‘Atheist Alevis’ and the Sunni-ization of Alevism

‘Atheist Alevis’ and the Sunni-ization of Alevism

Part of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s speech April 29 to his Justice and Development Party (AKP) lawmakers aimed at criticizing German President Joachim Gauck over his remarks on Turkish democracy. Erdoğan spoke of finding out who was responsible for “misinforming” the German president: “Atheist Alevis” living in Germany.

“In Germany, there is something called ‘Alevism without Ali,’ which is an atheist belief presented under the guise of Alevism. It is also supported by [Gauck] and he presented it to us. In Turkey, there is no such Alevism,” Erdoğan said, while also referring to Gauck’s history as a pastor without elaborating why a Christian cleric should raise his voice for atheism or Alevism.

Erdoğan’s remarks on Alevism were not only a message to the Alevis in Germany, but also to those in Turkey. The term “Alevism without Ali,” which widely surfaced in the 1990s, refers to the idea that Alevism, commonly accepted as an interpretation of Islamic beliefs from a liberal and humanistic point of view, has nothing to do with Islam. The Ali here is Caliph Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad and the fourth caliph of Islam.

Many Sunnis in Turkey perceive Alevism as a kind of Shia Islam, which values Caliph Ali more than the first three caliphs, whom they believe to be Muhammad’s successor in the caliphate. Erdoğan is no different, which is why he has said on several occasions in the past that, “if loving Caliph Ali means being an Alevi, I’m the world’s biggest Alevi.”

Well, sir, it does not; so you are not.

Alevism in Anatolia and Bektashism have followed a different path to Shia Islam and cannot be considered only as either Shia or Sunni belief.

The roots of Alevism and Bektashism go back to Haji Bektash Veli, a humanist and philosopher of the 13th century. The belief, or the culture, was highly influenced by his humanist stance, also taking in some traditions of shamanism and even Zoroastrianism. It developed own rituals of prayers, called Cem, in which music and dance is included. The women and men are together during the Cem, unlike the prayers in Sunni or Shia Islam.

Despite the differences, many Alevis and Bektashis consider their belief to be within Islam. Alevis performing namaz - the practice of formal worship in Islam - or fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, are not uncommon.

Ruşen Çakır, who has a good knowledge of the Alevi community, wrote in his column in daily Vatan yesterday that the group that considers Alevism to be outside of Islam makes up a very small portion of the Alevi community.

“Some Alevis do not associate Alevism with Islam, and that is their problem,” Çakır wrote. “Alevis have been discussing these issues for a long time, and it looks like they will continue to do so. But it is not wise for Sunnis, who are bigger in numbers - especially the leaders and spokespeople of the authorities and/or the global community - to be a part of this discussion.”

As Çakır puts, it, no one has the right to tell someone to believe in something, or to practice their beliefs in a certain way. But Prime Minister Erdoğan has always made such interventions in other people’s political stances, lifestyles or religious beliefs. He and other officials, including the head of Turkey’s Religious General Directorate, want Alevism and Bektashism to be weakened within the dominant Sunni belief in Turkey.

In February 2013, Erdoğan refused to recognize cemevis as official houses of worship, saying “Alevis are Muslims like us, do not confuse cultural locations with houses of worship,” thus prompting reactions from the Alevi community.

Alevis and Bektashis have survived hundreds of years of attacks, persecutions and insults, without making any concessions on their beliefs and lifestyles. All efforts in history for the Sunni-ization of them have failed, and the current effort is just another one doomed to fail. 

In the meantime, I advise Prime Minister Erdoğan not to make bold statements such as “atheist Alevis.” It makes no more sense than him saying, “If there were a genocide, [there would not be] Armenians still living in Turkey.”