Alevis seen as 'threat' to religious education in Turkey

Ankara, Turkey - Demands from some members of Turkey’s Alevi community to eliminate mandatory religious classes constitute a “threat” to the Religious Affairs Directorate, according to the institution’s strategic plan document.

The institution included the demands to abolish the classes under its threat subcategory in a document that delineates its aims and vision for the years 2009-2013.

“The strategic plan of the directorate is not important for us. We were already considered a primary domestic threat in the Sept. 12 [1980 military coup] period,” Ali Balkız, head of the Alevi Bektaşi Federation, following a Saturday sit-down protest against religious classes in the Aegean province of İzmir.

The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has previously highlighted the directorate as the body best able to solve the Alevi issue.

Alevis argue that only Sunni Islam is being taught in compulsory religion classes. Alevis, who some see as a liberal branch of Islam, remain divided over the classes, with some community groups demanding that the lessons be eliminated, while others have demanded that Alevi topics be included in course material.

The directorate needs to change its mentality toward Alevis if it is to find a solution to the problem, according to community leaders attending Saturday’s İzmir protest.

“The approach of the directorate is not even close to serving the Alevi opening,” said Balkız in reference to the AKP’s initiative to solve the Alevi issue through a series of workshops organized in 2009 and 2010 that were designed to let the community voice their concerns.

Fevzi Gümüş, head of the Pir Sultan Abdal Culture Association, said the government’s inclusion of the directorate on the Alevi issue contradicted the goals of the opening. “The Religious Affairs Directorate is a Sunni institution,” said Zübeyde Kılıç, head of the education trade union Eğitim-Sen. “The sole address for this issue cannot be the directorate. The directorate is an institution to organize one religion and one sect.”

Academic Baskın Oran, who works on minorities and nationalism, said the Republic’s ideal citizen was not simply “Turkish” but “LAHASÜMÜT.”

LAHASÜMÜT stands for the first two letters of the Turkish words for secularism (laik), then Hanefi (a Sunni school of Islam), Sunni, Muslim and the first letter of the Turkish word for Turk, Oran said, adding that groups that do not fit into this rubric are routinely discriminated against in Turkey.

In 2009, in the first step of the government’s Alevi opening, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan participated in a fast-breaking meal with Alevis, promising that the content of religion class books would be changed.

State Minister Faruk Çelik, who directed the Alevi workshops, has rejected accusations that the directorate is a Sunni-based institution.

“This [idea] is wrong. Sunnis and Alevis are not opposite to each other. The directorate has publications on the Shafi, Alevi and Twelver Shiite [sects],” he said during the 2011 budget negotiations for the directorate.