Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Turkey’s Other Question: The Alevis

Thousands gather to attend the 20th anniversary of the Madimak massacre, when 33 intellectual Alevis were burned alive, in Sivas, Turkey, 2 July 2013. Photo NarPhotos / Hollandse Hoogte

Turkey’s ‘Kurdish question’ – the decades-long tensions and open conflict with the nation’s Kurdish population – has long been seen as the principal barometer of Turkey’s relationship with its minority communities. This is largely due to the lack of other significant ethnic or religious minorities, most of whom fled, were expelled or killed in late Ottoman repression or the waves of nationalist violence. However, aside from the Kurds, Turkey’s Alevi community has struggled for minority rights, often away from the spotlight of international attention.

A branch of Shiite Islam, the Alevis represent by some estimates up to 20% of the country’s population, a group around 25 million strong spanning local Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds. The Alevis are a subculture, with beliefs distinct from the dominant Sunnis. They have endured centuries of persecution as a result, even being branded heretics by the Ottomans. More recently, in the political upheaval and repression of the 1970s, dozens of Alevis were murdered. Twenty three years ago, more than 30 Alevis were burned alive in a building attacked by an Islamist mob. Amid Turkey’s increasing Islamism, the Alevis remain second-class citizens.

The Alevis’ demands are simple. Most importantly, they long to see their places of worship – cemevis – recognized as such by the state. The government refuses to do so. In May 2014, Emrullah İsler, then deputy prime minister, declared that cemevis could not be recognized because Alevis consider themselves Muslims, and the mosque is Islam’s only place of worship. There appears to be little political reasoning behind Ankara’s intransigence, aside from long-standing prejudice against Shiite faiths.

The Shiite Safavid Empire (1501-1722), based in modern-day Iran, was the Ottoman’s main adversary in the Middle East, and this enmity has cast a long shadow. Alevis have often been frustrated by attempts by Sunni leaders to define their beliefs. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself was one of the more recent to have been embroiled in this discrimination. In 2013, he sought to classify Alevis into ‘those with Ali’ and those without. He sees the former as loyal to Islam and more likely to be lured away from the cemevi into the mosque; he equates the latter with atheists.

In May 2013, Alevis once again found grounds to protest against the government, when Erdoğan, then prime minister, expressed his grief for the “53 Sunni citizens martyred in Reyhanlı” in a car-bomb attack, blamed on supporters of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. This was the first time that a senior Turkish politician had ever referred to the victims of such an attack by their religion. The prime minister’s exclusionary comments provoked fears of a sectarian backlash against Alevi Turks, whose beliefs are largely indistinguishable from al-Assad’s Alawite faith.

In 2016, the Alevis found a reminder of their troubled history etched into Turkey’s most famous skyline, when it was announced that Istanbul’s new bridge spanning the Bosporus would be named after Selim the Grim, an Ottoman sultan famed for orchestrating massacres against ‘heretical’ Alevis. Attempts by Ankara to mend this internal rift have failed. Turkish cleric and one-time Erdoğan ally Fethullah Gülen sponsored the construction of a mosque complex in Ankara that was supposed to heal this wound. By sitting in a Sunni mosque next to an Alevi cemevi, the complex would have allowed followers of both faiths to pray side by side. However, in the absence of a change to Turkish law regarding cemevis’ status, the cemevi remained a mere annex to the Sunni temple, leading to riots and fiery opposition from Alevi groups.

The other main Alevi grievance relates to the state curriculum. Turkish students, regardless of their faith, are obliged to take religious classes in school, which refuse to examine the Alevi’s Shiite faith. This principally derives from the state’s view of Alevism as a culture, rather than a religion. Alevi communities argue that this approach to schooling discriminates against them and contributes to the ‘Sunnification’ of Turkish society, gradually eroding the last vestiges of the once-diverse nation. In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkey’s education system ‘violated the right to education’ and was inadequately equipped to respect parents’ convictions, in a case based on Alevi complaints about mandatory Sunni religious classes. Little changed in the wake of this ruling, however, and as Turkey moves further away from the European Union, hope is fading as to its potential impact.

Mistrust of the government and of Ankara’s Sunni designs for Turkey has turned the Alevi community into ardent defenders of the Turkish Republic’s secular pillars and fierce opponents of the government. Enshrined in the constitution as one of Turkey’s founding tenets, secularism (laiklik) has come under increasing threat from the conservative Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP), now in its 15th year in power.

In the 2013 Gezi Park protest, Alevis took to the streets to join nationwide demonstrations against the increasingly authoritarian nature and violent repression of Erdoğan’s government. Either by coincidence or deliberate targeting (though the latter seems unlikely), all five of the protestors killed in the police crackdown were Alevi. The Alevis’ staunch support for the secular republic, as well as the community’s prominent leftist and Kurdish segments, have ensured that the Alevis have remained on the state’s watch lists. A leaked police report also revealed that the authorities had been monitoring the sectarian makeup of the Gezi protest (with some 78% of those on the streets estimated to be Alevis), confirming fears of state profiling of minority populations.

The war in neighbouring Syria has perhaps provided the most dangerous spark to ethnic tensions around Turkey’s Alevis. With the spillover of fighting and the influx of millions of refugees across the Turkish border, Turkey’s native Shiite community has come under unwanted pressure. Their religious proximity to al-Assad’s Alawite sect has made them convenient targets for the hatred of the Syrian regime that has been building in Turkey.

Iran’s unwavering support for the al-Assad regime, despite its widespread abuses against Syrian civilians, has marked Tehran as Ankara’s nemesis in the region. Religious and historical imagery has laced anti-Iranian vitriol in Turkey, reflecting the sectarian spectre that stalks geopolitics in today’s Middle East. The bloody battle for Aleppo has provided perhaps the best example of this. Before the city finally fell to pro-al-Assad forces, radical Turkish Sunni lecturer Abdulkadir Sen openly called for revenge to be wrought upon Turkey’s Alevis. Although Sen’s university suspended him once his tweets had been brought to the Turkish parliament’s attention, and the deputy prime minister condemned the violent calls, Sen has escaped any further punishment for inciting murder.

Yet the threats to Alevis have not just been online. In 2015, unidentified perpetrators marked Alevi homes with crosses. It is an ominous trend that harks back to the 1978 massacre of Alevis, before which similar red ‘X’s appeared on Alevi residences. Even if this harassment has not yet turned violent, fear is a powerful tool for those looking to persecute Turkey’s beleaguered minorities.

Last year’s 15 July 2016 coup attempt sent shockwaves through Turkey and triggered widespread political repression throughout all the organs of state. As a group with notoriously sour relations with the Gülen movement (which was allegedly responsible for the putsch), the Alevis were an unlikely target for the ensuing purges. Indeed, in August 2016, the government declared Dersim, a majority Alevi province, to be the least infiltrated by Gülenists of Turkey’s 81 regions.

However, the Alevis have not escaped unscathed. One Turkish daily newspaper ran a front-page story claiming that an Alevi town official had been ordered to massacre Sunnis in the wake of the coup. No evidence or even the name of the official in question was included in the article. No doubt disturbed by the bloody potential of the response to these unfounded rumours, Alevi community leaders nationwide were quick to issue a message condemning the coup attempt. Regardless, crowds still gathered in Alevi areas chanting sectarian slogans.

Understandably, the Alevis’ relationship with the state remains strained. In living memory, little of substance has changed in the way the government treats this significant minority. In the current climate of heightened ethnic tension, political repression and nationalist fervour, the Alevis seem to have every reason to be on the defensive.