Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Until a few years ago, Kurdish nationalism was the only movement in Turkey that openly defied the official doctrine that Turkey is a homogeneous nation-state. Informally, people would freely apply ethnic labels to their acquaintances, [1] but publicly most people were reluctant or afraid to define themselves as anything but Turks. In the 1970s, Kurdish nationalists had begun challenging this official view, and in 1979 a cabinet minister caused a political scandal by remarking that he was a Kurd. [2] The oppressive measures of the military regime of 1980-1983 to silence those Kurds who wished to be different had the opposite effect, and resulted in massive sympathy for the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). By 1990, the Turkish government realized that further efforts to impose uniformity would probably be counterproductive and, moreover, would hamper closer relations with Europe, where the protection of minority cultures had become an important political issue. In a sudden reversal of policy, the government in 1991 repealed the law banning the use of languages other than Turkish in publishing. [3]

This relaxation allowed an upsurge of ethnic cultural activities. The Laz and especially the Circassians began publishing and organizing, inspired by the Kurdish example but perhaps even more by developments in the former Soviet Union. The collapse of the Soviet Union caused a reorientation of young Turkish Circassians toward their ancestral homelands, and some actually went back. The recent struggles in Abkhazia (1992) and the war in Chechnya (1995) have had a strong mobilizing effect on the Circassian (and Chechen) communities in Turkey.

The same period also witnessed a heightened awareness and transformation of Alevi identity. The Alevis, a heterodox religious minority, organized Alevi associations throughout the country, and among migrant communities in Europe. Alevi intellectuals and community leaders set out to define the Alevi identity, tradition and history. Both the Kurdish movement and the government courted the Alevis. Both were handicapped in these efforts, but especially the government, because of the historic hostilities between Sunni majorities and the Alevis. The police force, in many places was dominated by conservative Sunnis or right-wing nationalists, and there were a number of major incidents in which the police took part in murderous violence against Alevis, causing renewed alienation between the Alevis and the state. [4]

Who Are the Alevis?

“Alevi” is a blanket term for a large number of heterodox communities whose beliefs and ritual practices differ significantly. In the eastern province of Kars, there are communities speaking Azerbaijani Turkish and whose Alevism closely resembles the orthodox Twelver Shi‘ism of modern Iran. The Arabic speaking Alevi communities of southern Turkey (especially Ratay and Adana) are ethnically part of Syria’s ‘Alawi (Nusayri) community and have no historical ties with the other Alevi groups. The large Alevi groups are the Turkish and Kurdish speakers; both appear to be the descendants of rebellious tribal groups that were religiously affiliated with the Safavids.

The religion of these Alevis, though to some extent Islamicized, differs considerably from Sunni Islam. Prayer (namaz), the fast in Ramadan, zakat and the hajj are alien practices to most Alevi communities. Instead they have their own religious ceremonies (cem), officiated by holy men (dede) belonging to a hereditary priestly caste. As among other schismatic Shi‘i groups, ‘Ali and the Safavid Shah Isma‘il are deified, or at least idolized. Alevis have retained many more elements of pre-Islamic Turkish and Iranian religions than Sunni Muslims. Instead of adherence to the shari‘a, Alevis profess obedience to a set of simple moral norms; they claim to live according to the inner (batin) meaning of religion rather than its external (zahir) demands. [5]

Turkish Alevis used to be concentrated in central Anatolia, with important pockets throughout the Aegean and Mediterranean coastal regions and in the European part of Turkey. Since the 1950s, many have left their isolated villages for Turkey’s big cities. Kurdish Alevis were concentrated in the northwestern part of the Kurdish settlement zone, with important pockets further south, east and west. An ethnically and religiously mixed arc forms a transitional zone between Turkish Kurdistan and the rest of the country. In this zone during the 1970s the most serious clashes between Sunnis and Alevis took place.

Integration and Politicization

The secularization of Turkey gradually affected Alevi integration and political participation. It is not surprising that during the first great Kurdish rebellion of 1925, which had a strong Sunni religious coloring, Kurdish Alevi tribes fought against the rebels. Although Kurdish Alevis also rebelled in 1920 and 1937-1938 against the Kemalist movement and the Republic, [6] they never joined forces in significant numbers with Sunni Kurds against the government. By and large, Kurdish as well as Turkish Alevis were supportive of the secular and populist ideals of Kemalism; many Kurdish Alevis voluntarily assimilated to Turkish culture and came to identify themselves as Turks rather than as Kurds.

Secularization did not, however, bode the end of the widespread Sunni prejudices against the Alevis. The Alevis’ gradual integration into the wider society — migration to the towns, education, careers in public service — brought them into closer contact, and sometimes in direct competition, with strict Sunnis, from whom they had remained socially separated for centuries. Tensions escalated, especially in ethnically and religiously mixed towns and cities.

