Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Alevi is the term used for a large number of heterodox Muslim Shi’a communities with different characteristics. Thus, Alevis constitute the largest religious minority in Turkey. Technically they fall under the Shi’a denomination of Islam, yet they follow a fundamentally different interpretation than the Shi’a communities in other countries. They also differ considerably from the Sunni Muslim majority in their practice and interpretation of Islam. The number of Alevis is a matter of contention. Estimates from different sources range considerably – from around 10 per cent to as much as 40 per cent of the total population – but recent figures suggest Alevis number in the region of 20 to 25 million.
The vast majority of Alevis are probably of Kizilbash or Bektashi origin, two groups subscribing to virtually the same system of beliefs but separately organized. The Kizilbash are traditionally predominantly rural and acquire identity by parentage. Bektashis, however, are predominantly urban, and formally claim that membership is open to any Muslim.
Linguistically, they consist of four groups: Azerbaijani Turkish, Arabic, Turkish and Kurdish (both Kormanje and Zaza). The last two categories constitute the largest Alevi groups. Politically, Kurdish Alevis have faced the dilemma of whether their primary loyalty should be to their ethnic or religious community. Some care more about religious solidarity with Turkish Alevis than ethnic solidarity with Kurds, particularly since many Sunni Kurds deplore them. Some fear such tensions may lead to new ethno-religious conflict.
According to Alevi belief, its practitioners share a way of truth unavailable to the uninitiated, and like Sufis claim that the Qur’an has both an open and a hidden meaning. There are progressive levels of divine understanding from obedience to Shari’a law through tarika (brotherhood) to ma’rifa (mystical understanding of God) and ultimately to hakkika (imminent experience of divine reality). Their profession of faith includes towards Ali along with God and the Prophet Muhammad. Alevis differ outwardly from Sunni Muslims in the following ways: they do not fast in Ramadan but do during the Ten Days of Muharram (the Shi’a commemoration of Imam Husayn’s martyrdom); they do not prostrate themselves during prayer; they do not have mosques; and do not have obligatory formal almsgiving, although they have a strong principle of mutual assistance.
Alevi and Bektashi beliefs are presumed to have their origins in Central Asian Turkmen culture. However, they are likely to have absorbed Christian beliefs when Byzantine peasantry adopted the Alevi faith during the Turkic conquest of Anatolia during the tenth and eleventh centuries, and Iranian pre-Islamic ideas, since Kizilbash beliefs derived from the founders of the Iranian Safavid dynasty.
Isolated within what became Sunni Ottoman territory, Alevis have long been reviled. Many belonging to the majority have viewed Alevis as non-Muslims and questioned their loyalties, as well as targeted them with unfounded and scurrilous libels. To avoid persecution, Alevis practice taqiyya (dissimulation). Many Alevis celebrate the life of the sixteenth-century saint, Pir Sultan Abdal, a symbol for community cooperation and opposition to injustice.
Until relatively recently Alevis survived by living in remote areas. Hopes of faring better under a secular republic failed to take account of popular prejudice. With conscription and the drift towards towns in search of work, Alevis, especially Kurds, have increasingly been exposed to Sunni prejudice and animosity. This was often reflected at an official level, with policies such as the lack of legal status of Alevi cemevis (places of gathering and worship) and the widespread prohibition of their construction – a ban that remained in place until 2015.
However, there has also been a change in what Alevism signifies. Traditional Alevism, based upon village and rural life, broke down in the context of urbanization. In its place Alevism strongly identified with the political left. The Sunni Islamic revival of the 1980s has provoked a reaction among Alevis. The revivalist process has been an ethno-political movement rather than a strictly religious one, with a spate of publications in Turkey concerning Alevi religion and history. Initiation into the esoteric aspects of the religion is dying out, but an Alevi cultural renaissance is undoubtedly taking place.
Tension between Sunni rightists and Alevi leftists grew from the 1970s. In part it was the migrant drift of Alevis from mountainous or unproductive land to seek work in predominantly Sunni towns which was a major catalyst in Sunni–Alevi tensions. At a local level the state has connived with this harassment, frequently to the point of persecution. Alevis harassed by Sunnis have seldom sought redress either from the police or the law courts since they believe the latter to be deeply prejudiced against them. In 1978 well over 100 Alevis were massacred in Maras by members of the extreme right National Action Party. In July 1993, 67 Alevis were killed in Sivas at the climax to the eight-hour siege of a hotel by Sunnis, while the police stood by. In March 1995 more than 20 Alevis were killed by vigilantes and police in Istanbul. Alevis remain economically underprivileged.
Targeting and attacks against Alevis have continued. In 2014, an Alevi man, Uğur Kurt, was shot and killed by police outside a cemevi in Istanbul while participating in a funeral ceremony for a relative; the family later won a court case and compensation.
An important milestone for the Alevi community came with the announcement in December 2015 of a range of expanded rights for Alevis, including legal recognition of cemevis, their houses of worship – a long-standing area of discrimination. This was preceded some months earlier by the visitation of an Alevi religious leader or dede to an Alevi prisoner in May 2015 – the first time an Alevi religious leader had been officially allowed to meet with a community member in jail. Despite this progress, however, problems persist, with periodic reports of Alevi homes being vandalized with derogatory or nationalistic slogans. In November 2017, Alevi community leaders expressed concern when 13 houses were daubed with red crosses in eastern Malatya province. And the same month, a mob attacked a cemevi in Istanbul and attempted to set it on fire.
Compulsory religious education classes at primary and secondary school in Turkey also penalise Alevis. Though the classes cover basic information about other religions, they are predominantly about the theory and practice of Sunni Hanafi Islam. The classes are particularly discriminatory against non-Sunni Muslim minorities: while Christian and Jewish students are exempt from the classes, Alevis are not. A case filed in 2007 at the European Court of Human Rights by an Alevi parent, arguing that compulsory religious instruction violates Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, resulted in the court ruling in favour of the applicants. Despite this, no progress has been made to date and Alevi community members continue to focus their efforts on reforming this aspect of the curriculum. In January 2018, an Alevi leader complained that the most recent curriculum presented by the Education Ministry did not describe cemevis as places of worship but rather as buildings where cultural activities occur – a continued form of misrepresentation by the government.
Alevis remain politically marginalized in the country, with limited representation in official positions of power. Following the attempted coup in 2016 and subsequent actions by the government against its perceived opponents, numerous journalists were imprisoned and media outlets were closed, including most of those broadcasting and publishing on Alevi culture.
Updated June 2018
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