In a controversy pre-election movement Addressing the Alevi population of Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan created a new public agency to coordinate Alevi places of worship.
The new body, attached to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, will study the needs of cemevis – places of worship of the Alevi community – as well as Alevism and Bektashism, according to the decree. It also sees the establishment of an advisory body of 11 people, all selected by the president.
Although it is possible that Erdogan intends to reach out to some members of the 20 million strong minority – which is not part of Erdogan’s traditional voting base – his first reaction is suspicion. As the so-called Alevi-Bektashi and Cemevis Cultural Centers Agency was signed into law in parliament on Tuesday, many Alevi groups demonstrated against it outside, with police setting up barriers to keep protesters away.
Many members of the Alevi community and opposition parties have criticized the bill as a cosmetic step that ignores the real needs of the community and denies it recognition as a religious rather than a cultural community. The Alevis, Turkey’s second largest minority group, represent a distinct and often ostracized branch of Islam. Like the Shiites, they revere Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, but their faith is a unique version of Islam that blends Sufi traditions with Anatolian folklore. Men and women worship side by side.
“What the Alevis want is recognition of their cemevis as places of worship, not as cultural centers,” said Mithat Sancar, co-chairman of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party, during the parliamentary debate. “They want a liberal, secular education for their children” rather than a curriculum focused on Sunni Islam and referencing Alevism as a culture.
Sancar said the government’s plan to create an agency under the Ministry of Culture treats Alevism as a cultural community and does not correspond to what Alevis want and what they International organizations request from Ankara.
“This law reduces their legitimate fight over constitutional rights to electricity bills and subsidies,” he added, referring to the government’s promise that cemevis will now benefit from government subsidies, just like mosques, synagogues and churches.
Sancar said the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, instead of respecting European court rulings on Turkey’s Alevi community, seeks to exploit the Alevi situation as a campaign strategy to “divide the community”. .
“The police attacked our Alevi brothers who were demonstrating against the bill in front of parliament and one of the community leaders, Celal Firat was taken to hospital,” he added.
In a statement from the hospital, Firat, the head of the Federation of Alevi Associations, reiterated that Alevi want cemevis to be recognized as places of worship and not as cultural centers with equal rights as citizens.
The police crackdown on protesters outside parliament has also been criticized by Server Unsal of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). “The police erected barricades and used gas against Alevi citizens who are demanding equal citizenship. Your law is just for show,” he said.
Erdogan issued a celebratory message on the new law. “I hope this step, one of our democratization reformswill benefit our country and our Alevi-Bektashi brothers and sisters,” he tweeted. Members of his government have followed suit, including the Minister of Culture and Tourism Mehmet Nouri Ersoy and Minister of the Interior Suleiman Soylu.
Erdogan’s opening follows a series of attacks on Alevi leaders and places of worship in Istanbul and Ankara in August. After the attacks, Erdogan visited the Huseyin Gazi cemevi in Ankara for the first time in 20 years of rule. The hastily organized visit created a division within the Alevi community, some of whom refused to attend the rally which they described as a political spectacle.
The Alevi community’s distrust of the government stems in part from earlier disparaging remarks by members of the ruling party, including the president himself. When he was mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan, a devout Sunni, called cemevis (cemevleri in Turkish) “cumbusevleri”, a play on words meaning “party houses.” More recently, he has said in the past that cemevis are cultural centers and that Muslims “worshiped in mosqueswhich can be interpreted as meaning that Alevis are not true Muslims.
Turkey’s Alevis have faced centuries of violence and discrimination from the country’s Sunni Muslim majority. Persecuted as heretics during the Ottoman era, they remained on the state watch list during the republic due to their strong leftist leanings and ethnic Kurdish segments. In 1993, a mob of Sunni fanatics set fire to the Madimak Hotel in the central Anatolian town of Sivas, where the famous Turkish author Aziz Nesin was holding a conference. They killed some 37 intellectuals, mostly Alevi. The Alevi community’s request to turn the hotel into a museum was ignored.
Turkey’s Alevi community has been reporting for more than a decade that discrimination climbs to dangerous levels. Community leaders blame Erdogan, accusing him of recklessly playing the sectarian card for political gain, keen to keep his Sunni base tight. But as the election nears, Erdogan appears keen to woo part of the Alevi vote in the CHP, whose leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu is a Dersim Alevis.
“The reason why we Alevis support Kilicdaroglu is not because he is a Alevisaid Haydar Baki Dogan, president of the Federation of Alevi Foundations, to the left-wing daily Birgun. “We will support the six-man opposition candidate, whether it’s Kilicdaroglu or someone else.”