The Case of Alevis in Turkey: A Perpetual Discrimination Story

The Case of Alevis in Turkey: A Perpetual Discrimination Story

This analysis basically concentrates on the case of Alevis in Turkey and offers a snapshot of the discrimination towards the community. European Union countries such as Austria, Germany, United Kingdom, which have migrant Alevi population, began to recognize Alevilik as a religious belief and to ensure equality in the public realm. However, the question turned into a vicious circle in Turkey and is far from being solved. Thus, rather than discussing the issue in this vicious circle, the question need to be debated on an academic level and a new approach is necessary. This analysis would be a starting point for my further researches in order to discuss the possibility of a new perspective on these debates about the problems of Alevi community.

Alevis are one of the major communities in Turkey complaining about the discrimination practices of the state. The discrimination towards Alevis goes beyond the Ottoman Empire; it is not only related to the suppression policies but also assimilation by recognition. The collective memory of Alevi community carries the traditional exclusionary practices of the state, which have targeted them, and emphasizes the continuity of the discriminatory policies. I will basically explain the case of Alevis and the levels of discrimination, and then I will categorize the discrimination towards Alevis under two levels: symbolic discrimination and structural discrimination. These two types of discrimination practices are actually intertwined each other and there are no certain boundaries between them. Moreover, those practices cannot be separated from “violence”.

Symbolic Discrimination and Exclusion by Recognition [1]

Discrimination towards Alevis does not only emerge on the institutional level but also on the personal level. Specifically, the prejudices that are prevalent in Turkish society constitute the basis of discriminatory practices. It is certain that whenever there is an “exclusion” story there is always reference to the “hygiene” and the excluded groups are always defined as “dirty”. Alevis are labeled as “dirty” since they do not perform ablution and they are accepted as a sexually promiscuous community. For instance, a prominent phrase called “food cooked by Alevis cannot be eaten” is also the product of prejudices and the Alevi community suffers from those pejorative labels in their everyday life. In this sense, the report called “Being Alevi in Turkey” (Türkiye’de Alevi Olmak) is remarkable. The report focuses on personal experiences of Alevis and how they experience the discrimination. A quotation from the report summarizes the argument and includes the codes of social exclusion.

“Our Sunni neighbors do not call us to their meetings since they know that I am an Alevi person. Some friend of my Alevi neighbor told her that Alevis are non-believers and sexually promiscuous. They think about us in that way” [2]

Symbolic discrimination is not merely limited to the everyday interactions in the personal level but there is also another important dynamic which feeds the prejudices: the discourse of politicians about Alevis and Alevilik. Alevis could not become a dominant actor in the political life of Turkey with their own identity for long years. In the Republican era there is not a collective voting behavior of Alevis, although the researches on this issue are limited to the Alevis’ having made alliances with different groups such as Kemalists and the Democratic Party. However, in the 1960s and afterwards Alevis have participated in the left wing movements and this mobilization concluded with massacres towards Alevis in 1970s and 1980, in Çorum (1980), Kahramanmaraş (1978), Malatya (1978) and Sivas (1978). Lots of Alevis were killed, injured and their houses were damaged. Alevis had to leave their hometowns and migrated to abroad or other metropolitan cities of Turkey. These massacres certainly changed the political and economic structures of those cities. [3] Alevi associations also became a means of mobilization of Alevis around the left wing movement. However coup d’état of 1980 severely damaged the left wing movements and Alevi associations were closed down; hence it created a political vacuum for Alevis.

Sivas Massacre in 1993, was the starting point for Alevis for their participation in politics with the agenda of the problems of Alevi community. Elise Massicard also indicates that Sivas Massacre as a critical juncture in the Alevi mobilization. She remarks Alevis argue that the massacre was organized by radical Islamist groups and “the state” did not take precaution consciously. Hence, Alevis gathered around the “Alevi” identity against the radical Islam and rather than following the agenda of “self-governance of religious group”; they strongly demand for abolishment of the Presidency of Religious Affairs. [4] On the other hand, Sivas massacre reopened the discussion on Alevilik as a religious identity and Alevis who follow a religious perspective to the issue tried to ensure the institutionalization of the movement by founding organizations such as Cem Foundation and Ehl-i Beyt Foundation. Those two foundations; basically followed that agenda: recognition of Cemevi as a house of worship (ibadethane) by the state, receiving a share from the budget of the Presidency of Religious Affairs, “dede”s who are the religious leaders of Alevi community and Alevilik should be added to the program of compulsory religious courses.[5] However, those attempts around the religious identity and alliances with the right- wing as well as Islamic parties created fractions in the Alevi movement. The movement basically evolved to a political movement – although it is not a powerful enough- rather than a religious movement. This Alevi mobilization is the issue of another article but it is important to clarify that the hegemonic discourse of the Turkish Republic towards Alevis lays on the policy of “denial”. Alevis are accepted as “real Turks”, “fearless watchman of the secular Republic”, “followers of Kemalism” etc. but they are not accepted as a “religious group” by the state and they are deprived of their basic rights in the systematic level which I will explain on the following topic.

