For many Alevis in Turkey, Erdoğan’s gestures fall short
On the outskirts of İstanbul, in the Küçükçekmece neighborhood, a newly-built complex stands that makes Birol Yıldız visibly proud. In a couple of months, the site will host the İstanbul Cemevi Eğitim and Kültür Vakfı or Cemevi Education and Culture Foundation, to serve the Alevi community.
Built mainly with community donations, the central hall, round and brightly lit, makes Yıldız most excited as he envisions how the Alevi faith will be practiced here in its unique way: with saz music and singing. Yıldız is a dede, or a religious leader for Alevis, who are a religious minority estimated to make up 10 to 30 percent of Turkey’s population, including ethnic Turks, Kurds and others.
It’s difficult to define what Alevism entails as even members within the community interpret the faith in different ways. Some Alevis, like Yıldız, consider Alevism part of Islam. Others define it as a separate religion or not as a religion at all but more of a worldview.
Still, there are important differences with Sunni Islam. Alevism was strongly influenced by the Shia and Sufi movements as well as spiritual Anatolian traditions. Alevis don’t go to mosques to worship, but hold a cem, where prayer comes with poetry and music.
Men and women also pray together and alcohol is not strictly prohibited. In addition, Alevis do not observe Ramadan and do not take part in the pilgrimage to Mecca. These distinctions, for centuries, have made Alevis targets for discrimination, oppression and violence. The same intolerance occasionally surfaces in the present day.
Establishing the Cemevi Presidency
In the summer of 2022, five cemevis were attacked in Ankara and a dede in İstanbul was also violently assaulted. Other kinds of experienced discrimination come in the form of mosque constructions in Alevi villages, the absence of paved roads to Alevi villages or sometimes the outright conversion of cemevis to mosques.
Following last summer’s violent attacks, for the first time in 15 years, Turkish Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited a cemevi and in October announced the establishment of a Culture and Cemevi Presidency. Erdoğan’s outreach to Turkey’s largest religious minority came a few months before he’d announce the date for what are likely to be his most challenging elections yet.
Pro-government media reported Alevi leaders were honored by their new institution, but many other community leaders said the move fell short of their long repeated demands for improved religious freedoms. Responding to Erdoğan’s gestures, eight separate Alevi organizations made a joint statement of disapproval, writing: “This is an attempt by the state to seize Alevi institutions and religion.”
Though his organization was not part of the press event, dede Yıldız said he also was not pleased with the Turkish leader’s announcement.
“Let's be honest, as a minority in Turkey, getting your rights is a bit difficult,” Yıldız begins cautiously. The main problem is that Alevism is still not fully recognized as a faith, he says, adding: “It’s often thought that Alevism is a culture or a way of life, but that’s not true.”
For Yıldız, Alevism is part of Islam, or as he says: “It is the essence of Islam.” That’s why he rejects plans to incorporate the Alevis under the Ministry of Culture.
“We’re not talking about a culture, a custom or a tradition here,” he said. “We’re talking about faith here. You can't just place a faith in a totally irrelevant ministry. I see this as an insult to Alevism.”
Currently, cemevis are not yet recognized by the Turkish government as a place of worship. This means that unlike mosques, they are not entitled to financial support. “Electricity, water, gas and other fixed costs are paid for all mosques. The wages of imams are also paid by the state,” Yıldız told Turkey recap.
He’s referring to Diyanet, or the Directorate of Religious Affairs, which finances the nearly 90,000 mosques within Turkey and pays the salaries for Diyanet imams abroad.
“Just think, all those imams are paid with my tax money,” said Yıldız, who is retired himself. “And all those men, they don't even do much. Praying five times a day takes less than 1.5 hours. I'm here all day and I don't get a penny."
The lack of funding reinforces a broad sentiment that Alevis are treated as second-class citizens. Yıldız argues Alevis should receive equal rights, noting they also fulfill military conscription requirements before speaking of his brother, who died while serving in the Turkish army due to an attack by the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Carrying the burdens together, but not the benefits, is how Yıldız defines the unequal treatment of Alevis in Turkey.
“We are together in bad times, but when it is time to share, we suddenly no longer exist,” he said, listing violent events that targeted Alevis in the past, “Alevis were murdered in Malatya, Maraş, Çorum, Sivas, Gazi ...”
Of these, the most well known is the 1993 Sivas massacre, where Sunni fundamentalists set fire to the Madımak hotel, killing 35 people, most of them Alevi intellectuals.
Alevis have faced discrimination and persecution both in the Ottoman Empire and in present-day Turkey, says Derya Özkul, a senior research fellow at Refugee Studies Center at the University of Oxford, who links past events to much of the community’s mistrust for the state today.
“There is a history of the state trying to intervene and assimilate the Alevis,” she told Turkey recap, adding the ruling AKP was no exception to this.
Kılıçdaroğlu and elections
Özkul, co-editor of the book The Alevis in Modern Turkey and the Diaspora, said she does not see the Cemevi Presidency as a sincere attempt to improve the position of Alevis in Turkey. Instead, she sees the ‘Alevi opening’, as it’s called in Turkish media, mainly as a desperate attempt to persuade Alevi voters.
”Trying to be closer to Alevis, just before elections, that is just the standard domestic politics in Turkey. But Alevis are the hardest group to get support from for the AKP”, Özkul said, adding she doesn’t think the new Cemevi Presidency would change this.
As elections near, questions have also been raised regarding the Alevi faith of CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and how it might impact his prospects at the ballot box as a potential presidential candidate for the nation’s main opposition alliance.
To date, Kılıçdaroğlu has not been vocal about his Alevi background, and many other factors might explain his lower polling numbers when compared to more popular opposition candidates, like İstanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu or Ankara mayor Mansur Yavaş.
For his part, Dede Yıldız believes Kılıçdaroğlu would be good at running the country, but stresses this is unrelated to his Alevi background.
“Without looking at someone's personality, character or capacity to rule a country, people are immediately looking at someone's faith. That is a mistake,” he said.
The Alevi community is diverse and is not likely to vote uniformly for Kılıçdaroğlu or the CHP. For example, in Kılıçdaroğlu’s home town of Tunceli, or Dersim as most locals call it, the majority Kurdish and Alevi voter base supported the pro-Kurdish HDP in 2018 parliamentary elections by almost twice as many votes as the CHP. Yet former CHP candidate Muharem İnce received more local votes in the presidential election.
In addition, there are Alevi organizations that do support the Cemevi Presidency, such as the Şakulu Sultan Vakfı, or the cemevi where Erdoğan announced the plan.
When Turkey recap asked the organization for comment on the presidency, a Şakulu Sultan Vakfı spokesperson wrote they were not authorized to answer questions but respect the government's decision.
According to Özkul, pro-government Alevi organizations are an exception, not the norm. “From the outside, it may seem that Alevis are getting more rights, but none of the major Alevi organizations will trust the state,” Özkul said.
Along with suspicion, the Cemevi Presidency falls short of meeting demands long held by Alevi organizations, which include a transformation or abolition of Diyanet, ending compulsory religious education and equal treatment.
Mandatory religion classes in Turkish schools, which teach mostly Sunni Islam, were previously the subject of a European Court of Human Rights ruling that found them in violation of the freedom of religion. Though in contrast, Özkul emphasizes institutionalizing Alevism can be equally or even more destructive.
“Then there will be more monitoring, they will lose their own autonomy and the state can increase control in the cemevis themselves,” she warned.
Back in the office of Birol Yıldız, where he is surrounded by a pile of novels and poetry he wrote himself, the dede reflects on the topic of the Cemevi Presidency.
“It is a step in the wrong direction”, he concluded, adding he prefers to continue his faith in his own way, independent of the state. “The state is trying to create its own version of Alevism in order to keep us under control.”
Yıldız then gets called out by his colleague. By the request of an Alevi family, he was asked to bless three sheep at the small slaughterhouse on the complex. The same family would come back the next day with their neighbors for a special cem to settle problems and debts within the community.
A common meal with the lamb meat was planned to seal the improved relations. After that, Yıldız would perform a small wedding ceremony.
Asked if Erdoğan’s gestures should be seen as an ‘Alevi opening’, he responds: “Let’s call it a fiasco.”
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Diego Cupolo, co-founder + editor @diegocupolo
Gonca Tokyol, freelance journalist @goncatokyol
Ingrid Woudwijk, freelance journalist @deingrid
Verda Uyar, freelance journalist @verdauyar
Gökalp Badak, editorial intern @gklpbdk