On January 6, 2008, newspapers in the province of Tunceli in eastern Turkey appeared festooned with the holiday wishes, “May your Gaghand be merry.” [1] Celebrated on the same day as Armenian Christmas and bearing the same name, Gaghand is an important, if almost forgotten event in the religious calendar of Tunceli, or Dersim, to use the area’s historical appellation. In the villages of Dersim, bearded men calling themselves Gaghand Baba (Father Christmas) pay visits to children and the elderly, offering them presents of sweets and pistachios. Historical accounts from the early twentieth century also mention a ritual administered by religious leaders the very same day and highly reminiscent of Holy Communion. [2]

The people of Dersim are not Christians, but Alevis, a catch-all term for a variety of ethno-religious minorities in Turkey whose core religious heritage is Islamic but whose beliefs and practices are highly varied and syncretistic. [3] In Dersim, Christian and other influences infuse a heterodox Islam of distant Shi‘i origin whose adherents do not normally pray in mosques, fast in Ramadan, accept the Qur’an as a source of jurisprudence or make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Like many Alevis, they do commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein on the plains of Karbala’ in the month of Muharram, a reminder of the Shi‘i component of their tradition.

As the state does not disclose census and other data regarding religious orientation and ethnic origin, estimates of the overall size of the Alevi population vary widely, ranging between 10 and 25 percent of the population of Turkey. The large majority of Alevis speak Turkish and live in the big cities.

By contrast, the Dersimli Alevis speak an Indo-European language called Kurmancki or Zazaki that is related to Kurdish and Persian. [4] Protected by the Munzur mountain range, the Dersim tribes resisted attempts at state centralization until the late 1930s, when the republican government mounted a devastating air campaign, destroying a third of the villages in the province. [5] The survivors were forcibly evacuated to western Turkey. A special law for the region aimed at eradicating Dersimli Alevi identity by repopulating the area with Turkish settlers. Despite these extreme policies, however, many Dersimlis returned in the 1940s, only to be driven out again in the following decades as labor migrants or political refugees. Tunceli today is a thinly populated province with slightly less than 100,000 inhabitants and high levels of out-migration, while more than a million Dersimlis have created a noteworthy diaspora in western Turkey and Europe.

Tunceli remains Turkey’s only province with an almost exclusively Alevi population. Recently built mosques cater only to government officials, alcohol is on sale in every corner shop and the use of public space is not sex-segregated as in the nearby provinces of Elazig or Erzincan. The Munzur valley, only a few minutes walk from the town center, teems with cafés and bars frequented by couples and groups of young men and women. The mayor, Songül Erol Abdil, was elected on the strength of a coalition of socialist parties and the Kurdish Democratic Society Party. She is one of the few female mayors of a provincial capital, even if the center of Tunceli is home to only 25,000 inhabitants, guarded by several thousand members of the army and the security services.

In places like Tunceli, the war that crippled the Kurdish provinces after the military coup of 1980 continues at lower intensity. More than half of 2007’s casualties in the conflict between Kurdish guerrilla organizations and the army occurred in Tunceli. And here the war’s intrusive security controls upon the civilian population, long abolished elsewhere, are still enforced, albeit with a lighter hand. In order to enter or leave the province, one has to pass through checkpoints. Soldiers collect identity cards and check them against a new electronic database indicating terrorist suspects. Officers are proper in their demeanor, yet leave no doubt that one is entering a danger zone.

Yet not even the checkpoint can prepare the visitor for the dramatic spectacle of the Munzur valley, with its raging rivers and alpine landscapes. The valley is home to a myriad of sacred places, shrines, revered stones and cemeteries that are markers of Dersimli Alevi identity. Generations of state-employed engineers and technocrats have planned dams and hydroelectric power plants that would destroy the Elysian beauty of the place and turn the ferocious river into a lake. Virtually everybody in Tunceli is against the present dam project, at Konaktepe; posters indicating opposition are displayed in every other shop window in town.

Suffocated by the omnipresent security apparatus, closed-circuit TV cameras in the city center and the observation posts in the surrounding mountains, the few citizens of historical Dersim might well hope for a more comfortable relationship with the state.

