Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Arab Alawites in Turkey: History, Traditions and Dependency

Arab Alawites in Turkey encounter a challenge in persuading younger generations to maintain their Arab roots and safeguard customs and traditions.

Arab Alawites in Turkey
A Turkey’s Alawites man takes part in a gathering on October 12, 2014, in Ankara, to protest against the government’s anti-secular education policy. ADEM ALTAN / AFP

Ali al-Ajeel

Turkish Alevis and Arab Alawites often get confused with one another. In Turkey, Alevis blend Shiite beliefs and Sufi practices.

The history of the Alevis in Turkey traces back to the arrival of Turkic tribes in the Anatolia region. Referred to as the “Anatolian Alevis,” they are found among Kurds and Turks. Disputes exist about their exact number. Some suggest they comprise around 25 per cent of Turkey’s population, making them the largest minority in the country.

Most Arab Alawites reside along the Mediterranean coastline in regions like Hatay, Adana, Mersin, and extending to Antalya. There are also several thousand Arab Alawites in Ankara and Istanbul.

Historical Bonds

Arab Alawites were originally under Syrian rule until 1939. During the French Mandate, the Sanjak of Alexandretta (Iskenderun) split off and later joined Turkey through a referendum. The area is now known as the Hatay Province in Turkey.

The Arab Alawites within Turkey can be considered an extension of the Alawite community in Syria. They share familial ties with the sect’s members in Syria and have some proficiency in Arabic, which is also passed on to their children. Arab Alawites constitute approximately 5 to 7 per cent of Turkish Alevis, totalling an estimated 250,000.

The term Nusayris is used by Turks to differentiate between inhabitants of Hatay and other Alevis in Turkey and to indicate their connection with the Alawites of Syria. The Syrian Coastal Mountain Range, aka Nusayri Mountains, is south of Hatay.

Sanjak of Alexandretta

Before Before joining Turkey in 1939, the Alexandretta region was part of the Aleppo province during the Ottoman rule in Syria. It fell under the authority of the French Mandate in what was referred to as the Blue Zone, indicating that both France and Turkey treated the area as Syrian territory during that period.

Prior to being annexed by Turkey, Alexandretta was located in the distant northwestern part of Syria within Syria’s original political boundaries. It looks over the Mediterranean on the west through the Gulfs of Samandağ and Iskenderun. To its east and southeast are the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, while the south borders the city of Latakia.

The population of Hatay Province is divided among Alawites and Sunnis, along with Turks, Circassians, Kurds and a small Armenian minority.

Religious Practices and Rituals

Alawism combines various sects of Shiism and incorporates beliefs and practices from Anatolia’s culture, resulting in a distinct structure that sets it apart from Sunni Islam.

The Anatolian Alevis and the Arab Alawites differ, despite their reverence for Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet’s cousin and companion, Ahl al-Bayt or Prophet Muhammad’s family, and other customs. Unlike the Anatolian Alevis, the Arab Alawites believe in reincarnation and pass down traditions through male-exclusive rituals. As per Alawism, women lack a soul and the potential for reincarnation. The Arab Alawites observe Eid al-Ghadir, a significant holiday commemorating the day Imam Ali was appointed successor.

Turkish Alevis do not fast during Ramadan. Many go on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Haji Bektash Veli, a prominent Sufi mystic, philosopher and poet who lived in Anatolia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Anatolian Alevis are distinct from Alawites due to their embrace of Sufi dance rituals through their connection with the Bektashi order.

Ottoman Persecution

The Ottoman Empire accused the Alawites and Alevis of backing the Safavids in Iran during their conflict with the Ottomans. The accusation resulted in campaigns aimed at eradicating the Alevis, prompting them to take refuge in the mountains and become more insular.

The conflict persisted with the broader Turkish population, especially among Sunnis, until Sultan Abdulhamid II acknowledged that the Nusayris were Muslims. He subsequently incorporated them into the Ottoman army during World War II.

Alawites occasionally face threats, especially in Istanbul and Ankara. These threats manifest as offensive graffiti and red crosses marked on the doors and walls of their homes. Consequently, many Alawites feel compelled to conceal their identity.

Marginalisation and Turkification

Similar to other ethnic and religious minorities, Arab Alawites in Turkey experience government policies aimed at erasing their identity. Nevertheless, particularly in the southwestern areas where the Alawites are prevalent, such as the Hatay region, they strive to safeguard their uniqueness.

The Arab Alawites in Turkey have faced significant pressures, such as efforts to erase the Arab identity of the Hatay province by displacing residents of rural areas from their ancestral regions. Moreover, ongoing efforts are made to weaken the ties between the remaining Arab Alawites in Turkey and their relatives in Syria.

Turkification encompasses measures such as the discouragement of studying the Arabic language and limiting Alawi participation in important positions within government bodies. Additionally, Turkey does not recognise the Alawites as a distinct religious group, and their shrines and places of worship are categorised as “cultural institutions.”

The Arab identity remains strong in Antakya and its vicinity, yet it is gradually fading in other cities with a substantial Arab presence, like Mersin and Adana.

Relationship with Syrian Refugees

Despite developments in the interactions between Syrian refugees and Arab Alawites in Turkey, initial social integration remained quite limited. Although interactions occurred in multiple aspects, the Alawite community remained cautious about accommodating Syrians in their neighbourhoods and regions for an extended period.

Initially, the Alawites were concerned about a possible spillover of the Syrian crisis and the potential for sectarian and political conflicts, leading many Alawite villages to arm themselves as a precaution. Many of Turkey’s Arab Alawites support the ruling regime in Syria and view the Syrian crisis as contrived to sabotage, while most Syrian refugees take a different stance.

Over time, feelings of hostility and apprehension and biased actions from Alawite areas have diminished as a result of integration efforts and the Turkish state’s endeavours to prevent problems. Consequently, fears have gradually subsided.

Struggle Between Two Identities

Turkish individuals of Arab origins, particularly Alawites, generally maintain a solid connection to their Arab identity. They frequently speak Arabic and strive to pass this on to their children.

Yet, Alawites encounter a challenge in persuading younger generations to maintain their Arab roots and safeguard customs and traditions. This dynamic arose from the Turkish government’s efforts to erase the Alawite identity and the increased influence of Turkish culture and nationalism on the new generation.

S.K., a 52-year-old woman from Ankara, told Fanack, “In my younger days, many members of my family were proficient in Arabic. Their conversations often included references to and stories about relatives in Syria. The situation has shifted, and speaking Arabic is primarily limited to older generations.” She added, “This situation is deeply unsettling and concerning. It reflects the Turkish state’s intentions ever since the Sanjak of Alexandretta was annexed.”

“However, we must strive for greater integration into Turkish society. This is particularly important as integration can pave the way for our children to achieve their aspirations and safeguard them from potential conflicts with the Turkish state or other extremist factions in the region,” she emphasised.