Which celebrities in Turkey are Turkish Alevis

Turkey

Markus Dreßler

Dr. Markus Dreßler studied religious studies and Islamic studies in Marburg and Giessen and did his doctorate at the Max-Weber-Kolleg of the University of Erfurt. He has been teaching in Bayreuth since 2013. In addition to modern Alevism, his main research interests are religion and politics, secularization and nationalism - with a geographical focus on Turkey.

A religious community in the field of tension in Turkish politics

A renaissance of Alevism has been observed in Turkey since the 1980s. The strengthening of the Islamic movement in recent years has also resulted in a critical Alevi public that is clearly opposing the policies of the ruling AKP. The widespread assessment that Alevism is a comparatively liberal form of Islam is problematic, however.

Alevi women and men during the spiritual Semah dance. It belongs to the Cem, the religious ritual of the Alevis. (& copy picture-alliance)

In retrospect, May 29, 2013 appears to be an important piece of the puzzle in the complex prehistory of the Gezi protests, which escalated shortly afterwards. On this day the foundation stone was laid for a third bridge over the Bosporus and, despite loud protests, especially from the Alevi public, to Yavuz Sultan
Construction workers in front of the pillars of the new Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge in May 2014: The naming of what is now the largest and longest of the Istanbul Bosphorus bridges was perceived by Alevis as a deliberate provocation. (& copy picture-alliance)
Selim named: For the Alevis, the naming is an affront, as Sultan Selim is held responsible for the cruel massacres of the Kızılbaş, ancestors of the modern Alevis, at the beginning of the 16th century. The massacres are an important element in the Alevi culture of remembrance as a story of suffering, which has its starting point in the murder of the prophet's grandson Hüseyin (from the Shiite perspective the only legitimate leader of the Muslims of his time) in Karbala in 680 by the Umayyads. This story of suffering continued into the republican era, with tragic climaxes being the destruction of the Alevi province of Dersim in 1938, which claimed thousands of lives, the pogroms in Kahramanmaraş in 1978 and Çorum in 1980 and the massacre of Sivas on July 2, 1993, during which an Alevi festival, a hotel was set on fire, as a result of which 37 people were killed.

From the point of view of the Alevis, the naming of the Bosphorus Bridge is a further link and provisional high point of an increasingly anti-Alevi policy of the government of the Islamic-conservative ruling party AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi). Critics accuse the government of wanting to use this name to stir up animosity between Alevis and the Sunni majority of the population.

The effects of the civil war in Syria

The Syrian conflict is of central importance: After the then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan turned away from the ruler Bashar al-Assad in the course of the escalation of violence in Syria, he now describes him as a terrorist and dictator, even comparing him to Hitler. [1] In their "anti-Assad polemics" Erdoğan and other Turkish members of the government often refer to the religious aspect and suggest that Turkish Alevis showed solidarity with the Syrian rulers who belong to the Alawite religious community for religious reasons. As a result, fear spread among Alevis that the emphasis on the denominational component of the civil war in Syria could continue to be used to stir up anti-Alevi sentiments in Turkey. This could further intensify the polarization of Turkish society in order to bind the conservative Sunni electorate even more closely to the AKP. The Arab Alawites, including those who live in southeastern Turkey, have in fact very little in common with the Turkish and Kurdish Alevis: The identical name (Turkish: Alevi, Arabic: Allawi) refers to the fact that the veneration of Ali plays a prominent role in both groups, but in terms of their historical lines of tradition, beliefs, rituals and social structures, the differences far outweigh the differences.

Thus, regardless of the ecological and grassroots concerns of the Gezi protests, Alevis had more specific reasons to join the protest movement, which quickly expanded into a general protest against the increasingly authoritarian political style of the AKP government. The fact that seven of the eleven civilian casualties in the Gezi protests were Alevis as a result of violence by Turkish security forces has further increased the feeling of threat among the Alevi population. However, the disproportionate number of Alevis among the victims of the protest movement does not mean, as circles close to the government sometimes suggest, that the majority of the protesters are Alevis. Rather, it reflects the asymmetrical use of force by the state security forces, depending on the location of the event, the composition of the demonstrators and, last but not least, the media presence. [2] While there were no deaths in the protests at Gezi Park itself or in other central locations in Istanbul with a strong media presence, most of the victims were in locations outside the media focus and in socio-economically disadvantaged districts. One example is the Istanbul district of Okmeydanı, where riots between left factions and security forces regularly occur. Okmeydanı has a strong Alevi population, which is disproportionately involved in activities that are critical of the government. It therefore seems as if the state acts in arenas that are traditionally critical of the government, which are often strongly Alevi and outside the focus of the media, using greater violence against opposition members.

