BACKGROUND: Alevis are believed to account for around 10-15 per cent of Turkey’s population of 77 million. Although it is often described as a branch of Shia Islam, Alevism is more of a syncretic belief system in which elements of Shia Islam are mixed with traces of Zoroastrianism, Manicheism, Christianity and shamanism. As a result, many Sunni Muslims have traditionally tended to regard Alevis not simply as unbelievers but as heretics. During the Ottoman Empire, Alevis sometimes suffered intense periods of persecution, including civilian massacres.
According to its constitution, the modern Turkish Republic is a secular state. However, even before the AKP first came to power in November 2002, Alevis experienced widespread discrimination. It was very rare to find an Alevi in a prominent position in the bureaucracy or security forces. The compulsory religious lessons in Turkish schools consisted solely of the inculcation of Sunni Islamic beliefs and practices and textbooks inveighed against what was described as the divisive nature of religious heterodoxy. The state-funded Directorate of Religious Affairs focused exclusively on providing services to Sunni Muslims: building and paying for the upkeep of mosques and paying the salaries of Sunni Muslim clergy. Unlike mosques, cemevis – where Alevis hold their religious ceremonies – were not even recognized as places of worship.
Traditionally, Alevis have supported leftist political parties – not least because they have usually been the most outspoken advocates of secularism. In contrast, although the degree of identification has varied, right-wing parties in Turkey have tended to be pro-Sunni. During the leftist-rightist political violence of the 1970s, some Alevis joined leftist militant groups. This further fuelled anti-Alevi prejudices amongst elements in rightist militant groups, who carried out a number of pogroms of Alevi non-combatants – most notoriously in December 1978 when several hundred Alevis were massacred in the city of Kahramanmaraş. In July 1993, a Sunni Muslim mob attacked an Alevi cultural festival in the city of Sivas, resulting in the deaths of 37 people. For many Alevis, these mass killings are regarded as proof that the murderous prejudices that spawned the massacres of Ottoman times have never disappeared but have remained just below the surface, like dry kindling waiting to be reignited.
As a result, the AKP’s election victory caused considerable unease. Even though Erdoğan had attempted to distance himself from the firebrand Sunni Islamic radicalism of his youth and sought to portray the AKP as a conservative rather than a religious party, Alevis remained cautious – even when the Erdoğan launched what was described as the “Alevi Opening” in summer 2007. Over the months that followed, leading members of the AKP met with representatives of Alevi associations. In 2008, Erdoğan himself even attended an Alevi fast-breaking meal. But Alevi suspicions that the process was an attempt at Sunnification rather than recognition of the distinctiveness of their own beliefs were reinforced when Erdoğan publicly told them: “Our path, our guides and our destinations are the same.” As it became clear that the AKP had no attention of addressing key Alevi grievances, the “Alevi Opening” rapidly became moribund.
In October 2007, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that religious instruction in Turkish schools discriminated against Alevis and failed to meet “the criteria of objectivity and pluralism necessary for education in a democratic society”. Although the AKP subsequently amended textbooks to remove some of the more disparaging references to other beliefs, the compulsory religious lessons in schools continue to inculcate Sunni Islamic beliefs and practices. All students – including Alevis – are still taught to become pious Sunni Muslims and regard themselves as such. The only difference is that they are no longer explicitly instructed to regard non-Sunni Muslims with suspicion and disdain.
In 2014, the AKP increased the budget of the Directorate of Religious Affairs by 18 per cent to almost $2.6 billion. The Directorate is financed by taxes on all citizens, including Alevis. But its activities remain exclusively confined to supporting the propagation and practice of Sunni Islam. After over a decade in power, the AKP has yet to pass the necessary legislation to allow cemevis to be recognized as places of worship.
IMPLICATIONS: In recent years, the cumulative impact of a succession of statements by leading members of the AKP, particularly Erdoğan, have led Alevis to suspect that government attitudes towards them are not so much indifferent or disingenuous as hostile – to the point of implicitly encouraging attacks against them.
In August 2010, during a party rally in Çorum, Erdoğan expressed his admiration for the sixteenth century Sheikhulislam Ebussuud Efendi, who is notorious for calling on Sunni Muslims to massacre Alevis. In February 2012, more than 40 houses belonging to Alevis in Adıyaman were identified by being daubed with paint – something that historically has been the prelude to a pogrom. AKP officials dismissed the incident as “the work of children”. However, over the last two years, there have been more than one dozen similar incidents across the country. In March 2012, when seven suspects who were being tried for their alleged involvement in the Sivas massacre were released under the statute of limitations, Erdoğan responded by declaring: “May it be propitious.”
