Turkey offers Alevis a Sunni state

The problems of Turkey’s Alevis, the largest religious group in the country after the majority Sunni Muslims, have come to the fore once again, after the Istanbul municipality proposed officially recognising the heterodox minority group’s places of worship.

The proposal was voted down last week by the Islamists from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and their far-right allies in the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who have 180 seats out of 312 in the municipality’s assembly. 

The solution to the problem should be straightforward. Such issues should be resolved on the basis of equal citizenship. In a modern state, rights and responsibilities exclude any form of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or religious identity. 

First of all, the state cannot support or disfavour any religious identity. Secondly, the state should ensure similar legal rights and status to all religious groups.  

But in Turkey, Sunni Islam is in practice one of the main elements that determines relations between the state and its citizens. The existence of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, which employs more than 100,00 people and enjoys substantial allocations from public funds is the most concrete evidence of this fact. 

The directorate, lavishly funded by all taxpayers, does not cater at all to Alevi Muslims who make up between 10 and 20 percent of the population, except to appoint Sunni imams to state-funded mosques in Alevi villages that no one attends.

Due to the relations between the state and Sunni Islam, Turkey cannot be defined as a secular state. 

Decision-makers seek solutions to the problems of Alevis from the perspective of Sunni Islam. In a secular, modern state, there is no difference between a mosque and a cemevi, the Alevi place of worship. But from the perspective of Sunni Islam, they can never be treated equally. Sunni Islam recognises other places of worship, such as churches and synagogues, but it is impossible for Sunni Islam to accept cemevis.

The official opposition to the recognition of cemevis as places of worship is well-grounded from a Sunni theological perspective. The problem in Turkey is the fact that this theological reasoning is also official policy. 

The Sunni interpretation sees Alevi beliefs as an incorrect interpretation of Islam. Many Sunni scholars define Alevi beliefs as a primitive, undeveloped version of Islam. Alevi rituals such as playing instruments, dancing and prostrating to religious leaders are anathema to Sunni religious thought. 

As a result, Sunni Islam has traditionally sought to transform and “Sunnify” Alevis. Official slogans such as “we are all brothers and sisters”, or “both the mosque and cemevi are ours” only serve as a prelude to assimilation - they do not mean acknowledging Alevis as members of a legitimate Muslim sect. 

This is why the government’s previous “Alevi opening” strategies have never borne fruit. In a tactical move, the AKP promised legal recognition of cemevis before presidential and parliamentary elections in June 2018, but since winning the vote the party has done nothing to uphold its pledge.

The state’s treatment of Alevis is tragic, given that the Alevi belief system played a critical role in Turks’ transition to Islam in Anatolia. But Sunni Islam, which sees the very earliest practices of Muslims as the final and unalterable version of the religion, has traditionally failed to understand the universal and local dimensions of belief. This is why many ordinary Sunnis in Turkey prefer Arabic names for their children over Turkish names, thinking them more Islamic. 

But it is only natural for different local cultures to interpret Islam differently. This is why there is not only an Arabic Islam, but a Turkish and Persian one too.

I also want to emphasise one more point: Today in Turkey, there is an apparent crisis of Sunni Islam, which is the result of its close relations with the state. From that perspective, Alevis should see that being excluded from the state might in fact be a blessing in disguise. 

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.