Middle East Review of International Affairs
The Alevi of Anatolia
By David Zeidan *
Many Middle Eastern state governments, including Turkey, have tended to deny or ignore ethnic diversity, promote one specific identity as unitary, monolithic, and characteristic of the entire population. In Turkey, the suppression of minority identities has affected the little-known Alevi population, an ethnic group that has not received much attention in the english-speaking world. The recent resurgence of Sunni fundamentalism in Turkey and the states adoption of a Turkish-Sunni national identity has heightened the Alevis problem.
Middle Eastern society is to a large extent still vertically segmented into ethnic/religious communities with complex allegiances that rise to the surface in times of stress. Contrary to the official state line of a monolithic population, Turkey is no exception: Turkish society exhibits great variety in its composition. 1 This is especially evident in rural areas where populations live naturally with their regional, religious, and ethnic differences. 2 These cleavages have also been transported to Turkeys urban areas by massive rural migration.
Turkeys main ethnic divide concerns the Kurdish population of southeastern Turkey, whose separatist struggle, especially as waged by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), has made headlines around the world. A lesser known minority is the Alevi community. 3
Numbering about 15 million persons, the Alevis account for some 25 percent of Turkeys population and constitute the countrys second largest religious community, after the Sunnis. Most Alevis are ethnically and linguistically Turkish, descended mainly from Central and Eastern Anatolia, though some 20 percent are Kurds. 4 Alevis use Turkish rather than Arabic for their religious ceremonies and literature. 5
Alevis go by a number of names. They are called Kizilbash after the Turkemen followers of the Safavid Sufi order of the 15th and 16th centuries from which they emerged, and also Bektashi, after the Anatolian Bektashi Shia Sufi order founded in the 13th century to which many belong. 6 Other names include Tahtaci, Abdal, Cepni, and Zaza, which signify specific tribal and linguistic identities. 7 Note that Alevis are distinct from the Arabic-speaking extreme-Shia Alawis of Syria and Southwest Turkey.
Alevis traditionally inhabit rural Central and Eastern Anatolia, in particular the triangle Kayseri-Sivas-Divirgi. Kurdish Alevis are mainly found in the Tunceli, Elazig and Mus provinces of Southeastern Anatolia, and some tribal settlement of Tahtaci and Cepni exist on the Mediterranean coast. Many Alevis have migrated from their rural villages, which tend to be peripheral and underdeveloped, to the large industrialized cities of Western Turkey and to Western Europe, mainly Germany.
While there are many sub-groups among Alevis, the community tends to close ranks when it comes to the Sunni world, employing an us versus them approach and emphasizing its position as a marginalized religious/ethnic minority. 8 Observers in rural Anatolia have noticed stark differences between neighboring Alevi and Sunni villages. 9
Alevi opposition to the Sunni Ottomans in the 16th century resulted in geographical and social marginalization. 10 In order to survive despite majority hostility and persecution, the Alevis developed into an endogamous religious community with definite ethnic markers and a tight social-religious network. Like Druze, Shia, and Alawis they practiced dissimulation and secrecy about their religion (taqiya). Not having a central religious authority, Alevis form a complex matrix of overlapping groupings based on lineage, regional, and Sufi order links.
Despite the Turkish republics avowedly secular stance, Sunni Islam has, especially since the 1980s, been supported as a quasi-state religion, much to the Alevis detriment. 11 Traditionally branded as heretics by the Sunnis, the Alevis still carry the stigma of being sectarian others today. Many Sunnis think the Alevis are unclean, practice immorality and orgies, and are not true Muslims. 12 Centuries of persecution, prejudice and misconceptions at the hands of the majority Sunnis have resulted in a persistent social gap between the Sunni and Alevi Turks.
Turkeys secular elite and military tend to view the Sunni/Alevi rift as artificial and manipulated by various interest groups. However, the sectarian differences are deeply rooted in Turkish society, and today they operate in the context of mass media, the information revolution, and financial support of fundamentalism by the rich Oil states. 13
Fears that Alevism would lose its unique characteristics were put to rest in the mid-1980s when, in the face of modernization, the Alevi community began to reconstruct and transform its communal identity patterns, and reformulate its traditions. This process is linked to a politicization of group members and an assertive reaffirmation of the collective Alevi identity. 14
The weakening of Kemalist secularism in the 1990s has yielded two paradoxical trends for the Alevis. First, they have been threatened by the rise of fundamentalist Sunni political parties, which now constitute a significant bloc in the Turkish parliament, and even fielded Turkeys first ever Islamist prime minister. 15 At the same time, Turkeys liberalization and the growth of civil society has encouraged an Alevi revival which includes the founding of hundreds of Alevi religious societies in major cities and the public practice of Alevi rituals, kept hidden not so long ago.
Alevism originated from a complex mix of mystical (Sufi) Islam, extreme Shiism, and the rivalry between the Ottoman and Safavid Empires in Anatolia. 16 Some Sufi orders, such as the Safavi, accepted Shia reverence for Ali and the Twelve Imams, and their adherents and sympathisers, called Kizilbash (red-heads) 17 , later developed into the Alevis.
