Turkey’s Alevis Hope Erdogan Will Soften His Stance - as He Has Pledged

In next year’s presidential vote, it’s not yet clear if the minority sect will side with Recep Tayyip Erdogan or incumbent Abdullah Gul.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

A PR man with links to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party was recently asked whom he’d want his daughter to marry, an Alevi or a Kurd. He replied that he preferred a “real Turk.” Pressed to give a straight answer, he said he preferred a Kurd because at least the Kurds were Sunnis, whereas the Alevis were “heretics.”

He got his facts mixed up. Many members of Turkey’s Alevi sect – unlike Syria’s Alawite sect – are Kurds. But Turkish Alevis, who number about 15 million, are viewed by orthodox Shi’ites as members of a “deviant sect.”

This view is deeply rooted in Turkey. The Alevis constitute a new, sometimes violent challenge to the government in Ankara. In massive demonstrations this month in Istanbul and the capital, Alevis demanded the rights of a religious minority, including recognition for their houses of worship. They also want these houses to be tax-exempt.

To some Turkish Alevis, not only are they not Sunni Muslims, they’re not Muslims. They drink alcohol and don’t fast during Ramadan. And in their ceremonies, which resemble Sufi rituals, men and women dance together.

They also demand that their religion be taught in their schools as an elective. Moreover, they want the regime to protect them from discrimination in general.

For instance, Alevi workers have been fired for eating during Ramadan, while members of the sect have been beaten for smoking in public. In some towns, there have been reports that Sunnis have threatened Alevi activists. The sect’s religious ceremonies have gained the dubious distinction in the minds of many Sunnis of being nothing but orgies.

Amid the Syrian civil war, especially the wave of refugees to Turkish border towns, tensions have increased between Turkish Sunnis and Alevis, regarded by many Sunnis as supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad because of the alleged link between the Alevis and Syrian Alawites. After the severing of diplomatic ties between Turkey and Syria and Ankara’s bitter attacks on Assad, support for Alevis is regarded by many Turks as treason.

This accusation can be added to the old suspicion that Alevis are an Iranian fifth column. In the current situation, all those with a trace of Shi’ite blood in their veins are suspected by many Turkish Sunnis of being Iranian agents. Both the Alevi and Alawite sects are offshoots of Shi’ite Islam.

The tension was exacerbated in May by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the terrorist attack in Reyhanli, a Turkish town near the Syrian border in which more than 50 people were killed. In a condolence visit to the town, Erdogan, as could be expected, accused Syrian intelligence of carrying out the attack. To be precise, 53 Sunnis were killed. He referred to Sunnis, not Turks.

In Reyhanli and nearby towns in Hatay Province, Alevis say Erdogan is tacitly consenting to the shedding of Alevi blood, so they’re afraid to go outside. The Alevis’ anger is not confined to the border towns; it moved on to Istanbul in the protests against the transformation of Gezi Park into a huge commercial complex.

How did the police know?

A report by the Turkish police this week states that 78 percent of the demonstrators in Turkey against the demolition of Gezi Park were Alevis. This enraged the Alevis, who regard the report as an attempt not only to blame them but to depict the demonstrations as an ethnic issue of no concern to the general public.

Turkish human rights activists regard the report as evidence of something more serious. In a query by an MP from the opposition Republican People’s Party, Sezgin Tanrikulu, Erdogan was asked to explain how the police figured out the 78 percent.

In Turkish ID cards, citizens are identified as Muslims or members of another religion, without stipulating which religion. Tanrikoglu demanded to know whether the police had compiled profiles of Alevi citizens. He also wanted to know who ordered the police to conduct such a survey.

To many Alevi columnists, both for Turkish newspapers and the extensive Alevi press, there’s no difference between the military putschists of yore and Erdogan’s regime. They remind their readers of the massacre in the town of Kahramanmaras in 1978, when 106 people, mainly Kurdish Alevis, were killed.

Ostensibly, the background to the mass murder was religious, but there were also political factors. At the time, the Alevis were supporters of leftist movements, while their religious rivals, the Sunnis, had joined forces with the political right. Turkish security forces imposed military rule over 11 provinces to cool down the situation, but according to testimony from that period, the security forces took part in the massacre.

Fifteen years later, right-wing Sunnis set fire to a hotel in the town of Sivas. A conference attended by Alevi intellectuals was being held there; 35 participants died.

Video shot by the police was leaked to the press; it clearly showed that the police did nothing to stop the attackers. The fire has become a formative event for the Turkish Alevis, who regard it as proof that the Sunni Turkish regime – though at the time led by right-of-center Tansu Ciller – was bent on persecuting the Alevis.

The feeling that Alevis must close ranks, no matter who is in power, has been handed down from the previous generation. Erdogan is keenly aware of the challenge, or possible threat, that the Alevis present to his regime, so he’s trying to placate them with gestures that don’t satisfy their demands.

Erdogan has promised to consider awarding the Alevi houses of assembly the benefits received by other places of worship. He has also met with leaders of the Alevi community and even made a pilgrimage to the holy Shi’ite towns of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq to show that he was treating the Alevi minority impartially.

This month Erdogan celebrated the birth of a fourth grandchild, who was given the name Ali Tahir. Some people in Turkey say the name Ali alludes to Shi’ite Islam’s founder - a gesture to the Alevi minority.

We must wait and see how these gestures influence the way the Alevis vote in the July presidential election. Will they vote for the candidate who has accused them of taking part in the Gezi Park demonstrations, or will they vote for incumbent Abdullah Gul, who might run again and is regarded by Alevis as a reasonable partner? After all, he took part in one of their religious festivals last year.

Alevis burn barricades in a protest in Ankara on September 12, 2013.Credit: Reuters
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses the media in Ankara September 30, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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