Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Alevism: persecuted subculture

Turkish Alevis
Turkish Alevis distribute a traditional Ashura meal in the city center of Ankara on October 26, 2015. Photo: ADEM ALTAN / AFP

A religion with great local and transnational importance in Turkey, Syria, Iran and the Balkans, Alevism is not widely known outside this corner of the world. A key bastion of Turkey’s lauded historical diversity while also being widely persecuted, Alevism is often as misunderstood by those who are aware of it as it is ignored by those outside its sphere of contact. So what is Alevism?

Is Alevism part of Islam?

A branch of Shia Islam, Alevism is practiced by an estimated 20 per cent of Turkey’s population, a group around 25 million strong spanning local Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds. It is worth noting that the majority of the Alevi community lives within Sunni Muslim-majority countries (namely Turkey, total population 80 million). Loosely related to the Alawites in Syria, Alevis reside primarily in Turkey. Within Turkey at least, the exact number of Alevis is a matter of contention, with no official census measuring the size of particular religious communities. Unlike most Muslims, Alevis pray in Turkish, even many who come from the Balkan or Kurdish regions, which speaks to the deep Turkishness of this religious community.

A subsect of Islam, Alevi beliefs are distinct from both Sunni and mainstream Shia Islam. The term Alevi is thought to be tied to a descriptor for ‘those who follow Ali’, a reference to Ali ibn Abi Talib, Prophet Muhammad’s cousin whom Alevis, like other Shias, believe to be Muhammad’s rightful successor. Also like other Shias, Alevis reject the leadership of the first three ‘rightly guided caliphs’, who represent a key differentiator of Sunni beliefs. However, it would be wrong to categorize Alevis as Shias (whereas Ala-wites fit more neatly into this category), given their relatively unstructured interpretation of Islam and the religion’s syncretic nature, at times respecting some Christian or even Shamanistic traditions.

Alevis and Alawites are often confused or equated, but aside from a similar-sounding name – both a reference to Ali – they are very distinct. One key difference is ethnicity. Whereas Alevis are typically Turkish or ethnically Kurdish and they pray in Turkish, Alawites are Arab and, like nearly all other Muslims, pray in Arabic. Alawites are also firmly within the fold of Shia Islam, regarding Ali as a divine figure, unlike Alevis who merely respect him. Alawites are also notoriously secretive, guarding the details of their beliefs and rituals from outsiders and even from women within the community. Alevis, meanwhile, have greater gender equality and do not value secrecy as much.

Like Sufis, Alevis believe the Koran has both an open and hidden meaning, access to which is through religious practice that is unavailable to the uninitiated. Many Alevis gather on Thursdays for spiritual remembrance like Sufis and in contrast to the traditional Friday prayers. But like Shiites, Alevis give much importance to the 12 imams that make up Shia Islam’s initial succession of spiritual leadership, with 12-sided designs often incorporated in religious architecture.

Alevis consider themselves Muslims and their beliefs are firmly rooted in the teachings and lessons of the Koran. However, they do not adhere to several key pillars of Islam, which some might argue puts them outside the traditional conceptions of the faith. Some of these differences can be found in Islam’s most outwardly distinct characteristics. Notably, Alevis do not prostrate themselves during prayer and are not required to fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, instead withholding from normal eating patterns during the ten holy days of Muharram, the Shia festival commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein.

Alevis also gather for prayer and religious study in cemevis or ‘halls of worship’, not mosques like most Muslims. This has been a point of contention in terms of the group’s rights in Turkey as the government does not recognize cemevis as places of worship, depriving the Alevi community of funding and state support. Unlike all but the most liberal of Muslim communities, Alevi men and women typically pray in the same space within the cemevi.

Alevis Turks attend a rally in Ankara on November 9, 2008. Photo: ADEM ALTAN / AFP

Liberal or just modern?

Discrimination from the religious mainstream in Turkey has pushed the Alevi community to embrace the modern republic’s secular ideals, which have served as something of a guarantor of Alevi rights in the past century. Whether this has been a causal factor in the community’s more relaxed and less conservative gender and social norms is difficult to say, but among Alevi women, the use of the headscarf and more conservative clothing common to many pious women in Turkey is much rarer. Many Alevis also drink alcohol. Similarly, during cultural events, gendered segregation is not the norm, bringing a greater public feeling of equality between the sexes. Over time, the Alevi community has become strongly associated with the political left in Turkey, especially in the context of the Islamist revival of the 1980s. This association continues to this day.

As is almost always the case, Alevism is not just a religion but also a cultural grouping, with its own dances and sayings. These cultural ties serve as a wider bulwark for the community, building a sense of belonging and awareness of identity, even among non-practising Alevis. Unfortunately, such behaviours have also been used against the community, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claiming that Alevi places of worship are not religious sites but merely ‘centres for cultural activities’.

Outside the fold

As a subculture with beliefs distinct from the dominant Sunnis, Alevis have endured centuries of persecution, even being branded heretics by the Ottomans. More recently, in the political upheaval and repression of the 1970s, dozens of Alevis were murdered.

In 1993 in Sivas, more than 30 Alevis were burned alive in a building attacked by an Islamist mob. Amid Turkey’s increasing Islamism, Alevis remain second-class citizens, with their community’s needs or identity ignored by the dominant Sunni identity. This is not merely a question of numbers but is rooted in the regime’s conception of true Turkishness. This is seemingly unimpeded by the Turkish state’s official and nominal designation as secular. Alevis’ religious proximity to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect has made them convenient targets as hatred of the Syrian regime has built in Turkey.

On an institutional level, the government’s non-recognition of Alevism restricts everything from funding for places of worship to religious education (which was successfully challenged by a parent in the European Court of Human Rights) and representation within the Religious Affairs Ministry. Together, these re-trictions represent a gaping chasm in the rights afforded to Alevis. Even so, Alevi activism has led to a handful of victories. In 2018, a Turkish appeals court ruled that the state should pay the electricity costs of cemevis, effectively recognizing them as places of worship and ending a long-standing discriminatory practice, even if many Alevis doubt the government will respect the ruling. Between 2000 and 2013, the number of cemevis in Turkey tripled, from 300 to 900, although some of these sites were subsequently taken over by Sunni authorities. In another example, an Alevi religious leader, or dede (‘grandfather’), was permitted to visit an Alevi prisoner in 2015.

In 2013, the ruling Justice and Development Party promised a special Alevi package of reforms that it was hoped would redress some of this persecution. But little has come of this promise, even after national and international courts ordered the government to act.

A key part of Turkey’s and the region’s religious and cultural landscape, appreciation of and respect for Alevism’s history and traditions will remain a barometer of society’s progress.