Turkey’s Alevis beholden to politics

Turkey has ruled to recognise Alevis’ places of worship but there are worries over the outcome of this decision.

The rocks where Alevis hid during the massacre in 1938 [Umar Farooq/Al Jazeera]

Along a road overlooking a scenic valley in the Turkish Anatolian heartland is a series of giant grainy black and white photos; shackled men being led away, families huddling in bare mountains, surrounded by armed soldiers.

The memorial depicts a 1938 massacre of Alevis, an event that serves as a stark example of just how far Turkish society needs to go to understand this minority of about 12 million.

Most Alevis in Turkey are Kurds who speak Kurmanji or Zazaki, and follow a tradition that mixes Anatolian folk practices and Shia Islam. It is distinct from Arab Allawism found in neighbouring Syria. 

In response to a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights on December 2, the Turkish government has announced plans to recognise Alevi gathering places, or “cemevis”, as places of worship.

But many Alevis themselves fear the changes will end up exposing their faith to further domination by Sunni Islam.

Laila, 38, goes hiking in the same hills near Tunceli where her late father took shelter from soldiers eight decades ago. “He used to tell us about men with guns surrounding him, and the sound of bombs falling,” she says.

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The young Turkish Republic, looking to put down a revolt by Alevi Kurdish tribes, dispatched thousands of troops to Tunceli, then called Dersim, in a campaign that, according to government records, killed around 13,000 people.

Children pose for a picture in front of a statue of Seyit Riza who led the 1938 uprising before being executed
[Umar Farooq/Al Jazeera]

Many of the women and children who took shelter in the caves starved to death, others were killed in air strikes. Thousands of children who survived were adopted by Turkish soldiers, and many were raised as liberal Sunnis.

“They tried to forget what happened to them, and usually didn’t even tell their own children how they used to be Alevis,” says Cilem Oz, a researcher at the Istanbul-based Dersim Research Foundation. 

Last month, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made a landmark trip to Tunceli to announce the conversion of a former military barracks into a museum commemorating the 1938 massacre, and to rename a local university, Munzur University, after a nearby valley that is a pilgrimage site for Alevis.

“Only the police, army, and some members of the AK Party came to see him,” says Sinan, an Alevi medical doctor who declined to offer a last name.

“Davutoglu supposedly came for good reasons, for making peace, for solving Alevi issues, but nothing is happening,” says Sinan, whose grandfather told him he lost two teenaged brothers and a sister in the 1938 massacre.

Davutoglu’s AK Party has offered condolences for the massacre, but blames it on right wing nationalists, who ruled the country unopposed for decades. At Tunceli, Davutoglu dubbed the massacre a “modern-day Karbala”, referring to the 7th century killing of the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, an event commemorated by Sunni and Shia Muslims, as well as Alevis.

A few days after Davutoglu’s visit, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli also visited Tunceli, lambasting the prime minister for sympathising with “separatist terrorists”, minutes before being forced to cut short his visit by thousands of indignant locals.

Davutoglu's visit was an attempt at assimilation, he tried to define a Muslim, define us Alevis as Muslims, and we do not want this.

by - Engin Dogru, head of the Kurdish Democratic Regions Party in Tunceli

“We don’t see any difference between the AK Party and the MHP,” says Sinan, who, like other Alevis Al Jazeera spoke to in Tunceli, sees the visits as little more than political posturing.

“[Davutoglu’s] visit was an attempt at assimilation, he tried to define a Muslim, define us [Alevis] as Muslims, and we do not want this,” says Engin Dogru, head of the Kurdish Democratic Regions Party in Tunceli. A spokesperson for the prime minister did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comments.

Kadir Bulut, 30, is one of the few remaining “dedes” in Tunceli, a traditional leader from the lineage of Prophet Muhammad that performs ritual baptisms for newborns, officiates at funerals, and organises weekly gatherings at cemevis. “Things are changing,” he says, “there are less ‘dedes’ and less Alevis than before”.

“There were hundreds of births here last year, but I only performed three ceremonies.” Alevis are moving away from the region, often to study or work elsewhere, and many are losing their Kurdish language and Alevi upbringing, prompting fears they could be influenced by Sunni Islam.

Bulut supports the official recognition of cemevis as places of worship, but is apprehensive about further measures, like proposals to waive utility bills for cemevis, and training and paying dedes, as Sunni imams are now. Both measures would institutionalise traditionally independent Alevi institutions.

It is recommended Alevis visit the cemevis every week, he says, but not a requirement – gatherings have historically been held in homes, caves, even under trees. Dedes have traditionally worked as volunteers, accepting only limited financial support from their congregations, to maintain independence. 

Alevi beliefs could also change to match ideas in orthodox Islam. Like Sunni and Shia Muslims, Alevis revere Ali, the son-in -aw of Prophet Muhammad – the word “Alevi” itself comes from “Ali” – but they also see themselves as outside the sphere of any of those traditions.

Last July, Erdogan drew the ire of Alevis when he told supporters that: “If Alevism is about loving Ali, I am an Alevi to the T.”

Sunnis, along with many Shia Muslims, regard the level of reverence Alevis give to Ali – which ascribes a divine-like status to him – as heresy.

Alevis do not offer daily prayers like Sunni or Shia Muslims. Alcohol is permitted, and genders are not separated at cemevis. “If you really call yourself Alevi,” says Bulut, “there is not really room for it in Islam, as a traditional Muslim”. The status of Alevis, Bulut says, has always been politicised.

Alevis at Thursday night gathering, at the Erikli Baba Cemevi in Istanbul [Umar Farooq/Al Jazeera]

Under the Ottoman Empire, Alevis in Turkey were considered non-Muslims, at best akin to Christians or Jews, at worse heretics. After 1923, Turkish nationalists under Mustafa Kemal looked to suppress any ethnic or religious diversity.

“The Republic wanted one language, one flag, one religion, so they went around trying to make everyone into a Sunni – a Sunni Hanafi,” Bulut said, referring to the school of thought that almost all of Turkey’s Sunnis adhere to.

Dedes were rounded up along with Sunni Imams, and beards were forcibly shaved off.  In the 1970s, some of Turkey’s Alevis joined fellow Kurds to form leftist groups like the PKK. In turn, the Turkish military and right-wing nationalist groups stoked Sunni-Alevi tensions, providing the impetus to impose military rule in 1980.

While the AK party has made headway on making peace with the PKK, Oz, of the Dersim Research Foundation, says it is continuing Ottoman and nationalist legacies of assimilating Alevis, especially since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, where Turkey has openly taken the side of Sunni Arabs.

Last year, for example, when a car bomb in the border city of Reyhanli killed 52 people, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan angered Alevis by referring to the victims as “martyred 53 Sunni citizens of ours”.

If the AK Party is interested in reaching out to Alevis, Dogru says, they should focus on providing closure for the 1938 Dersim massacre. The names and destinations of those exiled in 1938, along with the burial sites of many who were killed, are thought to be in still-secret government archives.

“There have been many massacres in Turkish history,” said Dogru, “without acknowledging this one and the others, it will be impossible for Turkey to become a real democracy”.

Source: Al Jazeera