In the 16th century, under Ismail (d. 1524), the Kizilbash became dominant in Eastern Anatolia, conquered Azerbaijan, and from there conquered all of Iran. They spread revolt against the Sunni Ottomans among the many Sufi, Shia, and Kizilbash groups in Anatolia and as a result, Anatolia became the scene of protracted warfare between the Sunni Ottomans and the Sufi-Shia Safavids whose center had shifted from Anatolia to Persia. 18 A series of battles resulted in an Ottoman victory in Anatolia, pushing the Safavids firmly into Iran. 19 The peace of Amasya (1555) finally recognized Ottoman rule over Iraq and Eastern Anatolia and Iranian rule over Azerbaijan and Caucasia. 20
Anatolias Kizilbash found themselves militarily, politically and religiously separated from their center in Iran. They retreated to isolated rural areas and turned inward, developing their unique community structures and doctrines. Following severe persecution and massacres by the Ottomans which lasted into the 18th century, Alevis went underground pretending to be Sunnis, using taqiya (religious dissimulation permitted by all Shia groups) to conceal their faith and survive in a hostile environment. The Kizilbash mixed with another Shia-Sufi group, Bektashis, with which they shared religious beliefs and practices, and the two intermingled to become Alevis despite local variations. Isolated from both the Sunni Ottomans and the Shia Safavids, the Alevis developed traditions, practices, and doctrines that by the early 17th century marked them as a closed, autonomous religious community, opposed to all forms of external religion. 21
Unlike Sunnism and mainline Shiism, Alevism does not possess a tradition of authoritative religious scholarship and official carriers of formal learning. Rather, it is more a flowing together of various related movements, doctrines, ideas, rituals and traditions in a flexible synthesis, its strength lying in shared local traditions and esoteric interpretations of Islamic belief and practice. 22 Dartmouth University professor Dale Eickelman notes some other differences distinguishing Alevis from Sunnis: the use of wine for religious ceremonial functions; non-observance of the five daily prayers and prostrations (they only bow twice in the presence of their spiritual leader), Ramadan, and the Haj (they consider the pilgrimage to Mecca an external pretense, the real pilgrimage being internal in ones heart); and non-attendance of mosques. 23 Alevis were forbidden to proselytise, and Alevism regenerated itself internally by paternal descent. To prevent penetration by hostile outsiders, the Alevis insisted on strict endogamy, which eventually made them into a quasi-ethnic group. Alevi taboos limited interaction with the dominant Sunni political-religious centre. Excommunication was the ultimate punishment threatening those who married outsiders, cooperated with outsiders economically, or ate with outsiders. It was also forbidden to use the state (Sunni) courts. 24
Long marginalized and discriminated against under the Ottomans, rural Alevis were great supporters of Kemal Ataturks Young Turk ideology, which stressed European-type nationalism as the basis of state unity and secularism as the guarantee of modernization and progress. The new construct of an authentic Turkish nationalism favored the Alevis as the true bearers of the ancient Turkish Anatolian language and culture, while secularism promised them equality with the Sunni majority. For his part, Ataturk saw the Alevis as natural allies in his struggle against the traditional Ottoman elite and he selectively included Alevi cultural markers in his construct of the new Turkish national identity. 25
Karen Vorhoff observes that todays Alevis are proud of their co-operation with Ataturk, and the fact that their leaders had supported him. Indeed, the Alevis still see themselves as the protectors of Kemalism, Turkism, and democracy in Turkey. 26 The early Kemalist republic is still regarded as the ideal state in which the Alevis were fairly represented proportionately to their percentage of the total population in the National Assembly. 27 Vorhoff also notes the positive impact of Kemalism which turned Alevis into legally equal citizens, built roads through their formerly isolated areas, introduced compulsory schooling, and improved communications, drawing the marginalized Alevis into active and deeper contact with broader Turkish society. In his drive for secularization, however, Ataturk destroyed religious frameworks, Sunni as well as Alevi. 28 Kehl-Bodrogi notes that the downplay of religion in public life and the Westernization of the ruling elite turned Alevism into just one of several cultural themes in Turkish nationalism.
As the community opened up to the outside world, Alevis became increasingly secular and left-leaning, neglecting their traditional institutions. Solidarity loosened, ritual and ceremony lost some of their meaning, and the spiritual leadership gradually lost its authority. This change in Alevi internal structures was accelerated by massive migration to large cities, at a higher rate than Sunni Turks, leading to some intermarriage and a new generation not familiar with the Alevi Way (yol). 29 Although Sunni discrimination in employment and education was still a challenge, forcing some Alevis to return to taqiya to cope with the stigma, education and migration were seen as the gateway to social upward mobility, and from 1960s on a new Alevi middle class appeared. 30
As Vorhoff notes, a generation gap emerged in the 1960s between older Alevis, who remained Kemalist and hoped that the state would officially legitimize the Bektashi order, and the Alevi youth which became very politicized and influenced by revolutionary thought in universities, high schools, and trade unions. Working for a radical restructuring of society, the young generation viewed all reactionary elements which tried to assimilate them into mainstream Sunni life as enemies and joined extreme leftist parties, reinterpreting historical opposition to Sunnism in terms of class struggle and continuing the traditional Alevi role of opposition to the state. 31 Some leftist Alevi activists also turned against their own religious hierarchy, branding them feudal exploiters of the masses.