Through late 2012 and into early 2013, as Erdoğan increasingly sought to reshape society in line with his own conservative Sunni values, growing frustration at the failure of rebel forces to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad led to AKP officials accusing Turkey’s Alevis of sympathizing with the Alawite regime in Damascus on the grounds that they shared similar religious beliefs. After 53 Turks were killed by a double car bombing in the town of Reyhanlı on the Turkish-Syrian border on May 11, 2013, Erdoğan publicly expressed his condolences for the deaths of “our Sunni citizens”. AKP officials then claimed that the attack had been carried out by Turkish Alevis based in Syria. No evidence was ever produced. In fact, in the weeks before the bombing, Turkish intelligence had warned of an impending attack by militant Sunni groups in revenge for Ankara clamping down on their activities inside Turkey, which they had previously used as a platform for their military campaign to overthrow al-Assad. On May 29, 2013, the AKP announced that it would name a new bridge across the Bosphorus after Yavuz Sultan Selim, the sixteenth century Ottoman sultan who massacred tens of thousands of Alevi civilians.
For many Alevis, it began to feel as if not just some houses but their entire community was being singled out in preparation for persecution. Not surprisingly, Alevis formed a large proportion of the estimated three million protestors who took to the streets in summer 2013 in what have become known as the Gezi Park Protests. Significantly, all six of the people killed as a result of police action during the summer protests came from Alevi families. Erdoğan not only refused to express his condolences to the families of the slain but repeatedly praised the actions of the police.
On March 11, 2014, 15 year-old Berkin Elvan, who had been struck on the head by a police gas canister when he went out to buy bread for his family during the Gezi Park Protests, died after nine months in a coma. His distraught mother blamed Erdoğan for her son’s death. Erdoğan responded by describing Elvan – who was only 14 at the time he was struck – as a terrorist and led a rally of AKP supporters in booing the boy’s mother. Few Alevis believe that Erdoğan would have displayed such callousness if Elvan and his family had been Sunnis.
In early fall 2013, after achieving their initial goal of preventing the development of Istanbul’s Gezi Park, the mass protests had begun to fade. The vast majority of the Gezi Park protestors had been non-violent. However, the brutal police crackdown on the protestors and the perceived anti-Alevi prejudices of the AKP have been a gift to marginal militant leftist groups – particularly the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C), which recruits almost exclusively from Alevis. It represents only a tiny proportion of the Alevi community as a whole, but the DHKP/C has long compensated for its small size by its willingness to use extreme violence.
On May 22, 2014, DHKP/C militants clashed with police in the Alevi part of the mixed Sunni-Alevi neighborhood of Okmeydanı in central Istanbul. Two people were killed. One of them was shot dead, apparently after police fired in the air in panic, as he waited in the courtyard of a cemevi to attend a funeral. Erdoğan rejected any criticism of the actions of the police. Again, few Alevis believe that he would have adopted the same attitude if the slain man had been an innocent Sunni bystander waiting to attend a funeral at a mosque.
CONCLUSIONS: The increasing frequency of expressions of anti-Alevi prejudice by leading AKP officials is not a result of pressure from below. There has been no discernible increase in anti-Alevi feeling amongst the Sunni population as a whole. Indeed, although marriages across the sectarian divide remain relatively rare and despite a long history of tensions and discrimination, on a daily basis most Sunnis and Alevis co-exist with relatively few problems. Nor has the change been in response to any new development, much less an actual or perceived threat to Sunnis from the Alevis themselves. Rather, it appears to be a product of deep-rooted prejudices amongst members of the AKP leadership that had previously been concealed beneath the rhetoric of reconciliation.
Nevertheless, at a time when Erdoğan appears to be seeking to consolidate his grip on power by stoking social tensions, there is a real danger that he will exacerbate another cleavage in what is already a worryingly divided society. Instead of healing old wounds, his actions and words are reopening and deepening them.
On May 25, 2014, Alevi associations staged mass demonstrations across the country to protest what they described as continuing discrimination and the AKP’s callous disregard not only for their beliefs and lifestyles but also their lives. However, the anger was mixed with apprehension. The fear for many is that the worst is yet to come.
Gareth Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, based in Istanbul.
(Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons/Bernd Schwabe)