A Timid Coming to Terms

A recent initiative by Reha Çamuroğlu, a member of Parliament from the governing Justice and Development Party (or AKP, the acronym of the party’s name in Turkish), could have been a first step. One of the party’s few Alevi members, Çamuroğlu authored a plan for a government-hosted iftar to break the Muharram fast on January 11. Yet the initiative met with little support from the rank and file of Alevi civil society. Alevi organizations, with very few exceptions, are staunchly secular, left-leaning and anti-Islamist, and they declared the ruling party’s iftar a misguided attempt at appeasing the European Union in its demands for more inclusive policies toward the country’s sizable minorities. Others insisted that this was yet another plot to destroy Alevi identity through assimilation into the Sunni mainstream. A few religious leaders went so far as to threaten Alevis attending the iftar with excommunication. [6]

With its ideological roots in Turkey’s version of Sunni political Islam, its proximity to Sufi orders and its professed orientation as conservative-democratic, the AKP indeed seems an unlikely candidate for the job of embracing Turkey’s syncretistic Alevi communities. The party’s ideology and policy are largely irreconcilable with Alevi notions of ethics and justice: From its tacit promotion of “Islamic dress” to its inherent social conservatism, from its gendered policies to its anti-alcohol stance, AKP policies appear to most Alevis as socially regressive and threatening to their identity and lifestyle.

Prominent party members are on record belittling the Alevi rite as a “subculture within Islam” or scorning their shrines of worship (cem evleri) as places for carousing, hinting at the chanting in the ceremony of ayin-i cem, the semah dance that includes both men and women, and the use of wine during services. [7] Finally, some AKP members have downplayed and even defended the massacre of Sivas in 1993, when 37 Alevi intellectuals died in a fire set by Islamists under the noses of security services and allowed to burn by firefighters. [8]

In spite of the dismissive position taken by Alevi organizations, voices from Brussels positively acknowledged the government’s attempts. Some commentators in Turkey wondered whether the government’s timid steps would lead to a long-awaited “Alevi opening.” Was this a break with the history of discrimination and oppression? Even a coming to terms with the country’s religious diversity, which has survived waves of ethnic and religious cleansing during the last decades of the Ottoman Empire and throughout much of the Turkish Republic? Could it be that a party with Islamist roots can overcome its own demons and find a modus vivendi with what are generally agreed to be the most heterodox interpretations of Islam, without subjecting them to assimilation?

From Suspects to Guardians of Secularism

Turkey’s Alevis were treated as a fifth column of the Safavid state in Iran in the early Ottoman Empire, as unruly villagers by the secular republic and as unclean unbelievers by the Sunni establishment. Due to this experience of exclusion, and deepened by a strong proto-socialist thread in Alevi tradition, many developed an affinity for anti-capitalist and communitarian left-wing movements. Throughout the 1970s, Alevis were attacked by changing coalitions of nationalist, fascist and Islamist groups, as well parts of the security apparatus, culminating in a number of anti-Alevi pogroms in central and eastern Anatolia. [9] State agencies, with their deep-seated suspicion of all ethnic and religious minority groups, treated the Alevis as potential enemies. In the 1980s, when the leaders of the military coup introduced the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” as semi-official state doctrine to contain the revolutionary left, Alevis were further alienated from the state and its institutions. Yet even during this period, discriminatory policies were differentiated: Turkish-speaking Alevis had to fight fewer prejudices than the Kurmancki-speaking Alevis of the Dersim area, who were often treated as outright terrorists, because of their association with Kurdishness. The aversion to the Dersimli was augmented during the 1980s, when young men and women from the Tunceli area joined the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in its rebellion against the Turkish state.

