Turkey’s Alevis fear secularism under threat

By Jon Hemming

YENICEKOY (Turkey): Everyone in the Turkish village of Yenicekoy is Muslim. They have a mosque, but no one goes there. It is Ramazan, but no one is fasting. Turkey’s Alevis are one of Islam’s most liberal sects. They sing and play mystical music at religious ceremonies attended by men and women. They drink alcohol, do not fast and do not go on pilgrimage to Makkah.

Long oppressed under Ottoman rule, the Alevis say they still face discrimination, even though the government has officially championed religious freedoms and human rights as it bids to gain membership to the European Union.

In a country where most Muslims belong to the Sunni group and Islam is tightly controlled by Ankara’s Religious Affairs Directorate or Diyanet, the Alevis say they have been neglected.

“The Diyanet is the state’s religious institution, but only represents Sunni beliefs,” said Fevzi Gumus, general-secretary of the Alevi-Bektasi Federation. “The existence of the Diyanet is incompatible with the secular nature of the state.”

Alevis are loosely related to Shia Islam and number between 12 million and 20 million of Turkey’s 70 million citizens.

“Alevis are not officially recognised as a religious community, they often experience difficulties in opening places of worship and compulsory religious instruction in schools fails to acknowledge non-Sunni identities,” the European Union said in its 2004 report on Turkey’s progress toward accession.

The criticism is expected to be repeated in this year’s report due on Nov. 9.

“It is certainly one of the long-standing issues for the European Commission in the context of minority rights and religious freedoms,” said one EU diplomat.

Ankara began its long-delayed accession talks on Oct. 3. It must bring its laws and regulations into line with those of the EU in several areas before it can join.

Turkey has already made wide-ranging reforms aimed at bolstering human rights and individual freedoms as part of its EU bid. But the EU says the reforms must be fully implemented.

Alevis warn that despite its officially secular status, Turkey is in danger of becoming a Sunni state.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has its roots in political Sunni Islam and refuses to recognise Alevi meeting places, known as cemevi, or to give them the same state aid as mosques receive.

“Alevism is not a religion. If it were a religion, it would need places of worship,” Erdogan said two years ago.

Izzettin Dogan, chairman of one of Turkey’s leading Alevi organisations, said Alevism was the “original essence of Islam.”

“Have a clean heart, a good heart, love humanity, don’t do anything bad to anyone ... the biggest sin for Alevis is to hurt someone else, to do an injustice to someone else,” said Dogan, who is a member of the Cem Vakfi group.

Alevis say their beliefs are a synthesis of mystical Islamic Sufism, some Christianity, Zoroastrianism and pre-Islamic shamanism brought from Central Asia as the Turks began their westward conquest of Anatolia from the 11th century onwards.

At an Alevi cemevi in a rundown area of Istanbul, hundreds of people kneel in a circle, men on one side, women on the other, praying and singing along to the seven-stringed guitar-like saz. The men and women rock back and forth, entranced by the haunting rhythm and religious chants.

The music and mixing of the sexes, banned in religious services by mainstream Islam, have led some to say Alevis are not Muslims at all and accuse them of conducting sexual orgies.

“According to their understanding, men and women can’t be in the same place, if they are it means some sort of revelry is going on, it can’t be a place of worship,” said Dogan.

Since the secular Turkish Republic replaced the officially Sunni Ottoman Empire in 1923, Islam has been kept firmly under state control. Imams are paid and told what to preach by the Diyanet, which controls some 76,000 mosques.

The Diyanet employs around 100,000 people. Its 2006 budget will be larger than those of the Interior and Foreign ministries and equals about a third of the state funds spent on health.

The Diyanet spends no money on Alevis and, according to members of that group, does not employ any Alevis.

“The Diyanet is a like a state within the state,” said Dogan. “How can you believe in freedom of religion when you use the taxes collected from all of us and give it only to Sunni Muslims? ... The secular state is becoming a Sunni state.”

The Diyanet has a simple answer: if Alevis are Muslims, they should go the mosque.

It has built mosques across the country, some in Alevi villages like Yenicekoy, a small farming community on the rolling plains of eastern Thrace, west of Istanbul.

“There used to be an imam at the mosque, but he left because there was no congregation,” said villager Sedat Ozturk.

In the nearby Alevi village of Cesmeli, men sit smoking and drinking tea, ignoring the dawn-til-dusk Ramazan fast and listening to the call to prayer from the mosque next door.

No one stirs from their seats.

The imam is alone in the mosque, but determined.

“I made the call to prayer 10 minutes ago, now I shall pray,” he said.


© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2005


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