In the late 2000s, the Turkish government seemed to be on the way to giving public recognition to the significant Alevi minority in Turkey.
But there is reluctance to grant them a status equal to that of Sunni Islam in Turkey, and the Turkish Sunni foreign policy in the Middle East has had a boomerang effect on the Sunni-Alevi divide in the country, according to Pinar Tank of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), who presented a paper at the World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies (WOCMES). A syncretic faith, Alevis make up between 15 and 25 percent of Turkey’s population. They carry an ancient Turkish heritage, but they were viewed with suspicion as an expression of heretical or, at best, misunderstood Islam during the Ottoman period. They do not follow most of the fundamental practices of Islam.
Alevis were supportive of Kemalism and its secular approach, but those secular policies, aiming at a strict control of Islam more than at a real separation between state and religion, also had consequences for Alevi institutions. The Diyanet (Directorate of Religious Affairs) promoted an interpretation of Sunni Islam and made no place for Alevism.
Until recently, it was not mentioned at schools. But denial and exclusion have strengthened Alevi identity; many Alevis have also been supportive of leftist political groups. During the 2013 protest in Turkey, a high percentage of participants were apparently Alevis. But with the decline of leftist ideologies, there has been a rediscovery of Alevi religious identity since the late 1980s, a trend supported by efforts to organize the Alevia diaspora in Western Europe.
Alevis demand religious equality, recognition on their houses of worship and an end to the Sunni bias in teaching in schools. In 2009-2010, for the first time, there were serious institutional efforts to solve the Alevi question. A report was released, making various proposals, including a restructuring of the Diyanet for serving the Alevi community as well. The government’s Alevi Initiative created a favorable climate, but an over-cautious approach of the government toward the feelings of its Sunni electorate came at the expense of the trust of the Alevis, according to Mehmet Bardakçı (Yeni Yüzyıl University).
It approached the Alevi issue from a Sunni perspective, instead of dealing with it as an issue of human rights. Some significant measures were taken (e.g. teaching on Alevism introduced in the curriculum of some religious classes, Alevi programs on a State television channel during the holy month of the Alevi calendar), but it failed to initiate changes in the Diyanet or to give legal status to Alevi houses of worship. Moreover, the government forged close ties with one rather conservative Alevi group, leaning toward an understanding of Alevism as a branch of Islam, while leaving out groups with leftist roots and more prone to emphasize a separate Alevi identity.
Tensions on Turkey’s borders are also having an effect on the Sunni-Alevi divide. Safe passage granted to Islamist militants crossing to Syria has damaged the fragile sectarian balance in border areas. The 600,000 Arab Alevites in South-Eastern Turkey, while having theological differences with Syrian Alawites, have sympathy for and relations with them.
Arab-speaking Alevis have also started to develop connections with other Alevis in Turkey. There are fears that the current developments in the Middle East, with their sectarian dimensions, might also create new faultlines in Turkey itself.