Alevis in Turkey continue to suffer oppression and discrimination on a number of levels.
Just recently, writings on the walls of a predominantly Alevi neighborhood in the city of Izmir read, “Do the fasting, kafirs [Infidels]!”
Again recently, a holy site for Alevis in the Cagsak village in the city of Kayseri has been put up on sale by the municipality, which is governed by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the founding party of the Turkish Republic which is today the main opposition party in Turkey’s parliament.
Dervis Altun, the head of the Cagsak Village Culture and Solidarity Association, condemned the decision, saying that the site is sacred for Alevis and that the religious values of people are ignored.
Though not officially recognized, Alevis are a large religious and cultural community in Turkey. Their faith does not require fasting during the Islamic month of Ramadan.
The official line of the Turkish government considers Alevism a sect of Islam. However, Alevi worship and other social activities take place in assembly houses (cem houses), rather than mosques. The ceremony, called cem, features music, singing and dancing in which men and women turn in circles. In the Alevi faith, men and women are regarded as equals.
Alevism promotes peaceful co-existence and tolerance towards other religions and ethnic groups. The Alevi culture has been profoundly influenced by humanism and universalism.
Alevis in Turkey are generally estimated to be somewhere between 10and 20 million people. The Alevi-Bektasi Federation claims that there are around 25 million Alevis in Turkey, constituting nearly 33 per cent of the population.
Turkish state officials, however, proudly but falsely claim that 99 % of Turkey’s population is Muslim.
“Battle” for a Place of Worship
The denial of the Alevi faith is no recent phenomenon. Since the founding of the country in 1923, Alevi cem houses in Turkey have had no legal status as places of worship. The Alevi community has been struggling to build their own places of worship ever since.
Alevis in the Sultanbeyli district of Istanbul, for instance, applied to an electricity distributor company, AYEDAS, to connect an electricity line to their newly-built cem house in 2011.
AYEDAS demanded Alevis bring a document from the local muftiate – a council of Islamic scholars – to prove a cem house is a place of worship. The muftiate refused to provide the Alevi community with such a document. As a consequence, AYEDAS classified the cem house as a “business.” The electricity of the cem house was then cut off because its members were unable to pay the higher bill.
The Alevis sought help from the district governorate to get their cem house classified as a place of worship. However, the officials of the district governorate petitioned the state-funded Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), which is an Islamic institution known for its denial of Alevism as a distinct belief system, asking whether cem houses constitute places of worship.
The Diyanet responded to the question with this curt response: “You are Muslims and the place of worship of Muslims is the mosque.”
Mandatory Islamic Education at Schools
Islamic courses at primary and secondary schools, which are compulsory despite the country’s so-called legal commitment to secularism, discriminate against Alevis. The “Religious Culture and Moral Knowledge” classes are predominantly based on Sunni Islam, and Alevis are also obliged to take them.
When Alevism is mentioned in any textbook, it is often in very negative terms.
A book recently sent to all teachers across Turkey upon the recommendation of the Ministry of National Education to be studied and discussed at the year-end seminary teacher trainings refers to the Alevi faith as “tainted” and “rotten.”
“The evil force that has gnawed at tariqas [Islamic paths or doctrines] right at their hearts for centuries is Alevism,” according to the book, which also adds: “The Islamic world has been the wreckage of those rotten mindsets.”
“Turkey discriminates against Alevi faith”
This year, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that Alevis are denied the right to freedom of religion in Turkey. The panel of judges found that Alevis “were subjected to a difference in treatment for which there was no objective and reasonable justification.”
Alevi citizens concerned with marks on their doors
On several occasions, members of the Alevi community in Turkey have voiced concern after their homes were marked with crosses by “unknown people.” In June 2015, in the city Kocaeli, “We noticed the crosses with red paint on our homes. There are three crosses on my house,” said Ali Ekber Incesu, the head of the Kocaeli branch of the Hac? Bekta? Veli Anatolia Culture Foundation. Incesu’s home wasn’t the only one targeted.
Such markings are of grave concern to members of the Alevi community as it was often with similar signs that mass murders against Alevis were started several times in the past.
Alevi Massacres in Turkey
In 1978, in the city of Maras, after false rumors were spread that “Alevi communists had bombed a movie theatre,” and “Alevis are infidels and uncircumcised,” Alevi neighborhoods were attacked by Turkish nationalists (known as Grey Wolves) and Islamists and their inhabitants were massacred.
One Muslim leader exhorted: “You cannot be a haji [a favored pilgrim] by fasting or doing your salah [daily Islamic] prayers. If you kill an Alevi, you will be five times better in the sight of Allah.”
Grey Wolves and Islamists destroyed at least 300 homes and businesses belonging to Alevis in Maras, while shouting slogans such as “Muslim Turkey,” “The army and the nation hand in hand,” “Don’t let communists go, slaughter them for Allah,” “Today is the day of jihad,” “Those who kill an Alevi will go to heaven,” “Let’s cleanse the Alevis from the homeland” and “Kill the Alevis, let no witness remain.”
Their savagery was beyond words. From December 22-23 over 100 people, mostly Alevis, were killed, including Esma Suna, who was shot to death in her eighth month of pregnancy. The aggressors also checked many Alevi men to see if they were circumcised.
On May 29, 1980, in the city of Corum, Alevis were slaughtered by Muslim assailants who had spread hate-filled propaganda and called for jihad against Alevis and leftists.
At the end of the pogrom, at least 57 people were killed; others were mutilated by having their noses or ears cut off. Many victims were children and women. Houses and shops belonging to Alevis were destroyed.
Alevis were also exposed to many other massacres throughout the history of Turkey – including the 1937 Dersim massacre, the 1978 Malatya massacre, the 1993 Sivas massacre and the 1995 Istanbul Gazi Quarter massacre.
Based on history, the latest “writing on the wall” in the Alevi neighborhood in the city of Izmir does not portend well for this minority community in Turkey.
Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist formerly based in Ankara. She is presently in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/uzayb