Back in the 1990s there was this columnist writing for the Hürriyet newspaper in Turkey, Hikmet Bil, who published reader letters in his column. He would sometimes receive questions like if an Alevi woman could marry a Sunni man. Not that we were particularly interested in the question itself, but we would archive that column for the mere reason that a newspaper had the word Alevism used in a sentence…. Now think about seeing Alevism on television today—it is that big of a difference for us.

—Halit Büyükgöl, December 2015

Alevis are the second largest faith community in Turkey. As a religious collective incorporating aspects of Shi‘i Islam into their teachings, Alevis have faced systematic state exclusion since the 1923 establishment of the Turkish nation-state, which privileges Sunni Islam despite its avowed secularism. Although the community constitutes 15-20 percent of Turkey’s population, their places of worship, cemevis, have no legal status and do not enjoy the state economic support accorded to mosques. A glass ceiling blocks Alevis from obtaining high-ranking government jobs, and various other forms of daily discrimination push members of the community to hide their identity in public. In fact, secrecy (sır) is a practice so long adopted among Alevis that since the Ottoman era it has become a central element of the Alevi path/teachings (yol/öğreti). In the last couple of decades, however, visibility has emerged as a new strategy for communal survival, particularly for Alevi activists such as Halit Büyükgöl, the Berlin-based television producer quoted above. For these activists, visibility was a necessity because secrecy was no longer the only viable means of keeping the community alive.

The urge to attain visibility had its roots partly in the global proliferation of mass media technologies, which enabled religious minorities across the world to publicize their diverging and previously suppressed devotional practices. But rapid migration to urban areas, and the transnational connections that followed, were additional factors that compelled Alevis in Turkey to strive for a more secure public footing. As they came into closer contact with the hegemonic Sunni Islam, enshrined in major institutions in Turkish cities, the community sought ways to combat prejudice and live more openly as Alevis.

Starting in the 1990s, Alevis living abroad worked to address the problem by creating television programming that targeted Alevi audiences.

Alcanlar TV, founded in Berlin in 1991, was one of the first of these efforts. Büyükgöl was lead director and producer of the channel, which aired on a locally accessible and publicly funded network named Open Channel Berlin. Open Channels was a broader initiative that emerged in Germany in the 1980s to counter the increasing dominance of profit-oriented televisual production by providing room for underrepresented minorities who otherwise could not afford such a costly mode of communication. The users of these open networks were charged no fee and were offered training and technical assistance. Their programs’ content was unrestricted. Büyükgöl, having arrived in Berlin as a teenager in the 1980s to live with his migrant worker family, became interested in the network in 1991 as a means of airing the video clips he recorded during summer visits to his village near the city of Muş in eastern Turkey. Open Channels eventually provided Büyükgöl and his peers with the opportunity to satisfy the yearning for visibility sooner than Alevis living in Turkey.

At first, the producers of Alcanlar TV had one mission—“having Alevism mentioned on German television.” The channel collaborated closely with the Confederation of Alevi Communities in Europe, the umbrella group for all the communal associations on the continent. In its ten years on the air, Alcanlar featured a great variety of programs, ranging from religious ceremonies (cem) to live discussions of Alevi issues, such as the obligatory religion classes in Turkey that teach only Sunni Islam; from Alevi deyiş songs to commemorations of Karbala’ (site of the martyrdom of Imam ‘Ali’s son Husayn and his family) and other massacres in Alevi history. The programming choices went well beyond the initial promise simply to mention the faith on television. In fact, the anthropologist Kira Kosnick, who conducted extensive research on Turkish migrants’ broadcasting practices in Germany, underlines that a great portion of programs aired on Alcanlar TV also had the purpose of dispelling prejudices against Alevis common among Turkish migrants in Berlin.  Visibility was thus deployed in part to disprove the negative portrayals of Alevism among Sunni Muslims. As a very early example of Alevi television, Alcanlar inspired and sustained the hope that Alevis would have free-standing television networks of their own one day.

Beginning in 2004, that hope was realized when the Confederation of Alevi Communities in Europe collaborated with Alevi associations in Turkey to produce a series of programs titled “Muharrem Conversations.” The programs appeared on Turkey’s mainstream news channel, Kanaltürk, during the 12-day period of mourning that Alevis observe in the holy month of Muharrem for the victims of the Karbala’ massacre. The series hosted several Alevi dedes (religious leaders), intellectuals, activists and zakirs (musicians) who discussed issues ranging from the basics of their faith to the prevailing prejudices against the community. In 2005, another major Alevi organization in Turkey, Cem Vakfı, founded Cem TV in Istanbul as the first Alevi television network based in the country. In 2006, the Confederation launched the satellite channel Yol TV in Cologne. Cem and Yol were the longest-lasting networks, but others, such as Su TV and Dem TV, were on the air for shorter periods. In 2010, TV 10 was founded in Istanbul as another network that looked like it would have staying power on the Alevi media scene. Many Alevis living in the mixed neighborhoods of Istanbul stressed the importance of the resulting visibility, for instance stating that the cem ceremonies broadcast on Alevi television networks are useful for countering falsehoods that circulate among non-Alevis, such as the canard that the community engages in incest during the rituals.

Alongside the Alevi-led media productions, the state also sought to mediate Alevis’ visibility on television. [2] Beginning in 2007, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP, by its Turkish acronym) embarked on what it called the “Alevi initiatives” (Alevi açılımı), which included a series of meetings with Alevi activists with the promise of reforming the community’s status. As part of this process, beginning in 2008 the AKP government broadcast its own short programs about Alevis on the state television network, TRT, during Muharrem. [3] But such official attempts to control representations of the Alevis were abandoned in favor of strict measures against the community with the declaration of emergency rule after the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016. The AKP government cancelled the access of Yol TV and TV 10 to the national Türksat satellite. Today, Alevi televisual producers have to limit themselves to web-based distribution, which restricts their ability to represent themselves in public and deprives them of the capacity to counter derogatory depictions of their faith.

The generation of Alevis that grew up in Turkey in the 2000s—amid the presence of Alevi television networks and the abundance of mainstream media coverage of their faith—took for granted that Alevism would appear often on the small screen. Official discrimination against Alevis continued, but for older generations the breadth of the presence in the media marked a noteworthy shift, particularly since the original goal of the televisual activism was simply to make Alevism visible in mainstream media. From the 1990s until 2016, Alevi activists were able to use their media access not only to counter pejorative representations of Alevism, but also to provide Alevis with platforms to represent multiple versions of their faith where the official accounts had rendered them invisible.


Endnotes

[1] Kira Kosnick, Migrant Media: Turkish Broadcasting and Multicultural Politics in Berlin (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007).
[2] Kabir Tambar, The Reckoning of Pluralism: Political Belonging and the Demands of History in Turkey (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014).
[3] Hürriyet, December 29, 2008.

How to cite this article:

Nazlı Özkan "The Emergence of Alevi Televisual Activism," Middle East Report 281 ( ).

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