.