The political polarization that began in the 1970s exacerbated the situation. The radical left, construing the Alevi rebellions of the past as proto-communist movements, considered the Alevis natural allies. The fascist and religious extreme right, on the other hand, oriented their recruiting efforts on Sunni Muslims of the mixed regions by fanning their fear and hatred of the Alevis, thus provoking violent incidents. Spreading rumors that Alevis had bombed a mosque or poisoned a water supply unfailingly drew Sunnis into the extreme right camp. A series of bloody Sunni-Alevi clashes culminated by the end of the decade in anti-Alevi pogroms in Malatya, Kahramanmarash and Corum. The military took over in 1980, claiming its aim was to reverse all the divisive trends of class, religious and ethnic mobilization. The radical left and Kurdish movements were decimated, but it was precisely the most secretive and violent of them, the leftist Dev Sol and the Kurdish PKK, that managed to survive underground. The severe repressive measures alienated a growing proportion of the Kurdish population, causing the PKK gradually to gain widespread support in spite of its reputation for brutal violence.

The military did not treat the extreme right with anything like the severity that they reserved for leftists and Kurds. The fascist leader, Alpaslan Turkesh, was briefly jailed but never tried for complicity in murder, but his movement was coopted into the state apparatus. Young right-wing hoodlums, who once carried out raids against “leftist” teahouses, now became policemen and schoolteachers or were recruited into the special forces fighting the Kurdish guerrillas.

The official attitude toward Islam since 1980 has represented an even greater departure from the Kemalist tradition, actively fostering a Turkish-Islamic synthesis. What began as a confused doctrine combining fervent Turkish nationalism and Muslim sentiment, formulated by a small group of right-wing intellectuals as an answer to socialism, was virtually elevated to the status of official ideology. [7] Religious education, previously an optional subject, was made obligatory. The Directorate of Religious Affairs was strengthened, numerous new mosques were built and imams appointed — not only in Sunni towns and villages, but also in Alevi communities.

Among the Alevis, one effect of the changes was a renewed interest in Alevism as a religion. Whereas in the 1970s most of the young Alevis had completely rejected religion and had only taken pride in Alevism as a democratic social movement, the failure of the left gave rise to reflection on Alevism as a cultural and then as a religious identity. By the late 1980s some of the radical left movements had lost most of their non-Alevi supporters, becoming, in effect, Alevi movements. Consequently, they could not help but take part in the debates on Alevi identity. [8] On the other hand, Alevis of all generations had a strong negative reaction to the previous flirtation with left radicalism, which expressed itself in a burgeoning interest in their own religious traditions.

Revivalism

The embrace of Sunni Islam by the government no doubt contributed to the Alevi revival. When the ban on associations, instituted after 1980, was somewhat relaxed in 1989, Alevi voluntary associations sprang up all over the country. Alevi rituals (cem), which had been practically banned since 1925, were publicly performed and houses of worship (cemevi) were opened. A sudden tidal wave of publications by Alevi intellectuals purported to explain history, doctrine and ritual of Alevism and to define its relation to Sunni Islam. Some of the books engendered heated polemics within the community on such questions as whether Alevism is a sect within Islam or an essentially different religion, and whether this different religion is of Iranian or Turkish origins. [9]

These developments marked an important change in the nature of Alevism, a transition from its centuries-old history as a secret, initiatory, locally anchored and orally transmitted religion, to a public religion with formalized, or at least written, doctrine and ritual. Most of these Alevi authors did not belong to the priestly caste; they all had a modern education, which their books reflect. The way they formulate and even at times invent Alevi tradition is highly reminiscent of what goes on in nascent nationalist movements.

Secular elements in the political establishment encouraged the Alevi revival as the antithesis of the rise of political Islam. [10] By the late 1980s, the growing influence of the PKK among Turkey’s Kurds increasingly spread among Alevi Kurds, giving the authorities another incentive to allow and even stimulate the development of Alevism as an alternative “ethnic” identity. In the early 1990s, the state began to publicly support Alevism. [11] Some of the more conservative Alevi leaders were courted in attempts to coopt their associations under the rubric of Turkey-based nationalism. At the same time, authorities remained suspicious of the Alevis because of their previous inclination toward leftist politics, and police forces and certain government departments were filled with anti-Alevi elements.

Many Alevis were pleased with the degree of recognition implied in cooptation by the political establishment. Although generalizations are hazardous, it seems safe to say that the religious-minded and the relatively conservative among the Alevis tended to drift towards associations loyal to the state, whereas in associations which identify with anti-state rebellion one finds a higher proportion of former leftists.