Who are the Alevis?

The question of how Alevis differ from Sunni Muslims is still controversially discussed today. About ten to a maximum of twenty percent of the population of Turkey can be attributed to Alevism. About two thirds of them speak Turkish, the remaining third speaks one of the two northwest Iranian languages ​​Kurmanci and Zazaki. In Turkey, both Kurmanci and Zazaki speakers are considered Kurds, although linguists usually only assign Kurmanci to Kurdish. Due to marriages practiced for centuries within Alevi communities and strict, ultimately religiously legitimized social boundaries between Alevis and Sunnis, membership of Alevism also has a strongly ethnic character. Mixed marriages, although much more common today, can still be a social problem.

Alevis differ in their religious practice and their religious ideas from both Sunni and Shiite Islam - to such an extent that the question of the Islamicity of Alevism has always been controversial. In the Alevi faith, motifs from Shiite mythology and interpretation of history are prominently represented. The martyrdom of Hüsein in Kerbela is collectively remembered in the Alevi Cem ritual [3]. The veneration of the twelve imams, especially the first imam Ali - from whom the name Alevi is derived - is at the core of Alevi religiosity. In Alevism, this Shiite attitude is combined with the veneration of Balkan and Anatolian saints from the 12th to 16th centuries. Apart from Shiite and Sufi ideas in their interpretation of the Alevi way, Alevis differ in essential points from the Islamic mainstream. The legal tradition of scholarly Islam is not recognized by them; Sharia only plays a metaphorical role in their own system of norms. Practices such as Islamic ritual prayer, the pilgrimage to Mecca, fasting in the month of Ramadan, and almsgiving are hardly relevant in traditional Alevism. Alevis have their own forms of prayer and devotion, their own places of pilgrimage and fasting practices that hardly overlap with the practices and ideas of other Muslims.

Alevi ritual and belief practice is strongly influenced by the oral tradition. There is no central Alevi authority and no standardized corpus of scriptures. Authority in Alevism is embodied in the figure of dede (Turkish for grandfather). Dede the male representatives are named as sacredly venerated lineages, who alone can lead the Alevi ritual and who were responsible for the religious and social leadership of Alevi communities in traditional Alevism.

The complexity of the problem of definition also comes to light in Alevi self-determination. A minority of Alevis, represented much more strongly in Western Europe than in Turkey, sees Alevism as an independent religion that is independent of Islam. Another interpretation renounces the religious reference and understands Alevism as a philosophy that traditionally connects "Anatolian values" [4] with a humanism understood as universal. Still others subordinate Alevism to political patterns of interpretation, view it as a revolutionary class struggle philosophy or, from a nationalist perspective, emphasize pre-Islamic Turkish or Kurdish-Iranian roots. Most Alevis see it as a form of Islam that is strongly influenced by Turkish culture and is essentially humanistic, often with reference to its Sufi-mystical and specifically Anatolian aspects. The opinion that Alevism is a more liberal religious tradition than Sunni Islam is widespread not only among Alevis. The Islamic religious law and the gender segregation derived from it played no role among the Alevis and women would have equal rights in Alevism. Although it is certainly correct that there is no dogmatic gender segregation in Alevism, one should refrain from overly rigid typifications here as well. Alevism has also developed in a strongly patriarchal context and to this day there are only very few women in leadership positions in Alevi organizations. Traditional Alevism also knew strict social norms and sanctions to enforce them - up to and including exclusion from the community. However, Alevism is on the one hand strongly characterized by a mystical understanding of religion that is in principle more flexible and less dogmatic than, for example, the law-oriented mainstream of Sunni Islam, on the other hand Alevis have secularized themselves to a greater extent in relation to the Sunni population and are now interpreting their own religious tradition often with reference to extremely modern values ​​and ideals, which are then explicitly presented as liberal and humanistic. This is also one reason why Alevis are still not recognized as Muslims by some devout Sunnis to this day.