The state and secular establishment’s approach toward the Alevi community arguably changed in the mid-1990s, amidst the Sivas massacre, the killing of 17 Alevi demonstrators by policemen in the Istanbul neighbourhood of Gazi in 1995 [10] and the “post-modern” coup of February 28, 1997, when the army used well-placed phone calls rather than tanks to force the resignation of Necmettin Erbakan, leader of the Islamist precursor to the AKP. If the former two events signified the high point of Alevi alienation from the state, the military’s anti-Islamist intervention radically changed the conditions for the articulation of Alevi identity in the public sphere. Establishing (Sunni) religious reaction as the prime security threat, the masterminds of the coup created an atmosphere where the Alevis could be reclassified from suspicious citizens to guardians of the secular order.

Even though the exclusively Sunni Directorate of Religious Affairs continued to build undesired mosques in Alevi villages, other state agencies offered funds for the construction of cem evleri, while civil society organizations were allowed to operate more freely. The post-intervention years then created the conditions for a limited cooptation into the political mainstream. Even though severely oppressed under the republican regime, many Alevis nevertheless agreed to an implicit deal: Their renewed allegiance to the state would grant them basic rights and protect them against Sunni discrimination and Islamist encroachment.

Ready for the Sunni Embrace?

The AKP’s Alevi initiative comes at a time of widespread confusion within the community. Despite a series of setbacks that cost the lives of many hunger-striking prisoners of the far left, the Alevis have emerged from the oblivion of state denial and self-imposed invisibility. The softening of state policies, together with EU-induced reforms and an increasingly well-organized, albeit fragmented transnational Alevi civil society network, have created a lively public sphere with numerous radio and TV stations, journals, online portals and ever more visible cem evleri. Alevi community organizations represent a wide variety of political orientations, ranging from social democrats to deep ecologists and different groupings of the revolutionary left. Many now wonder whether their role as guardians of the secular system was a sensible one. While many of the demonstrators at the anti-AKP rallies in the summer of 2007 were of Alevi origin, there is a growing sense that their secular stance was exploited by nationalist forces, which are otherwise fiercely opposed to Alevi identity.

In this period of disillusionment and soul searching, the AKP’s initiative came with a good promise of success. Hundreds of Alevi citizens attended the fast breaking, and so did most members of the cabinet and the prime minister. Some AKP ministers were overcome with tears for the martyrs of Karbala’, or so they claimed afterwards. Wine had been removed from the menu, though, in order not to offend the sensibilities of the official Sunni guests. Despite the overflowing emotions, however, the Alevi Bektashi Federation and all other Alevi organizations of some standing boycotted the event, leaving the ground to obscure groups with small constituencies. [11] The AKP’s Alevi opening, hence, took place without the community’s legitimate representatives and civil society.

Scolding Alevi leaders for the boycott, Çamuroğlu vowed nevertheless to achieve the goals of his initiative—a state ministry for Alevi affairs, state-funded cem evleri and government-paid religious officials—and to celebrate his achievements with a prayer of thanksgiving in the Suleymaniye mosque in Istanbul. With this gesture, however, he “outed” himself as largely assimilated: Most Alevis would not enter a mosque to pray, unless to allay the suspicions of Sunni peers. These seem to be the limits of the AKP’s Alevi opening: Given that disagreements over doctrine and practice are practically insurmountable, such heterodox understandings of Islam being impermissible to a pious Sunni Muslim mindset, the AKP can reach out only to those Alevis who are already assimilated and to those who are willing to integrate themselves into the fold of Sunni Islam for one reason or another. Çamuroğlu’s plan provides for a state-funded Alevi religious council operating and financed like the Sunni Directorate of Religious Affairs, while it takes no position on compulsory religious education in state schools. These courses are not only geared toward students of Sunni Muslim faith, but also include derogatory depictions of Alevi identity and practice. Neither does the plan refer to the recent past of massacres and pogroms, whose pain is deeply engraved into Alevi identity. Finally, it fails to call for an end to the practice of state-funded mosque-building programs in Alevi villages, enforced since the 1980s.

Yet even Çamuroğlu’s modest overture does not seem to be an urgent priority for the government. After promises of more engagement following the iftar and much talk in the media, the debate simply ebbed away. By the time attention turned to February’s easing of the headscarf ban at universities, the AKP’s Alevi opening had slipped from the agenda.

