Secularism non-negotiable for Alevis, study shows
The policy of ignoring others that has been endorsed by the AKP after it was re-elected with 50 percent of the vote has strengethened the feeling of exclusion among Alevis, says Gülizar Cengiz. DAILY NEWS photo / Emrah GÜRELAlevis were the first community to support the formation of the Turkish Republic but are growing increasingly wary at perceived attempts to roll back the state’s secularist principles, said Gülizar Cengiz, an Alevi association leader.
“Secularism is a principle that is non-negotiable for Alevis,” said Cengiz of the Institute of Alevi-Bektashi Culture, who was in Turkey to present the results of fieldwork about the Alevi community that was conducted by the association. “Secularism is a philosophy for Alevis,” Cengiz told the Daily News.
What is the most important finding from the fieldwork?
We were expecting the results but not expecting the priorities to come out the way it did. The work has shown that the most important problem of the Alevis in Turkey is the interference in their actual daily lives, and that’s why the trust problem and the lack of dialogue made the top of the list.
What are the reasons behind the trust problem?
Alevis have problems with the state that date back [centuries]. There is a trauma that comes from the period of the  Battle of Çaldıran between Yavuz Sultan Selim [Ottoman sultan Selim I] and [Savafid leader] Shah Ismail, which was originally a leadership struggle that was later politicized.
Alevis were the first ones to recognize and support the Turkish Republic in the first days of the republic. This was because they found themselves in the republic, which did not contradict their values. So they were at peace with the republic. But then with successive governments and coalition periods, a feeling of otherization and exclusion started to settle in; it’s a feeling which has increased since 2002 but has intensified in the extreme during the course of the last three years.
You claim in your report that a new look at the historical facts will help reconciliation; how so?
The war between [Selim I and Shah Ismail] was a struggle for leadership; yet Yavuz Sultan Selim led to a trauma by presenting it as a struggle between [different] convictions. We need to open the pages of history when this otherization started. Researchers should shed light on the facts – that the contention was between two Turkish states and that the two are just different interpretations of Islam, as they are branches of the same tree. The fieldwork showed us that the two communities do not know each other and have prejudices about each other. We are not talking about opening the wounds of the past but a scientific discussion that would facilitate the acceptance of differences.
Can you elaborate on the current feeling of exclusion among Alevis?
In one in three families, there is either discrimination against a member of the family if the person is in the civil service; either the person has had to hide his or her identity or had to face some kind of injustice. There is a sort of a “neighborhood pressure.” Otherization starts in schools. A point that has been raised very often is hurtful rhetoric. There is resentment about the condescending rhetoric used by the prime minister and the rulers of the political parties. People are horrified that their place of worship is identified as “freakish.” The feeling of exclusion is experienced in all parts of life, and people have especially voiced concern about the last three years.
Why the last three years?
My personal opinion is that the policy of ignoring others that has been endorsed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) after it was re-elected with 50 percent [of the vote] has led to this feeling among people. It is the result of oppressive policies.
But it is AKP governments that have come up with the Alevi opening and which has organized workshops to discuss the problems of Alevis.
When the workshops were initiated, I was among the most excited. I thought, finally a government that is strong enough to take the decision to seriously tackle the problems of Alevis. The fieldwork has shown that, just like me, the majority thought these workshops would produce outcomes. But nothing came out of it. There is a conviction that it was meant to gain time. Not only were the expectations not fulfilled, on the contrary, the complaints of the Alevis have increased. The fact that the third [Bosphorus] bridge was named after Yavuz Sultan Selim shows that the government is insensitive and takes its decisions without caring about social sensitivities.
You also claim that the otherization is not limited to the government but exists in society as a whole.
The fieldwork shows us that there is a feeling of “us and them.” There is tremendous polarization and anger on both sides; if necessary measures are not taken, this could lead us toward dangerous situations.
You also underline the lack of dialogue.
This is a big problem. We had stated that we would present the results of the fieldwork to all political parties, as well as the president. Some of the Alevi organizations asked why we felt the need to present it to the president. But the presidency is very important for us. We have applied to all political parties and interestingly, the first to meet us was the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). We had a very positive meeting with MHP Leader Devlet Bahçeli, who told us that they did not expect any votes from the Alevis yet believed in the importance of considering the demands of the Alevis. We also visited the BDP [Peace and Democracy Party] and the CHP [Republican People’s Party].
We had asked to meet the AKP [Justice and Development Party] but did not receive an answer. In fact in June, Culture Minister Ömer Çelik had asked to see us in Germany. We met him in June and when he asked how we could contribute to the issue, we told him about the fieldwork and said he would be the first one to be informed about the results. But later we couldn’t get an appointment from him.
How did the meeting with the president go?
It was a very warm meeting. He insistently asked why such a study had not been conducted by an organization based in Turkey. We thought it was a good dialogue. Obviously, he did not make any comment about the results.
Religious education and worship sticks out as important problems in the fieldwork.
The majority of Alevis do not want their children to attend religion courses in schools. And they also assert that it should be up to the communities to decide about their place of worship. If an Alevi say the cemevi is my place of worship, then it should be accepted as such. This is a matter of honor.
The Diyanet [Religious Affairs Directorate] needs to be restructured. Alevis object to the fact that the Diyanet, with its huge budget, functions as the representative of only the Sunni branch of Islam. The Alevis also pay taxes, while the Diyanet’s practices are against the principle of equality.
The fieldwork underlines the importance of secularism.
Secularism is a principle which is unquestionable for us. [A large proportion] of Alevis see secularism as a life philosophy.
Is there a feeling among them that secularism is being eroded in Turkey?
The majority of Alevis believe that there has been an effort during the course of the last number of years to eliminate the values of the republic.
Some suggested that the majority of Gezi protestors were Alevis.
There is a concern about interference in lifestyles in all parts of the society, including Alevis. It is only natural that they took part in those groups.
Who is Gülizar Cengiz?
A teacher by profession, Gülizar Cengiz left Turkey for Germany when married in 1978. She subsequently played an important role in organizing cems, Alevi worship ceremonies, in Europe.
Upon the encouragement of Professor Irene Mélikoff, a world-renowned expert on Alevi-Bektaşi culture, she embarked on a quest to establish an organization that would focus on the research dimension of Alevis.
The Institute of Alevi-Bektashi Culture was established in 1996 in Cologne. She is currently the president of the Institute, a non-profit organization.