Turkey’s Alevis, a Muslim Minority, Fear a Policy of Denying Their Existence

Osmancik, Turkey — In the hills of northern Anatolia, next to a shrine to a medieval Muslim mystic, there stands a modest building that illustrates the fears and frustrations of Turkey’s Alevi minority.

For years this small stone hall was a place of worship for local Alevis, heterodox Muslims who are estimated to form between a tenth and a fifth of the Turkish population. But one day in 2015, Ali Gormez, a local Alevi spiritual leader, arrived to find government officials had repurposed it as a mosque for the country’s Sunni Muslim majority.

Given that there was already a Sunni mosque a few hundred yards away, Mr. Gormez suspected the reasons for the conversion were not entirely benign. “The purpose was not to find another Sunni place of worship but to prevent the Alevis from worshiping as they like,” Mr. Gormez said during a recent interview beside the shrine.

“It’s a policy,” he added, “of denying the existence of Alevis.”

The political trajectory of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Sunni conservative whose Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., has governed Turkey since 2002, is often judged through the prism of his increasing authoritarianism or by the challenges he is perceived to pose to Turkey’s secular traditions.

Viewing Mr. Erdogan through the eyes of the Alevis, however, highlights the complexities and paradoxes of both themes.

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Wary of Sunni dominance of public life, Alevis are key stakeholders in the secular Turkish state, and yet have suffered under staunchly secular governments, too. They exemplify the parts of Turkey that feel most threatened by Mr. Erdogan — secularists and minorities like the Kurds and Alevis — while highlighting both the authoritarianism and religious nationalism that predated him, as well as the disparate nature of the coalition that opposes him.

“Secularists talk about Erdogan as an Islamist, whereas Alevis often look at him as explicitly Sunni,” said Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University and nonresident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a think tank in Washington.

Under Mr. Erdogan, Mr. Eissenstat said, average Alevis feel “they’re being pushed further to the edge.” And yet throughout Ottoman and Turkish history, “there has never been a moment when they felt utterly secure,” Mr. Eissenstat added.

Incorporating Shiite, Sufi, Sunni and local traditions, Alevism is a strain of Islam that emerged in the medieval period. Contrary to common perceptions, Alevism is distinct from the Alawite faith followed by Syrians like President Bashar al-Assad.

For some members, Alevism is simply a cultural identity, rather than a form of worship.

Practicing Alevis, however, read from the same Islamic texts as mainstream Muslims, but worship in a cemevi, or prayer hall, rather than a mosque. Men and women pray alongside one another, and — unlike observant Sunnis — are not expected to pray five times a day.

By some metrics, the Alevis are safer now than at many points in their history. For centuries they have been the victims of pogroms, both during Ottoman times and under the secular Turkish republic. Hundreds of Alevis were murdered in sectarian violence in the tumultuous years that preceded Turkey’s 1980 coup, and dozens were killed during the 1990s.

Under Mr. Erdogan, however, there has been no mass sectarian violence against Alevis. In fact, Alevis were among the minorities whose rights Mr. Erdogan initially promised to strengthen. In 2007, for instance, he began what was termed an “Alevi opening,” a yearlong effort to discuss the improvement of Alevi rights.

Some even viewed the “opening” as part of a broader attempt to challenge the monocultural and monoethnic national identity promoted by the country’s founders, who saw the ideal citizen as Turkish and not Kurdish and, despite their secular leanings, Sunni not Alevi.

“We are all citizens of the Turkish republic,” Mr. Erdogan said to a group of Alevis in January 2008. “We are all hosts of this country, siblings without discrimination between you and us.”

Nearly a decade later, sitting in the hills outside Osmancik, Mr. Gormez and his Alevi friends complained about the Sunni takeover of Osmancik’s cemevi. But they also conceded that in terms of pure security the overall situation has improved in the years since the pogroms of the 1970s, when Alevi villagers built barricades outside their homes to defend themselves.

“Now,” said Servet Unal, a retired civil servant sitting beside Mr. Gormez, “we are comfortable.”

But beyond the matter of their physical safety, the plight of Alevis in Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey is more complex, as the participants at a recent Alevi rally in the city of Sivas showed.

Twenty-four years ago, Sivas was the site of a brutal massacre of Alevis by a mob of Sunni fundamentalists who burned down their hotel. The police did not intervene.

On a recent Sunday in July, thousands of Alevis completed an annual march through Sivas in remembrance of the dead. In that sense, things have changed: The police here lined the streets to protect the marchers. But in their chants and interviews, many marchers said that they felt under as much social pressure as they have felt in decades past.

“The government still doesn’t accept Alevism as a legitimate belief,” said Turgut Oker, the head of the European Alevi Federation, and an organizer of the march. “Erdogan is completely trying to make Turkey more Sunni.”

Take the cemevi, Mr. Oker says. The number of these Alevi prayer centers has increased under Erdogan — from under 300 in 2000 to over 900 in 2013. But their construction owes more to Alevi activism than to government acquiescence.

Despite repeated censure from the European Court of Human Rights, the Erdogan government still refuses to classify cemevis as official places of worship. That makes them ineligible for the tranches of money provided to the Directorate of Religious Affairs for the construction and maintenance of Sunni mosques. The directorate’s budget was an estimated $1.8 billion in 2016 — more than most ministries.

And where Alevis have managed to build cemevis, the state has often constructed mosques nearby (or in Osmancik, installed a mosque in the cemevi itself). The implication is that while the state may tolerate Alevism as a cultural identity, it recognizes only the Sunni mosque as a place of Islamic worship.

“A cemevi is not a place of worship, it is a center for cultural activities,” Mr. Erdogan argued in 2012. “Muslims should only have one place of worship.”

Then there is the gradual “Sunnification” of the education system. Over the past 15 years, Mr. Erdogan has increased the number of religious schools that emphasize the teaching of Sunni doctrine. In some places parents no longer have the option of sending their children to secular schools.

Alevis have also reported discrimination in the workplace, particularly within state institutions. Few Alevis currently fill key roles in the state apparatus, such as governors or police chiefs. And although there is no concrete evidence of an official policy of bias, Alevis in low-level positions in the civil service regularly claim that the system is gamed against them, says Aziz Yagan, an academic who researches the subject.

Yunus Laco, an Alevi who applied this year for a state position, received some oddly sectarian questions in his oral examinations.

“They asked me: ‘Are you an Alevi?’” Mr. Laco said. “‘Is there anyone in your family who prays five times a day?’”

Mr. Laco did not get the job.

All these anxieties are exacerbated by the sense that Mr. Erdogan has largely pursued a Sunni-friendly foreign policy — supporting Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative Sunni movement, as well as Sunni rebels in Syria.

The spillover from the Syrian war has also alarmed Alevis. Rightly or wrongly, some Alevis interpret Turkey’s admission of around three million Syrians — most of them Sunni — as another attempt to dilute Alevi influence.

Mr. Erdogan hardly calmed these fears by naming a major new bridge in Istanbul after an Ottoman sultan notorious for his persecution of Alevis.

For Mr. Eissenstat, the academic, the experience of Alevis under Mr. Erdogan illustrates that the president’s conception of Turkish nationhood, which fleetingly seemed to include room for diversity, is ultimately just as chauvinistic as his predecessors’.

“The case of the Alevi suggests that the A.K.P. always lacked the imagination to account for Turkey’s real diversity,” he said. “It has embraced the idea that there is really only one true way to be part of the Turkish nation.”