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The Political Challenge of Alevism in Turkey

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The Political Challenge of Alevism in Turkey

Erwan Kerivel


Erwan Kerivel

French researcher- writer on Alevism

With Recep Erdogan’s election in the last Turkish presidential elections and the part played by Turkish authorities led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the ethnic cleansing of minorities in Syria and Iraq, the Alevi community has every reason to fear for its future. The major political challenge for Alevis today is to define a solid political agenda and find leaders among themselves capable of voicing their democratic and social claims. This implies a clear ideological break from the Islamic-Turkish synthesis and from Kemalist nationalism.

Erdogan’s recent election as President of Turkey has been felt as a threat and received with fatalistic disappointment by Alevis, the main cultural and religious minority of the country. Since he came to power in 2002, provocations, intimidations and threats by the Sunni Moslem majority directed towards the Alevi community have multiplied. They include ever more mosques built in Alevi villages, attempts to impose courses in Muslim religion taught to their children, blacklisting in the civil service, lynching of members of the community for not observing Ramadan, tagging of Alevi houses with death threats, attacks against Cemevi (Alevi houses of worship), defacement of graves in cemeteries, etc.

The massive participation of Alevis in the protest movement following the Gezi Park events in Istanbul turned them into direct enemy targets for the new president. However, the Alevis are still struggling to unite around a clear political message and agenda. As a result, this 15 to 20 million-strong community wields no power in the political field, and even less on the electoral scene. Threatened by forced assimilation, the Alevi community is faced with a major political challenge: to achieve political existence. And that challenge implies to make a clean break with the political choices of the past.

Choosing leaders capable of establishing a political platform

Alevi community organizations in Turkey and through the European immigration are many and divided, which plays in favour of their enemies. Some of their leaders in Turkey have even been connected to the Deep State for decades. Some would readily rally to Erdogan by making believe that Alevism is a trend of Muslim-Turkish synthesis and asking for recognition from the Ministry of Religious Affairs as a religious minority. This undermining work has been carried out for decades by Izzetin Dogan and his Cem Foundation. Such a trend, which is also vocal throughout Europe, tends to invent an Islamic ascendancy to the Alevi community, in keeping with the efforts of the Ottoman Empire and Kemalist ideologues of the first years of the Turkish Republic. The initial idea was to prevent Alevis, then called mostly “Kizilbash,” from joining with other religious minorities (particularly Christian ones) on a democratic political platform claiming for equal rights. This is remarkably documented by Markus Dressler’s recent study, Writing Religion: The Making of Turkish Alevi Islam.

Another segment of Alevi leaders had decided in the early days of the Republic to tie the destiny of the community to Kemalism, hoping that the “secularist” promises of the new state would be a rampart against gradual assimilation to the Sunni Muslim majority. In spite of the massacres of Koçgiri, in Dersim as well as the involvement of armed forces in the Maras, Malatya, and Çorum pogrom attacks perpetrated by the sinister Grey Wolves, voting for the CHP (Republican People’s Party), hanging portraits of Atatürk in Cemevi, and putting blind trust in the institutions of a Republic that hates them have long remained the rule among Alevis.

Through the 1970s and 80s, which saw a string of military coups, a large part of Alevis have joined the underground far-left, in frontal opposition to the Turkish State. However, that move inevitably led to massive political exile to Europe, thus depriving the community of future political cadres. Some of them established the first Alevi organizations in Europe, trying to maintain Alevi culture abroad, but those scattered organization have very little impact on the community back home.

In the absence of an agenda specific to the Alevi community that would be promoted by their leaders, Alevis have no other option than to abstain or to vote for a candidate representing larger interests. Thus, in the last elections, the candidate for minorities, the Kurd Demirtas, received a number of ballots from the Alevi community, particularly since the CHP Party (the traditional allegiance of Alevis) had made the mistake of presenting a joint candidate with the fascists of the Nationalist Movement Party MHP (responsible for anti-Alevi pogroms in the 1970-80s), and a religious candidate at that. Consequently, a number of Alevi organizations refused to bring their support to candidate Ihsanoglu.

Unite in order to exist independently

The major political challenge today for the Alevi community is to unite in order to exist independently. It will only be able to carry out that task by clearly defining its specificity – i.e. a cultural and religious multiethnic community (Turkish, Kurdish and Arab) situated outside of Islam in terms of belief, philosophy and religious practice, and which rejects the oppressive pan-Turkish nationalism because that community views all “72 nations with the same eye”.

Such an ideological leap forward would mean to break with a hundred years of assimilation within the Muslim-Turkish synthesis and Turkish nationalism. It would mean a return to the roots of original and genuine Alevism. It remains to be seen which community leaders will be able to sustain that essential struggle for the community. The question is far from being resolved.

There is however, among Kurdish Alevis and Arab Alevis (called Alawis or Nusayri), a real will to escape from the pressure of oppressive Turkish nationalism. Historians, academics, intellectuals and journalists courageously publish literature on that subject, both in Turkey and among the immigrant communities of Europe. Alevi reviews regularly feature articles about the tragic fate of other minorities and also about the assimilation imposed on their community. It is undoubtedly from that Alevi intelligentsia that the needed leaders will emerge.



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