A posture of openess on the part of the current Turkish government toward the Alevis is taking place at the same time that this quasi-Muslim group is experiencing internal divisions regarding their identity in relation to Islam, write Bayram Ali Soner (Izmir University) and Şule Toktaş (Kadir Has University, Istanbul) in the September issue of the journal Turkish Studies.
The Alevis have consistently supported the secular foundations of the Turkish Republic, even as it institutionalized Sunni Islam while keeping it under strict state control. This was welcomed by the Alevis, explain the authors, because it prevented Sunni Islam from dominating the public sphere. However, with the rise of identity politics in Turkey in the 1980s, Alevi circles started to demand communal rights. Clashes, such as the infamous killing of 35 Alevi intellectuals in 1993, reinforced those trends, as did Alevi revivalism in the diaspora.
Due to European Union pressure and Alevi demands, a recognition of Alevi communal identity has emerged. The current government, with its ideological roots in Islam, started with a Sunni view of Alevism, but broader views developed within Islamist intellectual circles. A rapprochement between the government and the Alevis appeared just before the 2007 general elections: several Alevis were nominated by the ruling Justice and Development Party and elected to Parliament. A process of dialogue started in 2008, with a document made public two years later that could pave the road to practical steps in order to meet a number of Alevi expectations.The document defines Alevism as a belief system within Islam. On this issue, Alevis themselves are divided.
Soner and Toktas describe one wing as “traditionalist-religious Alevis” and the other one as “modernist-secularist Alevis.” Members of the first group, headed by the state-friendly Cem Foundation, have a religious understanding of Alevism, which they see as the original version of Islam. On the other hand, the modernist-secularist Alevis emphasize the non-Islamic elements of Alevism and see it as a syncretistic religion outside of Islam; they are gathered under the umbrella Alevi-Bektashi Federation. This second camp tends to support liberal secularism. Both groups agree, however, that Alevism is non-Sunni and thus opposes a Sunni-centric system.
(Turkish Studies, Routledge Journals, Taylor & Francis Inc., Journals Department, 325 Chestnut Street, 8th Floor, Philadelphia, PA 19106, www.tandf.co.uk)