The Alevis’ latest struggle against discrimination

The Alevis’ latest struggle against discrimination

Alevism is a belief system that is experienced as an adventure. What I describe as an adventure is Alevis’ resistance to the centralization and assimilation policies of the Sunni mainstream.

The Sunni mainstream’s centralization policies first began during the Ottoman period in the 16th century. Although there is a general perception that these policies relaxed with the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, in reality the situation is very different. With the proclamation of the Republic, Alevis were still treated as “marginal others,” because the framework of citizenship espoused by the Republican state was Sunni-centered.

Currently, the “Alevi issue” encompasses four main problem areas: Difficulties encountered in the transmission of the belief, demands that cemevis (Alevi houses of worship) be officially recognized as houses of prayer; debates concerning compulsory courses on religion in secondary education; and discriminations that Alevis experience both in everyday life and in the workplace.

While the above list reflects the current issues, in the past, the current Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has publicly announced two proposals directly related to Alevism as a belief system:
establishing an “Institute of Alevism” and paying regular state salaries to dedes out of the government budget. The proposal regarding the establishment of an Institute of Alevism where dedes would be trained is likely to cause problems. Alevism demonstrates considerable regional diversity. A formal institute is not likely to allow for the preservation of such diversity. In the event that an institute to train dedes is established, the following questions would inevitably arise: Who will develop its curriculum and how? What would be the status of dedes who do not choose to be trained by the institute? The idea of paying regular state salaries, in turn, brings to mind the case of the Diyanet, which has functioned as an ideological apparatus of the state since its foundation in the early republican era.

Current discussions in the mainstream media aim to reduce Alevis’ demands and problems to the recognition of cemevis as place of worship, yet what is meant by recognition is not simply the recognition of a building. The cemevi is the inevitable product of urbanization and, as such, it represents Alevi society in the urban space. Because of the 1925 law on banning tekkes and zaviyes, cemevis have been officially categorized as “culture centers,” where in addition to religious rituals, educational and cultural activities also take place. Non-practicing Alevis also participate in the activities of cemevis.

AKP Adıyaman deputy Metin Metiner has associated the cemevis, rather provocatively and unfairly, with “terrorism.” Faced with discrimination in all aspects of their lives, Alevi youths have become increasingly political with the advent of urbanization. Most recently, along with many other groups and individuals they too were active in the forefront of the Gezi Park demonstrations, the state and government-aligned mainstream media degraded the participants of Gezi and the subsequent demonstrations. While doing so, they sometimes singled out Alevis as the main perpetrators.

The government set out to solve the Alevi problem and initiated the Kurdish process. However, it very nearly branded the Alevis as the new “bad boys” in town. Instead of admitting injustices committed and offering apologies and compensation, the government continues to exclude Alevis.

How the multiethnic and diverse Alevi population reacts to the current, polarized environment will be an important indicator for the future of democratization in Turkey. The short path is to resort to identity politics, which is prone to polarization and susceptible to provocations, and even violence. The other path is to explore ways to achieve pluralistic secularism and democratization for all citizens, including the Alevi community. This requires focusing on building a new constitution that will protect freedoms of thought, conscience, and belief without discriminating on the basis of religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and/or class. If the centralizing reflexes of the state could be overcome, this could have implications for other key issues such as redefining secularism in pluralistic terms.

* Nil Mutluer is Assistant Professor at Nişantaşı University’s Sociology Department. This article is an abridged version of the original article published in the Spring 2014 issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly (