Turkey’s ruling party is trying to create an official form of Alevism that can be subsumed into its Sunni-led Directorate of Religious Affairs while delegitimizing all other forms of the faith, an Alevi labor union leader says. ‘The government will make it seem like Alevism is recognized while using methods to diminish it further,’ says Vicdan Baykara
This file photo shows a recent protest in Ankara by Alevis against compulsory religion courses at schools. DHA photo
The government’s initiative to address the concerns of Turkey’s Alevi community has failed to address the group’s problems and is directed only at assimilation, according to the Alevi head of a labor union.
“Even as it says it is solving the problems, [the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP,] is eliminating the organized portions of the Kurds, Alevis and workers and replacing them with structures adapted to the existing system,” Vicdan Baykara, general chairwoman of the All Municipal and Local Administration Workers Union, or Tüm Bel Sen told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review in a recent interview.
“What Alevis want is the entire freedom of religion and beliefs. As for freedom, their priority is expressed in a distance between them and the state,” she said.
Alevis, who many consider to be a liberal branch of Islam, are facing a two-dimension problem at the moment, she said. One dimension of the problem is political and is based on how citizenship was recognized and how freedom of religion and conscience was defined during the foundation of the Turkish Republic. The other dimension is that Alevi beliefs and rituals, and their relationship to a modernizing world, cannot be contained within the discourse of contemporary politics.
“What we call belief is never separate from culture, politics or identity. In this sense for example the cemevis (Alevi meeting places) are houses of belief, of culture and of philosophy,” Baykara said.
By necessity, the AKP and other political parties have to approach what they see as the Alevi “problem” as a political one, but when Alevism is considered politically, an act of symbolic violence intervenes into its world of ritual.
“In Alevism, elders take their place in the center of rituals. When this situation is drawn into political debate it constitutes tearing down a structure with historical roots and replacing it with a new one,” she said.
In this sense, the “issue” facing the community is how to retain experiential religious authenticity in the face of a burgeoning political representation, the controlled structure of which is at odds with the ritual elements of the religion as it is practiced.
A political conflict
The government’s recent suggestion that Alevism be represented by the Directorate of Religious Affairs not only fails to recognize the sensitivity required in attaining political representation for the community, but openly wants to subsume the community into the larger, state-led interpretation of Islam.
“The government wants to extinguish the Alevi movement. If The Directorate of Religious Affairs recognizes one form of Alevism, all other concepts of Alevism will be suppressed and destroyed. In one sense assimilation will occur. So the AKP will make it seem like Alevism is recognized while using methods to diminish it further,” Baykara said.
The AKP’s approach to all the basic problems of the country, foremost of which is the Kurdish problem, is to propose an initiative and then exclude those people who would serve as interlocutors from dialogue and exchange, Baykara said.
According to Baykara, as far the Alevi issue is concerned, the government wants to retain total control over the solution of the problem. “Such an intervention is an initiative to form Alevism according to the needs of the state.”
Compulsory religious courses at schools are just one of the forms such government intervention takes. It is a means of preventing Alevi children from living by their own beliefs and an attempt to assimilate them, Baykara said.
“In a country which is said to be democratic the application of compulsory religious classes is a totalitarian practice and a memento of the Sept. 12 [1980 military coup] for this country of ours,” she said. “For a modern, scientific, democratic and secular education, the compulsory Religious Culture and Ethics course must be removed. The state mustn’t engage in religious education and teaching.”
Ultimately, according to Baykara, Alevis want the elimination of the Directorate of Religious Affairs and the removal of religious courses from the school curriculum entirely. Additionally, they want their cemevis recognized as specifically Alevi buildings rather than venues for practicing a varying form of Islam.
“Alevism is an accumulative belief that can’t be defined by Islamic elements alone. The religious rituals of the Alevis, the forms of worship, the forms of the relations among them, social rules, etc. are quite different from Sunni orthodoxy. For example, the five conditions of Sunni orthodoxy are either never found among Alevis, or are experienced very differently. There’s no going on the pilgrimage, for example, and fasting is very different,” Baykara said.
“But even these ideas are different among Alevis from one geographical location to another. But this situation doesn’t separate Alevis – it enriches them with a pluralistic structure, forming the shared principles of Alevism,” Baykara said.
Hurriyet Daily News