Religious historical interpretations

Religious historical interpretations of Alevism are also extremely heterogeneous. Some - mostly western - observers find Christian traces in Alevism. Many emphasize pre-Islamic, old Turkish shamanic practices, others attribute greater importance to the Islamic marginal traditions of Sufism in the development of Alevism. Based on such religious-historical provisions, the historical roots of Alevism in Turkey are now seen by many in the symbiosis of Turkish culture with the Islamic religion. As a rule, it is not taken into account that this interpretation is a product of the Turkish nationalist discourse that is barely 100 years old. Until the second half of the 19th century, the Ottomans were called the Kızılbaş (Redheads) groups that we call Alevis today are considered heretics. Heresy, decent behavior and a tendency to political subversion are associated with the term Kızılbaş. It was not until the last decades of the Ottoman Empire that discourses established themselves that first included the Kızılbaş in the Islamic nation and then postulated a continuity of Turkish and kızılbaş-Alevi culture.

It is true that Alevism does indeed contain practices and beliefs whose roots point to pre-Islamic practices of Central Asian Turkic peoples. But at the same time there are a lot of Alevi practices and beliefs that tend to indicate affinities to other strands of tradition. The heterogeneity of the socio-religious milieus and strands of tradition of Anatolian Alevism itself speaks against assuming a relatively uniform origin of Alevi traditions. Not all Alevis are ethnic Turks. Kurdish and especially Zaza Alevis have peculiarities that connect them with religious traditions of the Iranian-Kurdish cultural area. You have to be aware that the religious traditions that we summarize today under the umbrella term Alevism have developed in a lengthy process, during which the bearers of this tradition were in diverse contact with a wide variety of religious traditions. The latter include both local Christian elements and Sufi charismatic expressions of Islam.

Alevi Renaissance and Current Conflicts

After Alevi practices and spaces were banned together with those of the Sufi orders as early as 1925, from the 1950s onwards rural exodus and urbanization accelerated the disintegration of the social and religious culture of traditional Alevism based on close communal structures. For most of them, Alevism lost its meaning as a living tradition and Alevi identities were subsequently created
Alevi men demonstrated in November 2008 in the Turkish capital Ankara for the state recognition of their community as an independent religious tradition. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)
largely secularized. In the 1960s, many Alevis - especially the younger generations - began to turn to left-wing political ideologies and to reinterpret Alevism based on them. Until the 1980s, culturally and / or religiously articulated Alevi concerns were hardly noticed by the Turkish public. From now on, however, Alevis stepped outward, organized themselves, began to denounce social and, above all, institutional discrimination and demand their recognition as an independent cultural and religious tradition and community. With regard to everyday experiences of social discrimination, one should warn against stereotypical portrayals. Friendships and, to a limited extent, marriages between Sunnis and Alevis are not uncommon, at least in urban contexts. Social discrimination against Alevis is therefore strongly context-bound, dependent above all on socio-economic factors and level of education. Institutional disadvantage has a more severe effect on the labor market and in the workplace, where questions of ancestry, religious affiliation, and lifestyle can be important criteria for inclusion or exclusion.

In addition to the concern of stepping out of the social shadow of a society shaped by Sunni Islam and denouncing an end to social and institutional discrimination, this was a threat from Alevis
Hotel Madımak in Sivas: on July 2, 1993, 37 people died in an attack on an Alevi festival. (& copy public domain)
Perceived strengthening of an Islamic movement in the 1980s and 1990s is another important background to the revitalization of Alevi identity. The Sivas massacre reinforced this perception and became a catalyst of the Alevi renaissance. As among the secularists, there was also a renewed and intensified reference to Kemalism and in particular to its founder and symbolic figure Kemal Ataturk among Alevis.

The Alevi renaissance and the emergence of a critical Alevi public inevitably led to conflicts between the Alevis and state institutions. The main demands on the state, on which Alevis of various stripes generally agree, are:

  1. Abolition or restructuring of the state Bureau for Religious Affairs, which is responsible for the implementation and control of Islamic religious practices in the country, but does not take Alevi matters into account.
  2. Abolition or comprehensive revision of compulsory religious studies in public schools, which treats Alevism only rudimentary and from a Sunni-colored perspective.
  3. Material support for Alevis by the state according to their share of the population analogous to state support for Sunni institutions or, alternatively, the abolition of state subsidies for religion.
  4. Recognition of the Alevi cemevi ("House of Community" or "Cem House") as a house of prayer.
The controversial status of the cemevis it is clear how much political and theological points of view are mixed up when it comes to recognizing the Alevis.It must first be made clear that today the religious difference of the Alevis in the Turkish public is no longer fundamentally questioned and the legitimacy of an independent Alevi identity is largely recognized. The AKP government has also contributed to this.