The resurgence of Sunni fundamentalism that began in the 1950s and has recently grown much stronger also pushed the Alevis to the political left. 32 Many Alevis reacted by stressing their separate identity and reinterpreting Alevism in socialist and Marxist idiom that seemed to have an affinity to Alevi ideals of equality and traditions of revolt. An Alevi leftist political party (The Party of Union) even appeared in 1966 but was unsuccessful in the elections. 33
Alevis found themselves under violent attack in late 1970s by right wing ultranationalists and Sunni fundamentalists, although much of the violence was portrayed by the state and the media as left versus right (rather than Sunni versus Alevi.) In 1978 in the city of Kahramanras in Southern Turkey, local Sunnis went on a rampage, slaughtering scores of Alevis from the nearby villages in the worst massacre in living memory. 34
The widespread violence of the 1970s led to a military coup in 1980, whereupon purges of the political left hit the Alevis hard. For example, their religious celebrations at Hacibektas were forbidden for several years. In the mid-1980s, Turkish prime minister Turgut Ozal encouraged Sunni-orthodox and nationalist unity ideology, promoting a Turkish Islamic Synthesis. 35 Anti-Alevi Sunni Sufi orders, such as the Naqshbandi, Suleimanci, and Nurcu 36 became more visible, and government propaganda stated that Alevis were actually Sunnis with some divergent customs, negating the uniqueness of Alevism and embarking on a plan of Sunnification. Infrastructure improvements in Alevi villages were made conditional on compliance with mosque construction and the participation of all Alevi children in Sunni religious instruction. Some Alevis felt that the state had betrayed Ataturks original secularism which was meant to protect them from Sunni oppression. 37
Reacting to the challenges, the Alevis banded with secular-liberal Sunni groups but were not absorbed by them. They were not willing anymore to sacrifice their communal identity on the altar of class-struggle and began consciously to identify themselves as a political group on the basis of a shared religious identity. 38
The result was an Alevi cultural revival. Spearheaded by the new, educated Alevi elite, Alevis organized foundations and trusts, rebuilt Saints tombs, and restored rituals in an effort to reconstruct Alevi culture, community, and identity. A reinterpretation of Alevi history and religion culminated in an invention of traditions accompanied by a coming out for Alevis. For the first time in modern history Alevis publicly accepted their stigmatized identity, articulated their collective interests towards the state, and demanded equality with the Sunni majority. Such efforts have continued into the 1990s. 39
Parallel to the growth of Islamism, Turkey experienced a democratic liberalization in 1988-89 which opened up public discussion on issues that were previously taboo. 40 Liberals pushed for ethnographic studies of the Turkish society mosaic, and since 1989 the liberal press has accepted the Alevis as a separate religious community. Encouraged by the deterioration of the Soviet bloc and increasing ethnic nationalism around the world, the Alevis increased their political activism. Along with other marginalized groups, they fought for legitimacy as a unique Islamic community, legalization of their religious rituals and practice, integration of their doctrine into the state education system, and a fair allotment of broadcasting time in the official media. Alevi publications multiplied, and Alevis supported the claims of other minorities such as the Laz and the Kurds, alarming the central government.
The pervasive influence of religion in public life in the 1990s has grave potential for a worsening of Sunni-Alevi tensions. In 1990 the Ministry of Cults took over the organization of the Hacibektas festivities under the pretense of making it an international attraction. Alevis were unhappy with the government interference, especially in 1993-94 when state officials stressed the Turkish elements of Alevism but ignored its distinctiveness and did not give it any operating space as a minority community.
Renewed inter-communal violence is sadly on the rise. In July 1993, at an Alevi cultural festival in Sivas, a Sunni fundamentalist mob set fire to a hotel where many Alevi participants had taken refuge, killing 35 of them. State security services did not interfere and prosecution against leaders of the riot was not energetically pursued. 41 In 1994, Istanbul municipal leaders from the Refah Islamic political party tried to raze an Alevi tekke (monastery) and close the Ezgi cafe where young Alevis frequently gathered. In January 1995, a comedian on Turkish TV cracked a joke about Alevi incest triggering the first-ever street protest by thousands of Alevi youths. Some Alevis now demand a political party of their own to combat Sunni-dominated Islamist parties, while others are afraid that forming an Alevi party might lead to civil war. 42
In an effort to allay Alevi sensitivities, President Suleyman Demirel and Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz attended the 1997 Hacibektas festivities and paid tribute to the Alevi community.
Belief and Practice
Alevis belong to the extremist Shia branch and like all extreme Shia, their reverence for Ali (Muhammads cousin and son-in-law, and according to the Shia tradition, his rightful heir) verges on deification. In fact, Ali is placed above Muhammad as the gate (bab) to esoteric knowledge. 43 Their stance has caused classical Sunni ulama to classify them as exaggerators (ghulat), outside the orthodox Islamic fold.
According to Kehl-Bodrogi, Alevis accept Ali as the only legitimate successor to Muhammad. Muhammad and Ali are both seen as emanations of the Divine LightMuhammad is the announcer and Ali is the preserver of Divine Truthand both seem to merge sometimes into one divine figure. 44 Alevis venerate the House of the Prophet (Ehlibeyt - Muhammad, Ali, Fatima, Hassan, and Hussein) and reject all enemies of Ehlibeyt, especially the Ummayads whom the Alevis believe imposed Sunnism as the dominant orthodoxy in order to to enslave the masses, distorted true Islam by destroying the original Quran and persecuted the Shia Imams.
Alevis have a trinitarian concept of the Godhead consisting of Allah, Muhammad and Ali. God is approached by four different gates": Shariat (Islamic law), the Sunni way of external duties, the sphere governed by the state and its Sunni orthodoxy; Tariqat (the path), the core of the community, it is the Alevi mode of worship where strangers are not welcome; Marifet (knowledge), the esoteric intuitive knowledge of God; and Haqiqat (ultimate truth), union with God, the highest degree, to which only a select few (Saints) attain. Each gate has ten makams (stations, duties) which the faithful must master before progressing to the next gate. 45
Alevis interpret the Quran in an esoteric, allegoric, and symbolic (rather than literal) manner and repudiate the external forms of Islam and its five pillars. Alevi villages lack mosques, save those that were forcibly built in Ottoman times or built by Alevis themselves in recent decades in order to gain access to government funds. In addition to the Quran, Alevis have their own holy books called buyruk that contain doctrine and ritual and are claimed to have been written by important leaders. Alevis also have many liturgical hymns called nefes attributed to Shah Ismail and Pir Sultan Abdal.