When the leftist-oriented Pir Sultan Abdal association organized a cultural festival in Sivas in July 1993, numerous prominent authors and other artists attended, including the aged Aziz Nesin (not an Alevi, incidentally), who had recently provoked the anger of many Sunni Muslims by announcing his intention to publish a translation of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. The festival was protested by a large group of violent right-wing demonstrators, who were clearly intent upon killing Nesin. They laid siege to and attacked the hotel where the participants of the festival were staying. Throwing stones and burning rags through the windows, the demonstrators succeeded in setting fire to the hotel. Thirty-seven people died in this fire.

The events in Sivas differed from the pogroms of the late 1970s. There was no massive attack on neighborhoods inhabited by Alevis this time; the primary targets of the demonstrators were intellectuals and artists. A statue of the sixteenth-century Alevi martyr and poet Pir Sultan Abdal which was also destroyed was less a symbol for Alevism as such than for the rebellious and “leftist” tradition among Alevis.

The involvement of the local police and civil authorities in the violence was also significant, as was the inability of the central government to neutralize them. The mayor of Sivas openly sympathized with the demonstrators, and the police did not make any serious attempt to disperse them or to keep them away from the hotel, hesitating to intervene even when the hotel had caught fire. During the siege of the hotel, Aziz Nesin and friends succeeded in reaching the vice prime minister Erdal Inönü by telephone, who told them that instructions to protect them had already been dispatched, to no obvious effect. In a police film of the events, which was later leaked to the press, one hears the police radio, at the moment when the mob attacked the hotel, give orders not to stop them. Most policemen simply looked on. [12]

Relations between Alevis and the government reached even lower depths with the clashes between the police and Alevi demonstrators in the Gazi neighborhood of Istanbul in March 1995. On the evening of March 12, unknown gunmen in a stolen taxi drove through this neighborhood and riddled five teahouses with bullets, killing one and wounding numerous others. Police were remarkably slow in taking action, and the rumor soon spread that the local police post might have been involved in the terrorist attacks.

Young people of Gazi took to the streets in protest, and they were soon reinforced by groups from elsewhere who had heard the news on television. The demonstrators directed their anger at the police post, which was believed to be manned by extremely right-wing and anti-Alevi policemen, and where not long ago a young detainee was said to have been tortured to death. Throughout the neighborhood police and demonstrators clashed; in the general rioting that ensued, shops and workshops owned by alleged “fascists” were raided and destroyed. That night the police shot one demonstrator.

The rioting continued the following days and spread to another neighborhood. Young radicals attempted to seize control of the situation, throwing stones at the police and raising barricades. It was the police, however, who went completely out of control; instead of using conventional methods of crowd control, they repeatedly shot into the crowds, killing another 15 people. The insulting language and threats shouted by the police to community leaders who attempted to negotiate with them showed that many of the police were acting out of aggressive hatred towards the Alevis. The isolated attempts by a few policemen to hold their colleagues back were not successful. The hotel fire in Sivas had shown that part of the state apparatus — local police and local government officials — did not stand above communal divisions but sided with the aggressors. Central government authorities apparently did not have control over at least a part of the police force, which selective recruitment through the 1980s had packed with extremely right-wing Sunni Muslims. Reactions to the events in Sivas and Gazi showed that society-wide divisions ran right through the government. Conservative members declared Aziz Nesin responsible for the events. [13] The rift between the government and the Alevi communities was reopened, reinforcing the radicalizing the Alevi revival.

Community leaders who continue to cooperate with the authorities in the hope of attaining recognition as a distinct religious community or in pursuit of personal gains appear to be losing support from below. And left radicalism appears to be gaining influence among the young. The government’s efforts to use Alevi awareness as an alternative to Kurdish nationalism have largely failed. The PKK capitalized on Alevi alienation from the state; a few weeks after the anti-Alevi violence in Sivas, the PKK took revenge by killing a group of men in a staunchly conservative Sunni village northeast of Sivas.

Many if not most of the Kurdish Alevis define themselves as Alevis first, and Kurds only second if at all. State-sponsored publications have hammered on the old theme that Alevism is a specifically Turkish form of Islam and that the Alevis, even those who speak Kurdish or Zaza, descend from Turcoman tribesmen and therefore are essentially Turkish. The PKK and other Kurdish nationalists, on the other hand, have made efforts to persuade them that in the present confrontation, their most relevant identity is Kurdish, and that moreover the Alevi religion has Iranian (Zoroastrian) rather than Turkish origins (so that by implication even the Turkish Alevis are related to the Kurds). [14]

The effect of both propaganda offensives is difficult to gauge, but it appears that among radical leftist Turkish Alevis there is now a tendency to view the PKK as their natural ally because they are up against much the same coalition of extreme right-wing political forces, which have gradually come to control important parts of the state apparatus. This conservative religious and ultra-nationalist bloc is not interested in cultural and religious pluralism and rejects compromises with Kurds and Alevis alike. In its efforts to create a monolithic state and society, this bloc constitutes the most divisive force in Turkey today.