No Golden Age

The Alevis of Anatolia have a long memory of discrimination and suffering, reflected in their music, ritual and narrative. There is no golden age in which Alevi culture and faith flourished under the auspices of an enlightened Ottoman leader, only the resilient resistance to what has mostly been a less than benign sovereign. Nor has the republican regime redeemed its promise of secularism and religious freedom. Ironically, however, Alevis in Turkey have never been as visible, vocal and present in the public realm as they are now. If the AKP leadership managed to overcome its assimilationist reflexes and evolved toward a policy of recognition of difference, it would contribute significantly to Turkey’s secularization. It would also be an encouraging sign that a party with Sunni Islamist roots can accommodate a creed that has very little in common with its own interpretation of Islam and whose lifestyle is diametrically opposed to it. If the AKP failed to do so, Turkey’s Alevis would be exploited once again for the political expediency of others. This time, they would be showcased as best practice for AKP reforms in response to European demands for minority and religious rights.

As leaders of the Alevi community suggest, [12] the AKP’s Alevi opening has ignored both long-standing requests and grievances from the community as well as its organized civil society. The AKP’s new Alevi policy is not based on an affirmative recognition of difference and a readiness to acknowledge past mistakes, but appears to follow the clientelist model of incorporation and assimilation that the party has so far successfully employed for the incorporation of Kurdish voters.

In Tunceli, in the meantime, construction work on the Konaktepe dam—the first of a projected eight—is about to begin, despite fierce local and international resistance. Once the dam is completed, the waters will inundate not only some of the most impressive scenery in this part of the world, but also the sacred places that are repositories of so much Dersimli Alevi belief and memory. For some in Dersim, this would be a loss that cannot be compensated for by a half-hearted government initiative.



[1] In Kurmancki/Zazaki, Gaghane sima bimbarek bo! The Armenian transliteration is Gaghand.

[2] L. Molyneux-Seel, “A Journey in Dersim,” The Geographical Journal 44/1 (1914).

[3] For a comprehensive overview of Alevi identity in Turkey, see Paul White and Joost Jongerden, Turkey’s Alevi Enigma (Leiden: Brill, 2003). A very good synopsis of the latest debates can be found in Cafer Solgun’s series of articles in the newspaper Taraf, January 8–13, 2008.

[4] See Krisztina Kehl-Bodrogi, “Turks, Kurds or a People in Their Own Right? Competing Collective Identities Among the Zazas,” The Muslim World 89/3-4 (1999). Martin van Bruinessen focuses on the Kurdish content of Dersimli identity in “Aslini inkar eden haramzadedir!,” in Kehl-Bodrogi et al, Syncretistic Religious Communities in the Near East (Leiden: Brill, 1997). For a fascinating analysis, see Leyla Neyzi, “Embodied Elders: Space and Subjectivity in the Music of Metin-Kemal Kahraman,” Middle Eastern Studies 38/1 (2002).

[5] Robert Olson, “The Kurdish Rebellions of Sheikh Said (1925), Mt. Ararat (1930) and Dersim (1937–8): Their Impact in the Development of the Turkish Air Force and on Kurdish and Turkish Nationalism,” Die Welt des Islam 40/1 (2000).

[6] Radikal, January 11, 2008.

[7] The derisive statement “Cem evi, cümbüş evi (The house of Cem is a house of carousing)” is attributed to a former vice director of the state’s Directorate of Religious Affairs and has often been reproduced.

[8] See Martin van Bruinessen, “Turks, Kurds and the Alevi Revival in Turkey,” Middle East Report 200 (July-September 1996).

[9] Seyla Benhabib, “Right-Wing Groups Behind Political Violence in Turkey,” Middle East Report 77 (May 1979).

[10] Aliza Marcus, “Should I Shoot You? An Eyewitness Account of an Alevi Uprising in Gazi,” Middle East Report 199 (April-June 1996).

[11] Milliyet, January 11, 2008.

[12] See, for instance, the declaration of the Alevi Bektashi Federation, online at www.alevifederasyonu.com.

How to cite this article:

Kerem Öktem "Being Muslim at the Margins," Middle East Report 246 (Spring 2008).

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