The Alevi issue: A litmus test

The Alevi issue: A litmus test

The “democratization package” Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan announced this week is worthy of support, as I explained in this column last Wednesday. It introduces much-needed legal reforms that will advance the freedom of minorities such as the Kurds, along with the conservative Muslim majority which also has been oppressed by our not-so-liberal republic.

However, there is a burning issue for the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) that Erdoğan’s package, with the exception of a symbolic gesture, dismissed: the demands of Alevis, Turkey’s largest non-Sunni minority, which constitute an estimated 10-15 percent of the population.

Erdoğan’s deputy, Bekir Bozdağ, promised a separate package for the Alevis, and that raises some hopes, but this is a serious question that cannot tolerate more neglect or delay.

In fact, the “Alevi question” in Turkey is a much lighter one compared to the other major identity-based tension: the “Kurdish question.” The latter has led to the rise of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a guerilla army and a terrorist group, whose war with the state has claimed more than 40,000 lives.

Kurdish nationalists also claim a certain part of Turkey as their national homeland, a vision which may threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey.

The Alevis, on the other hand, never fought a guerilla war against the state – with the possible exception of the Dersim Rebellion of 1937-38, a Kurdish-Alevi uprising against the republic. Moreover, the Alevis do not claim a separate homeland of their own; they only ask for more freedom and recognition for their religious practices and lifestyle.

However, this lighter issue is somewhat heavy for the governing AKP, because the party mainly represents the conservative Sunni majority of Turkey. Moreover, the communal prejudices between the Sunnis and Alevis of Turkey have been exacerbated by the civil war in Syria, which is fueling sectarian tension in the whole region. It was no accident that the six youngsters who lost their lives during the Gezi Park protests, due to clashes with the police, were all members of the Alevi community. This is because the Alevi youth, which also makes up the bulk of the Turkish Marxist left, is among the most active opponents of the governing AKP.

Therefore, reforms for the Alevis are a must for the AKP, if the governing party wants to defuse the tension in society and “solve all of Turkey’s longstanding problems” as it often takes pride in doing. However, this is also a bit challenging for the Sunni-minded cadres of the AKP. The Ottoman pluralism that they often take inspiration from does help them in regards to reforms for Kurds and non-Muslims (as the Ottoman paradigm was really more liberal than the republican paradigm when it came to ethnic and religious differences). But the Ottomans were not always commendable when it came to differences within Islam, and hence the Alevis were persecuted during some certain periods of Ottoman history.

In other words, the AKP cannot move forward with the Alevi question with mere references to Ottoman tolerance and Sunni ideals about “the unity of Muslims,” as it sometimes does regarding the Kurdish question. Here, an acknowledgment that Islam can take many forms, including very syncretic ones, and that they all deserve the same religious freedom is necessary. That is why the Alevi issue will be a litmus test for the AKP in the months and years to come.