Following a Sufi doctrine of the Perfect Man, Alevis believe that salvation exists in emulating such perfect models as Ali, Haci Bektac, and other Saints. But, as Kehl-Bodrogi stresses, the absolute center of Alevi faith is the edeb moral code: the ideal Alevi is master of his hand, his tongue, his loins, an ethic that forbids theft, lies, and adultery. Every man must seek purity of heart and self-knowledge, and piety is measured by lifestyle and not by ritual. Love and forgiveness are seen as important elements in interpersonal relationships. 46
Observers note that Alevi society is divided into two separate endogamous groups: the ocak are the spiritual and social elite who claim descent from Ali, Hussein, the 12 Imams, legendary Saints or religious warriors (ghazi) and constitute a priestly caste, and the talips (disciples), the majority lay members. Religious knowledge is passed down orally in the ocak families who were responsible for the religious and social leadership of the community. Among the ocak are the mursits (teachers), dede (grandfathers), pirs (elders), and rehber (guides), which stand in a master-disciple relationship to each other in their hierarchy with each having specific duties towards the lay community. The dede oversee several villages and visits them annually, with the rehber representing him in each village. The ocak perform the rituals, teach the new generation, initiate the young, mediate in conflicts, and aid talips in need. They are the central authority for the survival of Alevi religious knowledge and identity. Some 10 percent of Alevis are of ocak lineage. 47
Observers also stress the double structure of kinship in Alevi society, designed to protect it against outside pressures and central government penetration. Beyond the blood-kinship of family, each lay person is the disciple (talip) of a spiritual guide from a sacred lineage in a quasi father-child, teacher-disciple relationship. The talip must appear before his dede once a year to be questioned as to his conduct. 48 In addition, two unrelated lay men, together with their wives, enter into an irrevocable kinship relationship (musahiplik) of total solidarity and sharing of all possessions and responsibility for all debts, as well as mutual encouragement and exhortation to walk the Alevi path. The relationship is deeper than a blood relationship and ntermarriage between the two families is forbidden to the second generation. 49
Alevi rituals (ibadet) are communal, with the aim of fostering unity (birlik) and love (muhabbet) within the community. Alevi rituals differ markedly from Sunni rituals. Alevis, for example, fast in the month of Muharram for 12 days in memory of Husseins death at Karbala and the sufferings of the 12 Imams. The early tragedy of Husseins martyrdom symbolizes all the discrimination and persecution suffered by Alevis since then. 50
Vorhoff notes that the central ritual of Alevi religious life is the ayn-i cem (cem for short) celebration 51 replaying Muhammads legendary heavenly journey (mirac) with the assembly of forty (kirklar meclisi), combined with a memorial to the suffering of the Twelve Imams. The celebration includes a sacrificial meal (lokma), a ritual alcoholic drink, nefes hymns accompanied by music on the saz, dance (sema), and the ritual lighting and extinguishing of candles. In the villages of Anatolia the ayn-i cem takes place only in the absence of distrusted outsiders, and is held at night under great secrecy. 52
The ceremony is held once a year under the leadership of a dede assisted by a rehber, is held in a private house or a communal building once a year. Women are included on an equal footing with men. Kehl-Bodrogi notes that the ceremony cannot take place unless there is a general reconciliation among all members of the community, which is achieved by questioning community members. Punishments for confessed transgressions are meted out, and include fines, corporal punishment, and excommunication. 53
Other Alevi holy days are Nevruz, the Persian New Year celebrated on the 9th March, the Khidirellez day on the 6th May in honour of Khidr (Elijah, St, George), and the twelve day Muharram fast culminating in Ashura. 54
Relationship to Sunni Orthodoxy and Fundamentalism
The relationship between Alevis and Sunnis is one of mutual suspicion and prejudice, dating back to the Ottoman period. Sunnis have accused Alevis of heresy, heterodoxy, rebellion, betrayal and immorality. Alevis, on the other hand, have argued that the original Quran does not demand five prayers, nor mosque attendance, nor pilgrimage and that the Sunnis distorted early Islam by omitting, misinterpreting, or changing important passages of the original Quran, especially those dealing with Ali and ritual practice. 55
Alevis see Sunni narrowmindedness as originating in Arabia and as contrary to the Turkish national character. Sunna and Hadith were Arab elite innovations, created to ensure Arab dominance of Islam and to enslave the masses through manipulation. All evil developments in Islam are seen as the fault of Arab society and character. Sunnism, according to the Alevis, is not true Islam but an aberration that by its strict legalism opposes free and independent thought and is seen as reactionary, bigoted, fanatic, and antidemocratic. Alevis believe Sunni nationalism is intolerant, domineering, and unwilling to recognize Alevi uniqueness. 56
The ideals of equality, justice, and respect for all are prominent in Alevi society and give Alevi women a more respected status than that of Sunni women. Alevi women do not need to be veiled and are not as segregated, nor must they fear polygamy or one-sided divorce as Alevis practice monogamy and divorce is forbidden. Women also partake equally in the religious life of the community. 57
In todays political arena Alevis see themselves as a counterforce to Sunni fundamentalism, ensuring the continued secularism of Turkey. Alevis, who have a great interest in blocking the rising fundamentalist influence, are the main allies of the secularist forces, and are also searching for alliances with moderate Sunnis against the extremists. They are demanding that the state recognize Alevism as an official Islamic community equal to, but different from, Sunnism.
