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Erdogan’s Turkish Government Suppresses Alevi Muslim Minority

4:25 PM, Jul 18, 2012 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Turkish rulers, from Ottoman times to the present-day neo-fundamentalist regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have never been comfortable with the Alevi Muslims. Counting a quarter of Turkey’s current domestic and diaspora population of 80 million, Alevis emerged in the 16th century as eastern Anatolian peasant rebels. They supported Shia Persia, then governed by a mystical Sufi shah, against the Turkish sultan, who was also the supreme religious authority (caliph) of Sunni Islam. Alevi beliefs combine Shia devotion to Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad who was assassinated in 661, Sufi metaphysics, and elements of pre-Islamic Turkish shamanism and Kurdish social traditions.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Aside from their Shia background, Alevis have nothing in common with the similarly-named Alawites, who are the foundation of the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. Turkish and Kurdish Alevis despise dictatorships, though many are leftist. Iran, which “certifies” the esoteric and extremely heterodox Syrian Alawites as proper Shia Muslims, has reached out to the Turkish and Kurdish Alevis—but this flirtation has been rebuffed. The Alevis do not wish to become pawns of Tehran. The Iranian clerical tyranny today no more resembles the Persian Sufi empire that inspired Alevi combatants nearly 400 years ago than the Syrian Alawites correspond to the Alevis.

Although some Turkish and Kurdish Alevis follow some Sunni Muslim practices, including fasting at Ramadan (which begins this year on July 20), they do not pray in mosques. Rather, they conduct an impressive ritual led by women and based in dance, beginning with the lighting of candles and music performed on a long-necked oriental lute, the saz. This observance, the cem, is held in a cemevi, or cem house. Alevi festivals assemble hundreds of saz artists, with their instruments held high above their heads before they play them, to symbolize their identity.

Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP), like its secular predecessors, subsidizes Sunni mosques in Turkey and abroad, exercising extraterritorial control over them in Germany and elsewhere Turkish Sunnis emigrate. These functions are carried out by the Turkish state’s Islamic affairs directorate, known as the Diyanet.

But the condition of the Alevis is a case study in how Islamic authorities often treat heterodox Muslim believers as “apostates.” Unfortunately for the Alevis, the Ankara government will not finance their cemevi or include them in the official Islamic affairs directorate. Instead, the Alevis are told that they should pray in the Sunni manner, in Sunni mosques.

The pre-Erdogan secular order, which banished Islam from the public sphere, held the same posture: religion should be excluded from politics, but only Sunni Islam was afforded official recognition in matters of faith. The situation of Kurdish Alevis in Turkey is triply negative. They are impoverished, members of a despised religious minority, and belong to an ethnic group that, according to most Turkish politicians, has no right to cultural autonomy. Since the early 20th century, Turkey has been considered a country composed only of Turks by citizenship and assimilation—including Greek and Armenian Christians, and Sephardic Jews, as well as Kurds and other minorities.

Alevis in Turkey now express eloquent discontent with AKP policies on religion. Late in June, Kurdish Alevi writer Cafer Solgun, interviewed by the pro-Erdogan Turkish daily Zaman (Time), averred that the secularist Republican People’s Party or CHP was “manipulating” Alevis against the AKP. But he noted that AKP overtures to them, which he had supported and in which he participated, had been found unsatisfactory by the Alevis.

Beginning in 2009, the AKP government organized seven “workshops” with Alevi organizations, a hitherto-unimaginable initiative. The workshops were restricted to Alevi entities inside Turkey, while much Alevi activity is centered in Western Europe (Germany may have a million Alevi residents today, out of about 4.5 million people of Turkish and Kurdish origin). Some Alevi representatives who attended the first workshop were dissatisfied and did not return for the other six. The Alevis perceived the workshops as opportunities for the AKP’s Sunni clerics to browbeat them.

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