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Can Turkey deliver a landmark religious reform for the Alevi community?

While the government's proposed reforms are encouraging, there is also a sense of vagueness about what they will actually entail

As Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu laid out his administration’s plans for a new parliamentary term in early December, he included a historic commitment to pass legislation that would officially grant Cemevis – Alevi places of worship – legal status under Turkish law.

This reform could well represent the most significant development for religious freedom in Turkey in decades, addressing one of the most fundamental equality issues inherent to the country. Yet question marks remain over the government’s ability to deliver substantive reform to a community that has long clashed with the Turkish state and the predominantly Sunni Muslim constituency of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The Alevis are Turkey’s biggest religious minority, representing between 10 and 15 percent of the country’s 77 million citizens. Alevism comprises a broad spectrum of heterodox denominations and syncretic beliefs that have been variously influenced by Sufism, pre-Islamic Anatolian and Turkic religion, Twelver Shi’ism, and modern humanism.

Some Alevis consider themselves to be an Islamic sect while others claim that they belong to a distinct religious tradition in their own right. Alevis primarily worship in Cemevis rather than mosques, participating in mixed gender religious ceremonies (Cem) that incorporate devotional music and dance.

These unorthodox religious practices and beliefs have divided Alevis from Turkey’s Sunni majority for centuries. The Alevis have long had a difficult relationship with the state in Turkey going all the way back to the 16th Century and the rule of Ottoman Sultan Selim I (popularly known as “Selim the Grim”), although certain Alevi groups like the Bektashi Order also played an integral role in the Ottoman state apparatus.

This complicated relationship has very much continued into the republican period. Under the rule of Ataturk and the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), Cemevis, dervish lodges, and other centres of Islamic heterodoxy were shut down and, in the late 1930s, the Alevis were subjected to a bloody state crackdown on dissent during the Dersim Massacre.

Despite this difficult past, and a continued reluctance to face up to its repressive history, the CHP has nevertheless been able to rely on strong Alevi support for decades because of the party’s staunch support for a particularly Kemalist brand of secularism.

For many Alevis, Kemalist secularism represented an important safeguard against the Sunni majority and the creeping influence of a religion at odds with their own in public life, and so they were able to lend their support to a political movement that has historically cared little for them.

Yet for many conservative Sunnis, this same Kemalist ideology represented the repression of their religious identity and paved the way for Turkey’s urban elites to discriminate against poorer, pious Turks from a more rural, Anatolian background for decades. Turkey’s horribly repressive headscarf bans were perhaps the most notable example of this conflict at the heart of Turkish public life; a conflict that ultimately culminated in the rise of AKP.

However, with the AKP’s ascension to political hegemony in Turkey and the subsequent marginalisation of the old secularist establishment, the institutional obstacles thrown up by the state in the path of the country’s pious Sunnis have largely fallen away.

Meanwhile, those obstacles facing the country’s Alevis have, to a large extent, remained intact, as have long-standing tensions between them and the Sunni majority, intensified by the politics of polarisation that has characterised the last five years in Turkey. In terms of long-standing obstacles, Alevis continue to struggle to have their religious identity recognised by the state, whether in matters of education, funding for places of worship, or recognition on national ID cards.

Furthermore, deep reservations exist over the Presidency of Religious Affairs, which effectively functions like a state church, providing an official, state-sanctioned interpretation of Sunni Islam in its role as the effective successor to the Ottoman office of the Sheikh ul-Islam. The presidency insists that Alevis are a Muslim denomination, that their places of worship are therefore mosques, and that Cemevis cannot be presented as “alternative” places of worship to mosques under any circumstances.

At present, the Presidency of Religious Affairs’ mosques are taxpayer-funded while Cemevis are funded primarily by their congregations and donors. Yet all of this could be set to change if Davutoglu follows through on his pledge for reform, a move that would represent a landmark moment for sectarian relations in Turkish history and resolve a long-standing source of resentment for the country’s Alevis.

Ayhan Sefer Ustun, the AKP deputy leader responsible for human rights, has said that the state will seek to provide official recognition and financial support to Cemevis that choose to opt into a no-strings-attached state programme:

“Cemevis will be granted official status. Arrangements will be made for the state to cover Cemevi expenses like electricity and water bills. If Dedes (Alevi religious leaders) are serving at Cemevis, the state will pay their wages. However, we are not going to set any definitions. Alevis can define themselves however they want to define themselves. We are just going to open the way for these services to be provided. Whether they wish to opt into these services will be left up to them. We will not be defining Cemevis. We will just be telling them that they can take advantage of these services; that the wages of appointed Dedes will be paid by the state.”

The hands-off approach to funding Cemevis outlined by Ustun – without ostensibly defining or qualifying which Cemevis are eligible for state funding – is clearly a direct response to deep-lying Alevi sensitivities to a perceived threat of assimilation or Sunnification at the hands of the state. If applied in a consistent and sincere manner, such an approach would go a long way to ensuring that these reform efforts are a success, since heavy-handed attempts at regulation or interference in Cemevis are liable to antagonise large segments of the Alevi population and doom the reform to failure.

Of course, the Alevi issue will by no means be completely resolved with the passing of this reform package alone. As emphasised by the European Federation of Alevi Unions – a group representing the Alevi Diaspora in Europe – granting Cemevis legal status still falls some way short of ensuring that the state treats Cemevis as bona fide places of worship equal to mosques in Turkey.

Moreover, Alevis continue to face myriad issues regarding equality in Turkey, particularly when it comes to matters of education and the role of the taxpayer-funded Presidency of Religious Affairs.

The AKP government must also be particularly vigilant that sectarian tensions in Syria do not spill over into Turkey too, as a repeat of the Maras, Corum, or Sivas massacres of the late 20th century must be avoided at all costs. The party would also do well to distance itself from lawyers who represented those accused of involvement in the Sivas Massacre, as this is a source of deep distrust for the Alevi community in Turkey. All of these issues are in urgent need of addressing if Turkey is to truly achieve substantive change regarding the country’s Alevi issue.

In spite of these other concerns, if the AKP can pull off this Cemevi reform, it will nevertheless represent an enormously significant statement of intent for Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Not only would it go some way towards repairing the AKP’s difficult relationship with Turkey’s Alevis, but it could also herald a return to the reformist roots that made the AKP a much less divisive and polarising force in Turkish politics in the past.

Consolidation of this reform with further initiatives – not only addressing Alevi concerns but those of Turkey’s other disenfranchised groups – would go a long way to diffusing the tense climate that has been holding sway in the country in recent years. One can only hope that this reform package will be such a stepping stone to societal reconciliation in an increasingly troubled country.

- Alev Yaman is a writer and human rights activist based in London and Istanbul. She has worked as a researcher and consultant for a number of organisations specialising in freedom of expression, including Article 19, English PEN and PEN International. Her articles have appeared in the Dissident Blog, Al Jazeera, the Fair Observer and Bianet.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: An Alevi family prays near a holy tomb in Hacibektash, Turkey on 15 August 2005 (AFP).