Alevi Views of Alevism
There is wide variety in the ways in which Alevis regard themselves with no consensus view. Above all, the modern Alevi leadership aims to develop an integrated ethnic community in an effort to confront state Sunnism and Sunni fundamentalism.
Alevis situationally prioritize various aspects of their identity presenting Alevism as a separate religion, a belief-system, the true Islam, an Islamic Caferi madhab, a Sufi tariqa, an ethnic group, a philosophy, a worldview, a way of life, a political position, a social opposition, a culture, and a civilisation. They believe their religion is one of reason and wisdom which stresses education, is progressive, stands for secularism, democracy and science, promotes personal and public honesty, and is compatible with modernity.
In the nationalist discourse of modern times Alevis see themselves as the real Turks, maintainers of true Turkish culture, religion and folklore in face of the Arabizing Ottoman Sunnis. This view has been strengthened by the Kemalist stress on Anatolian culture as the authentic source of Turkish national identity. 58 Since the beginning of the republic, the Alevis claimed Turkishness as a main marker of their community. Alevism, according to them, is a Turkish-Anatolian religion combining Islam with elements of Turkish culture including Shamanism. Their faith is much more suitable for Turks than Arabic Islam as it includes Turkish traits supposedly suppressed by Sunnism, such as tolerance, humanitarianism, egalitarianism, and a stress on the inner religion of the heart. Alevis view themselves as the true preservers of authentic Turkish culture, religion, and language amidst Ottoman pressures to Arabize or Persianize. In sum, the Turks are the real guardians of Islam, and the Alevis are the real Turks. 59
Modern Alevi apologetics trace Alevism back to the founding stage of Islam. Haci Bektas Veli and other Alevi saints are used to stress the regional uniqueness of Alevism and its special relationship to Turkism, and are presented as national heroes fighting for Turkish culture. 60
Some Alevis follow the Kemalist secularist ideology and stress only the liberal and humanistic values of Alevism as a world-view, downplaying its religious connotations, while a few others would deny that Alevism is Islamic, and claim the communities origins lie in pre-Islamic religious systems such as Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, or a mythical Cult of Angels, stressing their links to similar groups such as the Alawis, Shabak, Yezidis, and Ali-Ilahis, all assumed to be fragments of the original community. 61 Another view sees Alevism as the authentic expression of an Anatolian culture and civilization, and sets up an Anatolian cultural mosaic in contrast to a specific Turkish nationalism. This mosaic includes Greeks and Armenians in addition to Turks, Kurds, and Zaza, as these groups were allied with the Alevis against Ottoman oppression. In this view three factors combined to create the Alevi community: local Anatolian heritage; Central Asian Turkic culture and religion, which migrated to Anatolia beginning in the 11th century; and old Anatolian Hellenistic, Roman, and Christian inheritance. These three elements, plus Islam, combined to produce an Anatolian religion suitable for Anatolian populations. 62
Kehl-Bodrogi adds that some Alevis see Alevism as the true Shia Islam that can adapt to modernity because it is flexible and tolerant. The Turks accepted Shia Islam on conversion out of a natural sense of equality and justice. Whilst stressing their Shia credentials, these Alevis see Iranian Shiism as aberrant and rigorously stress their separateness from the state and religion of todays revolutionary Iran. 63
Alevis also stress the humanism of their ideology: tolerance, love, and respect for all men created in Gods image and in whom God manifests himself, regardless of race, religion, or nation. Love, help for those in need, kindness, solidarity, sharing, honesty, self knowledge, freedom, equality, fraternity, and democracy all are seen as unique humanitarian Alevi traits. 64
Vorhoff also highlights Alevi leftists who view their religion as a positive political and social revolutionary ideology fighting against oppression and evil on behalf of the poor and marginalized sectors of society. Ali was the defender of the poor and oppressed. Hasan and Huseyn were martyrs in the cause of the dispossessed. Alevi leftists present Alevism as having always led the fight for liberation against all tyranny in the succession to Muhammad, while reactionary Sunnism served the rich and powerful dominant elites. 65
Renewal of Rituals and Reconstruction of Community
After a 30-year hiatus, the new educated Alevi elite is leading an effort to renew ethnic group construction. The reformers are committed to adapting traditional knowledge, customs, and philosophy to modern forms, and also to rehabilitating the spiritual ocak leadership as bearers of the specific Alevi essence. Ethnic markers like overhanging mustaches (worn to help recognize each other and symbolize the secrecy of the Alevi creed), 66 chains with Alevi symbols, and other customs are being reintroduced as Alevism is being transformed from a folk religion to a modern competitor to Sunnism.
Old Alevi rituals are being taught to the dislocated urban youth in an attempt to strengthen their Alevi identity in the face of Sunnism. The cem rituals, held in town wedding halls and sport halls, have become a visual training ground in Alevi traditions. In this milieu, Alevi music and poetry are flourishing again.
Whereas revolutionary zeal drove the dedes out of the villages in the 1960s and 1970s, they are now respected as symbols of Alevism, and a reform of the institution of dedelik is being discussed which includes the foundation of a central training institute, a theological faculty and a central Alevi research institute in Hacibektas.
Writing is taking over from oral traditions as many try to answer the question: What is Alevism? The new Alevi authors consciously accept the Alevi identity on the basis of traditional lineage descent criteria - being born to Alevi parents. They also accept other traditional criteria of Alevi identity: a unique religious faith with its specific view of God, Saints, values, norms, rites, and customs. A boundary setting towards others, a we as against a them group consciousness is promoted as Alevi authors use idioms associated with ethnic group identity that stresses our culture, our faith, our identity versus the other.