Endnotes

[1] A recent study, by Peter Andrews, Ethnic Groups in the Republic of Turkey (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 1989), enumerates 47 distinct ethnic groups in Turkey. Other criteria for ethnic identity may yield an even higher number.
[2] This was Serafettin Elöi, then minister of public works. After the 1980 military coup he was sentenced to two years imprisonment for this remark.
[3] This law was a product of the 1980-1983 military regime. It violated several international agreements on the protection of minorities to which Turkey was a party. See C. Rumpf, “The Turkish Law Prohibiting Languages Other than Turkish,” Documentation of the International Conference on Human Rights in Kurdistan, 14-16 April 1989 (Hochschule Bremen, 1989), pp. 68-89; and idem., “Das Sprachenverbot in der Turkei unter besonderer Beriicksichtigung ihrer viilkerrechtlichen Verpflichtungen,” Orient 30 (1989).
[4] See Aliza Marcus, “Eyewitness Account of an Alevi Uprising in Gazi,” Middle East Report 199 (Spring 1996).
[5] There is no exemplary description in English of Alevism as a religion. Most useful are S. van Rensselaer Trowbridge, “The Alevis,” The Moslem World 11 (1921); and I. Markoff, “Music, Saints and Ritual: Sama’ and the Alevis of Turkey,” in G. Martin Smith and Carl Ernst, eds., Manifestations of Sainthood in Islam (Istanbul: Isis, 1993). The only systematic study presently available is in German: Krisztina Kehl-Bodrogi, Die Kizilbasi Aleviten (Berlin: Schwarz, 1988).
[6] On these rebellions see H. L. Kieser, Les Kurdes alevis face au nationalisme ture kemaliste: L’alevite du Dersim et son role dans le premier soulevement kurde contre Mustafa Kemal (Kockiri, 1919-1921) (Amsterdam: MERA, 1993); Martin van Bruinessen, “Genocide in Kurdistan?: The Suppression of the Dersim Rebellion in Turkey (1937-38) and the Chemical War against the Iraqi Kurds (1988)”, in G. J. Andreopoulos, ed., Genocide: Conceptual and Historical Dimensions (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994).
[7] See B. Toprak, “Religion as State Ideology in a Secular Setting: The Turkish-Islamic synthesis,” in M. Wagstaff, ed., Aspects of Religion in Secular Turkey (Durham: Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, 1990); Feroz Ahmad, “Islamic Reassertion in Turkey,” Third World Quarterly 10 (1988).
[8] This is notably the case of the Communist Party of Turkey/Marxist-Leninist and its various splinters.
[9] An excellent overview of this recent flood of books on Alevism, understood as part of the process of construction an Alevi “ethnic” identity, is given by Karin Vorhoff, Zwischen Glaube, Nation und neuer Gemeinschaft: Alevitische Identitat in der Turkei der Gegenwart (Berlin: Schwarz, 1995).
[10] The Alevi vote has always been divided over the whole political spectrum, but the political party closest to the Alevis was the Social Democrat Populist Party, which had several vocal Alevi deputies. In 1991 this party became a junior partner in the government coalition with the True Path Party, led by Süleyman Demirel and later Tansu Çiller.
[11] One manifestation of this support was official sponsorship of the annual festival commemorating the Alevi Saint Haji Bektash. This festival, celebrated for the first time in 1964, had become the country’s major left-wing cultural festival during the 1970s, was depoliticized during the 1980s, and received government patronage in the 1990s. Politicians of all parties now put in appearances in order to show how much they like the Alevis.
[12] There were, however, individual police officers who did make efforts to save people. One of those saved, ironically, was Aziz Nesin, who was not recognized at first. Once they realized who he was, some firemen and a policeman started beating him up, but others protected him and rushed him to hospital.
[13] The public prosecutor of the Ankara State Security Court, Nusret Demiral, even announced his intention to start proceedings against Nesin and request the death penalty.
[14] On these ideological debates, see my “Aslini inkar eden hararnzadedir! The Debate on the Ethnic Identity of the Kurdish Alevis” (forthcoming).

How to cite this article:

Martin Van Bruinessen "Kurds, Turks and the Alevi Revival in Turkey," Middle East Report 200 (Fall 1996).
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