Turkey: Alevi community exposed to physical, psychological violence

Members of Turkey’s minority Alevi religious community have raised concerns after one of their places of worship in Istanbul was targeted by vandals - just one of many recent examples, they say, of a string of attacks on their institutions and homes.

Unidentified individuals broke into the Pir Sultan Abdal Cultural Association in the city’s Sultanbeyli district on Jan. 18 and painted threatening messages on the floors and windows. 

“It has not ended,” said one such message, accompanied to a cross, a reference to the signs painted on Alevi homes, marking them out for persecution.

Such attacks are commonplace across Turkey. Opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) member of parliament, Kemal Bülbül, demanded answers from Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu.

"Homes belonging to Alevis in many locations across Turkey have for years been marked with crosses and hateful graffiti by unidentified people. One such city is Izmir. According to official records, between 2012 and 2019, in eight districts of Izmir, 16 homes belonging to Alevis have been marked with [crosses] and death threats, and 62 gravestones of Alevis have been attacked and destroyed in two districts,” Bülbül said in a parliamentary question to Soylu.

"The house-marking incidents started in the city of Adıyaman in 2012 and spread to Malatya, Çorum, Aydın, Antep, Elazığ, Istanbul, Adana, Kocaeli, Bursa, and İzmir. More than 150 houses have been marked in 32 locations throughout the country,” his question said.

Bülbül also asked Soylu what steps the ministry had taken to prevent future attacks and discrimination against Alevis, and to bring perpetrators to account.

But Soylu has yet to respond.

The vandalism of Alevi homes and buildings is a source of concern for the community, which has been subject to massacres and pogroms for centuries. Alevis make up between 15 and 20 percent of Turkey’s 80 million people, while most Turks are Sunni Muslims. 

Özcan Öğüt is an Alevi political scientist and author of the book, “Acceptable Alevism” (“Makbul Alevilik” in Turkish), and the upcoming work, “The Butchery of Alevi Faith” (“Alevi İnanç Kırımı”).

"Alevis have never been recognised as equal citizens of this country. But in recent years, there has been an unprecedented and extraordinary increase in pressure and attacks against Alevi people,” Öğüt said.

Alevis have long been among the most outspoken critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist government. When hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across the country in 2013 in what came to be known as the “Gezi Park protests”, many Alevis were on the front line of demonstrations. 

“Almost 80 percent of protesters detained as part of the Gezi Park protests were Alevis,” the Milliyet newspaper said, citing a report by Turkish security and intelligence authorities.

Öğüt believes authorities are now increasingly using psychological violence and pressure, including verbal aggression, threats, intimidation, and harassment to silence Alevis.

“The deep state mechanism targets Alevis because they know that Alevis – with their humanitarian worldview – possess the potential of establishing a major opposition against human rights abuses,” he said. 

Alevis in Turkey are generally estimated to be somewhere between 10 and 20 million people, but censuses have not posed the question of who is Alevi so the real number is not known. Since the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, Alevi places of worship have had no legal status. 

“Alevi-hatred in this country is not new,” said Gani Kaplan, a board member of the Pir Sultan Abdal Cultural Association. “Since the Ottoman era, Alevis have been persecuted and Alevi-hatred has been a state ideology. 

“And during the republican era, with a 1925 law, all tekke and zaviye (dervish lodges and orders) were closed, which also marked the closure of our places of gathering and worship. The mentality that is hostile to Alevis is still the same today, but its intensity has been on the rise in recent years.”  

Turkish state authorities often insist that Alevism is merely a sect or interpretation of Islam. Nonetheless, some Alevi associations and scholars maintain that Alevism is a distinct faith, separate from Islam. 

A group of Alevi dedes and pirs (faith leaders), for example, carried out a workshop on Alevism in the city of Tunceli (Dersim) in 2015, where they agreed that Alevism is a faith apart from Islam.

"Alevism is not a sect of either Sunni or Shia Islam. There is an Islamic mentality in Turkey that tries to make Alevism part of Shia Islam and move it away from its original form. This mentality ignores the philosophy and culture of Alevism and tries to narrow it down to a theology only and reshape it according to its own agenda," Öğüt said.

“We are definitely not a part of Islamic Sharia law,” Kaplan said. “Alevism predates Islam by centuries.”

Alevism is nevertheless is incorrectly defined in some textbooks in Turkey. A 2016 book sent to all teachers by the Education Ministry referred to the Alevi faith as tainted and rotten. 

“The evil force that has gnawed at tariqas [Islamic paths or doctrines] right at their hearts for centuries is Alevism," it said. "The Islamic world has been the wreckage of those rotten mindsets."

Alevis also face compulsory Islamic courses at school, based predominantly on Islam. 

In 2016, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Alevis in Turkey were denied the right to freedom of religion and were exposed to discrimination. The panel of judges found that Alevis "were subjected to a difference in treatment for which there was no objective and reasonable justification".

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.