Alevis and The Kurds
The Kurds have long been Turkeys most prominent ethnic minority. Unlike the Alevis, they generally accepted the Ottoman Caliphate as a legitimate Islamic government that did not infringe on their linguistic and cultural rights. But, their situation changed with the rise of Ataturk, who initiated state suppression of Kurdishness. The 1920s and 1930s saw a series of Kurdish insurrections that gradually engendered the separatist movement of recent decades.
Dersim (Tunceli) province is the center of the Kurdish Zaza speaking Alevis and it suffers from the double defect of being both religiously Alevi and ethnically Kurdish. The mixing of Alevi leftism with Kurdish separatism has made this remote province a thorn in the side of every central government since Sultan Selim The Grim in the 16th century, and it remains the least developed of Turkeys provinces. 67 The year 1938 saw a revolt in Dersim that provoked large-scale retaliation by Turkish security forces, the repercussions of which are only now being explored.
As Vorhoff states, Alevism historically united Alevi Turks and Kurds in one Anatolian community. 68 But Alevi Kurds today face an identity problem. In the 1980s, the authentic Turkishness of Alevism became a dominant part of the discourse, causing Kurdish (and Zaza) Alevis to question whether Alevism is Turkish or supranational. Were they Alevi first and Kurds second, or was it the other way around? Ethnic and linguistic differences became stronger in the Alevi camp as Alevi Kurds claimed that Alevism is a Kurdish religion which the Turkmens accepted as they migrated to Anatolia. They also claim that rather than become Sunnis, persecuted Turkish Alevis became Kurds, keeping their Alevism. 69
Current Alevi revivalists have to search for unifying factors to integrate all linguistic groups into one Alevi community to strengthen their bargaining position with the state. Since 1992 the Anatolian-mosaic model, claiming plurality and equality of all communities is replacing the Turkish-centric Alevi thesis as the dominant model of Alevism. 70
Summary: Alevi Ethnicity and The Turkish State
The changes in Turkish society that started with Ataturks secularization drive resulted in a greatly accelerated integration of Alevis into Turkish social and political life. Gradually, their traditional social-religious organization broke down, and the religion itself seemed to weaken as younger generations adopted leftist and Marxist attitudes. Simultaneously some Alevis embarked on a reinterpretation of their religious idiom and group-defining criteria in socio-political terms. They entered into alliances with other, non-Alevi progressive groups, and have seen a universalization of their unique Alevi doctrines, now seen by them as an expression of the general human search for equality and social justice and freedom from oppression and exploitation.
The resurgence of Islamic Sunni fundamentalism in Turkey over the last two decades has been a mixed blessing for the Alevis. The Islamist threat to Turkeys secular orientation, as well as increased attacks on Alevis in the media and on the street, have triggered a revival of Alevi identity both in Turkey and in Alevi communities in the West, especially in Germany. Alevis are now reconstructing their religious traditions, doctrines and organizations, re-formulating and re-inventing their identity, and demanding a fair share of access to the state and its resources as a separate religious/ethnic community in Turkey. Modern Alevi activism has led to the formulation of political demands for equal treatment with the Sunnis, and for real democracy, egalitarianism, human rights, and social justice for all groups in Turkish society.
The question for the Turkish state and its elites is whether they can overcome the Young Turk mentality of suppressing all variations from their ideal vision of a monolithic and unitary Turkish nation to the detriment of minority ethnic groups. Can the state re-construct a national Turkish identity that is not solely based on Turkish Sunnism, but is secular and pluralistic enough to allow for a mulitiplicity of identities including Alevism, Kurdism, and other smaller identity groupings as equal partners in the national formula? And, can it tolerate legitimate expressions of their cultural, religious, and linguistic uniqueness, and offer them equal access to all state resources and power centers? Such a change would require a massive re-construction of a pan-national consensus on the Turkish identity, that would delegitimize any attacks on minority groups.
If Turkey continues the present trend of tolerating only the Turkish-Sunni element as an appendage to the Kemalist-secularist identity, denying and forcibly crushing all other autonomous identities, it is sure to suffer a long and violent internal struggle which will weaken the state, damage its international relations, and might in the long-term lead to its disintegration.
Note 1: Binnaz Toprak. The State, Politics, and Religion in Turkey, in Metin Heper & Ahmet Evin, eds., 1988. State, Democracy and the Military: Turkey in the 1980s, Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, pp.119-121. Toprak argues that the Republican state elite, ever since the founding of the modern Turkish republic in 1923 and right up to this day, have been greatly concerned at both the religious and the ethnic diversity in the Turkish population, and have seen any group solidarity based on religious or ethnic lines as a threat to the unity of the state and as potential causes for its disintegration. This is why the Turkish state has for long refused to recognize ethnic or sectarian groups. For a full list of the mutliple religious and ethnic divisions of Turkish society see: Peter Alford Andrews, ed., 1989. Ethnic Groups in the Republic of Turkey, Wiesbaden: Reichert. Back.
Note 3: Karin Vorhoff. 1995. Zwischen Glaube, Nation und neuer Gemeinschaft: Alevitische Identitat in der Turkei der Gegenwart, Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, pp. 29-35. Vorhoff examines the ambiguities of the terms ethnicity, people, identity, nation in pp. 14-28. In pp. 31-33 she concludes that Alevis constitute an ethnic group according to most formal definitions of this term, an ethnic-religious community in which Alevi religion defines the border-functions of the community, and in which endogamy ensures its cohesion across internal divisions. See also the Introduction to Peter Alford Andrews, ed., 1989. Ethnic Groups in the Republic of Turkey, pp. 18-52, which includes a discussion of ethnicity and group identity from both emic and etic viewpoints. Ethnicity is defined as: ..the concepts, sentiments and actions which characterise ethnic groups. They define these in contradistinction to other, comparable groups within a state. Ethnic groups are defined as: . . . generally endogamous groups, whose criteria for cultural self-definition are common traditions selected from the past (p. 18). These criteria include family, language and religion among others. Andrews (p.41) also notes the prevalence of multiple identities in Turkey. Back.
Note 4: Karin Vorhoff. 1995. Zwischen Glaube, Nation und neuer Gemeinschaft: Alevitische Identitat in der Turkei der Gegenwart, pp. 32-33. Some 25 percent of Kurds in Turkey are Alevi (Kurmanji and Zaza speakers). Back.
Note 6: Matti Moosa. Extreme Shiites: The Ghulat Sects, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, p. 38 states that In many parts of Asia Minor, the Kizilbash and the Bektashis are considered one and the same. Krisztina Kehl-Bodorgi. 1988. Die Kizilbash/Aleviten, pp.42-47 points to the close links and the overlap between Alevis and the Bektashi order. Karin Vorhoff. 1995. Zwischen Glaube, Nation und neuer Gemeinschaft: Alevitische Identitat in der Turkei der Gegenwart, p. 62, suggests that Alevi identity is involuntary and hereditary an Alevi is one born to Alevi parents while the Bektashi order is composed of voluntary members, mainly but not exclusively Alevis, who have joined the order and been initiated into it. See also David Shankland. Social Change and Culture: Responses to Modernization in an Alevi Village in Anatolia2, in C.N. Hann, ed., 1994. When History Accelerates: Essays on Rapid Social Change, Complexity, and Creativity, London: Athlone Press, p. 244. Shankland states that in the rural area of Anatolia he studied all Alevis regarded themselves as being affiliated to the Bektashi tariqat. Back.
Note 7: Krisztina Kehl-Bodorgi. 1988. Die Kizilbash/Aleviten, Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, pp. 73-94. See also Matti Moosa. 1987. Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, pp. 36-49. Dale F. Eickelman. 1989. The Middle East: An Anthropological Approach, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, pp. 283-288 suggests that The dividing lines between groups are often ambiguous and clearly shift situationally. Karin Vorhoff. 1995. Zwischen Glaube, Nation und neuer Gemeinschaft: Alevitische Identitat in der Turkei der Gegenwart, pp. 32, 57-58. Back.
Note 8: Karin Vorhoff. 1995. Zwischen Glaube, Nation und neuer Gemeinschaft: Alevitische Identitat in der Turkei der Gegenwart, pp. 30-32. See also David Shankland. Informants View of the Researcher as an Epistemological Issue: Among the Turkish Alevi, Turkish Studies Association Buklletin, Viol. 17, No.1, April 1993, pp. 119-123. Back.
Note 11: Following the military coup of 1980 the military encouraged Sunni Islam as a counterweight to the Leftist opposition. Ozal continued this trend of integrating Sunni religion into mainline politics as the officially sanctioned religion of state. The Directorate on Religious Affairs now appoints Imams and builds mosques in Alevi villages and communities. The state controlled religious education in schools is exclusively Sunni. Alevis receive no financial or institutional aid from the state. See Florian Bieber, Religious Minorities Between the Secular State and Rising Islam: Alevis, Armenians and Jews in Turkey, published on the Internet at: <http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/Lobby/7647/papers/turkey.html>. Back.
Note 16: Serif Mardin, Religion and Politics in Modern Turkey in James Piscatori, ed., 1983. Islam in the Political Process, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 138, states: Early Ottoman Islam was deeply marked by the repercussions in Anatolia of the chaotic social history of the regions that lie to its north-east. Religious and social movements of great complexity that were taking shape in the regions of Ardabil, Tabriz and Baku in the fifteenth century brought to Anatolian soil world-views whose effects are still discernible today. The religious patterns, solidarity groups, and symbolic markers which emerged from these influences have been modified by time, but bthey are nevertheless important. For example, Haydar (meaning the lion), one title of Caliph Ali as well as the name of one of the founders of the Sfavid dynasty (1460-88), still has echoes in the Turkish heterodox group known as the Alevi (Alawi). Back.
Note 17: Matti Moosa. 1987. Extremist Shiites, pp. 33-35. Kizilbash denotes red-hats. The members of the Safavi order wore red turbans with twelve pleats or tassels to denote their allegiance to Ali and the Twelve Imams. Back.
Note 21: Krisztina Kehl-Bodrogi. 1988. Die Kizilbash/Aleviten, pp. 38-47. See also Karin Vorhoff. 1995. Zwischen Glaube, Nation und neuer Gemeinschaft: Alevitische Identitat in der Turkei der Gegenwart, p. 61. Back.
Note 29: Karin Vorhoff. 1995. Zwischen Glaube, Nation und neuer Gemeinschaft: Alevitische Identitat in der Turkei der Gegenwart, p. 58. See also David Shankland. Social Change and Culture: Responses to Modernization in an Alevi Village in Anatolia2, in C.N. Hann, ed., 1994. When History Accelerates: Essays on Rapid Social Change, Complexity, and Creativity, London: Athlone Press, pp. 240-242. See also Krisztina Kehl-Bodrogi. 1988. Die Kizilbash/Aleviten, pp. 68-70 Back.
Note 34: Dilip Hiro. 1994. Between Marx and Muhammad: The Changing Face of Central Asia, London: Harper-Collins, pp. 58-59. See also Karin Vorhoff. 1995. Zwischen Glaube, Nation und neuer Gemeinschaft: Alevitische Identitat in der Turkei der Gegenwart, pp. 73-74. Back.
Note 36: For a detailed survey of the Naqshbandi order today, see Serif Mardin. The Nakshibendi Order of Turkey, in Martin E. Marty & Scott Appleby, eds., 1993. Fundamentalisms and the State, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 204-232. Back.
Note 37: David Shankland. Social Change and Culture: Responses to Modernization in an Alevi Village in Anatolia2, in C.N. Hann, ed., 1994. When History Accelerates: Essays on Rapid Social Change, Complexity, and Creativity, London: Athlone Press, p. 245. Back.
Note 39: Martin Stokes. Ritual, Identity and the State: An Alevi (Shia) Cem Ceremony, in Kirsten E. Schulze et al. eds., 1996. Nationalism, Minorities and Diasporas: Identities and Rights in the Middle East, London: I.B. Tauris, pp. 188-189. Back.
Note 41: Martin Stokes. Ritual, Identity and the State: An Alevi (Shia) Cem Ceremony, in Kirsten E. Schulze et al. eds., 1996. Nationalism, Minorities and Diasporas: Identities and Rights in the Middle East, , pp. 194-196. Back.
Note 45: David Shankland. Social Change and Culture: Responses to Modernization in an Alevi Village in Anatolia, in C.N. Hann, ed., 1994. When History Accelerates: Essays on Rapid Social Change, Complexity, and Creativity, pp. 246-248. See also Krisztina Kehl-Bodrogi. 1988. Die Kizilbash/Aleviten, pp. 151-156. Back.
Note 47: Karin Vorhoff. 1995. Zwischen Glaube, Nation und neuer Gemeinschaft: Alevitische Identitat in der Turkei der Gegenwart, p. 66-68. See also Krisztina Kehl-Bodrogi. 1988. Die Kizilbash/Aleviten, pp. 167-179. See also David Shankland. Social Change and Culture: Responses to Modernization in an Alevi Village in Anatolia2, in C.N. Hann, ed., 1994. When History Accelerates: Essays on Rapid Social Change, Complexity, and Creativity, London: Athlone Press, pp. 243-245. Back.
Note 48: Karin Vorhoff. 1995. Zwischen Glaube, Nation und neuer Gemeinschaft: Alevitische Identitat in der Turkei der Gegenwart, p. 66-68. See also Krisztina Kehl-Bodrogi. 1988. Die Kizilbash/Aleviten, pp. 167-179. See also David Shankland. Social Change and Culture: Responses to Modernization in an Alevi Village in Anatolia2, in C.N. Hann, ed., 1994. When History Accelerates: Essays on Rapid Social Change, Complexity, and Creativity, London: Athlone Press, pp. 243-245. Back.
Note 50: David Shankland. Social Change and Culture: Responses to Modernization in an Alevi Village in Anatolia2, in C.N. Hann, ed., 1994. When History Accelerates: Essays on Rapid Social Change, Complexity, and Creativity, London: Athlone Press, pp. 243-244. See also Krisztina Kehl-Bodorgi. 1988. Die Kizilbash/Aleviten, pp. 179-180. Back.
Note 51: Karin Vorhoff. 1995. Zwischen Glaube, Nation und neuer Gemeinschaft: Alevitische Identitat in der Turkei der Gegenwart, pp. 66-68. See also Krisztina Kehl-Bodrogi. 1988. Die Kizilbash/Aleviten, pp. 181-1182. Back.
Note 52: David Shankland. Social Change and Culture: Responses to Modernization in an Alevi Village in Anatolia2, in C.N. Hann, ed., 1994. When History Accelerates: Essays on Rapid Social Change, Complexity, and Creativity, London: Athlone Press, pp. 244-245. Back.
Note 53: Krisztina Kehl-Bodrogi. 1988. Die Kizilbash/Aleviten, p. 211. See also Martin Stokes. Ritual, Identity and the State: An Alevi (Shia) Cem Ceremony, in Kirsten E. Schulze et al. eds., 1996. Nationalism, Minorities and Diasporas: Identities and Rights in the Middle East,, pp. 196-198. Stokes describes a cem celebration in a city, Iskenderun, and notes the differences to the rural ceremonies. The urban celebration was open to the public and centered more on Sema dances and deyis music. The dispute arbitrating session was absent. Stokes explained the differences by the desire of urban Alevis to present an acceptable public image of Alevism to the general public. Stokes also noticed that on the wall of the hall hung three portraits: one of Haci Bektas Veli, the other of Ali, and in between, that of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Back.
Note 54: Karin Vorhoff. 1995. Zwischen Glaube, Nation und neuer Gemeinschaft: Alevitische Identitat in der Turkei der Gegenwart, pp. 69-70. See also Krisztina Kehl-Bodorgi. 1988. Die Kizilbash/Aleviten, pp. 220-225. Back.
Note 59: Karin Vorhoff. 1995. Zwischen Glaube, Nation und neuer Gemeinschaft: Alevitische Identitat in der Turkei der Gegenwart, pp. 97-98. See also Krisztina Kehl-Bodrogi. Die Wiedererfindung des Alevitums in der Turkei: Geschichtsmythos und kollektive Identitat, ORIENT, vol. 34, No. 2, 1993, pp. Back.
Note 65: Karin Vorhoff. 1995. Zwischen Glaube, Nation und neuer Gemeinschaft: Alevitische Identitat in der Turkei der Gegenwart, pp. 104-105. See also Krisztina Kehl-Bodrogi. Die Wiedererfindung des Alevitums in der Turkei: Geschichtsmythos und kollektive Identitat, ORIENT, vol. 34, No. 2, 1993. Back.