Although there are fractions in itself; Alevi mobilization either politically or religiously since 1990s successes to show the existence of Alevis as a religious group. Also; the recognition of Alevilik as a religious group by the states in Europe since early 2000s; Alevilik as a religious identity again entered the agenda of Alevi groups in Turkey. Moreover, Turkey’s effort to become a member of European Union in 2000s contributed to the requisitioning of discrimination towards Alevis in Turkey. The denial policy turned to a recognition policy under Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule. Workshops on Alevi Question called “Alevi Opening” are one of the important steps of this recognition policy. However; workshops are criticized by Alevis since they did not reach a conclusion and the issue goes back to a worse situation.[6] The importance of the workshops lays behind its symbolization of recognition. It is certain that the denial of the identity is basically a symbolic violence for the members of community. However, the recognition does not remove the discrimination but reinvented it as an exclusion by recognition.[7] This recognition does not meet demands of Alevis but it is actually a kind of violence since the government tries to define Alevilik in terms of their political motivations. Especially, the discourse of AKP cadres involves this kind of symbolic violence. Alevilik has various definitions and emphasizes those heterogeneity of the community by saying “Yol bir /sürek binbir”.

There are two main paths on the definition of Alevilik, one of them claim that Alevilik emerged in the Islamic tradition as a sect and the other claims that Alevilik is a kind of heterogeneous belief which emerges before the Islam and involves the traces of various beliefs and cultures; AKP’s recognition actually did not pay attention to those debates and tries to create a certain definition of Alevilik by coding the latter as betrayers who believe in “Alevis without Ali” (Alisiz Alevilik) and “Alevis with Ali” are marked as “good” Alevis. Alevi identity is recognized as a religious community under the rule of AKP. This recognition is not a recognition that Alevis basically demand. AKP government redefined Alevilik symbolically (not officially) with their own interpretation. Alevilik is reduced to “If Alevism is about loving Ali, I’m an Alevi” in discourse. Thus, symbolic violence towards Alevis has just changed dimension and it still continues.

Structural Discrimination

Structural discrimination towards Alevis is the main dynamic of Alevi question in Turkey and it is both the cause and effect of the symbolic discrimination. Alevi population of Turkey is excluded from the specific positions of bureaucracy.  The statement “we also want to be governor and qaymaqam (sub-governor)” is commonly used by Alevis in order to describe the discrimination. Alevis are not appointed as high-rank officers in the public sector. This is not a legal sanction but in practice there is an exclusion of Alevis from the bureaucracy and governance.

Another structural discrimination is that non-recognition of “Cem Houses” as house of worship (ibadethane) by the state. Alevis demand that the state should provide places, water and electricity without payment for Cem Houses just like mosques, and ask for regular salaries for their dedes. However, it is important to underline that most Alevis do not demand salary for “dedes” since they do not want to control of their religious practices by the state authorities. Another argument on this issue offers that the state should not pay cost of any “house of worship” for any religious groups.

Alevis also complain about the compulsory religion course in the curriculum because dominantly Sunni belief is covered without any reference to Alevis or their beliefs. Although some parts about Alevilik has been added to the curricula; Alevi community claim that it is not enough and it is thought by teachers who do not know about Alevism and who have prejudices towards Alevilik. Carkoglu and Toprak’s research called “Religion, Society and Politics in a Changing Turkey” reveals that there is a strong opposition to the inclusion of Alevism into the curriculum. They remarks that while 86% of the participants supported religious education course in the schools, 34% of the participants reported that teachings of Alevism along with Sunnis should not be included in the curriculum. [8]

One important issue about discrimination towards Alevis currently needs to be discussed. The armed conflict between the state and PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) has blazed up and everyday lots of people were killed both by the PKK and security forces. The government officers and representatives of the military do not attend funeral ceremonies of Alevi martyrs, if the ceremonies are held in the “Cem Houses”. They claim that since “Cem Houses” is not recognized as “houses of worship” by the state, they cannot attend funerals. This issue is not discussed deeply in Turkey; however it is the worst level of the discrimination since even the dead body of the “Other” is not accepted as equal. It is actually dehumanization of Alevis, the worse is that they are included to the compulsory military service as “equal citizens”, they die during their military service but their dead body does not counted as “equal”. A quotation of Judith Butler is relevant:

“the differential allocation of grievability that decides what kind of subject is and must be grieved, and which kind of subject must not, operates to produce and maintain certain exclusionary conceptions of who is normatively human: what counts as a livable life and a grievable death?” [9]

Therefore both the life and death body of Alevis are exposed to the symbolic and structural violence.

Although Alevis are regarded as minority in terms of their population; they have rejected any social and legal categorization that classifies them as minority. However, they seek rights and freedoms that are similar to the minority rights. They struggle for recognition since the lack of recognition actually creates insecurity for Alevis. Habermas argues that the solution for the recognition cannot be based on the idea of “cultural protection of the species” by law; rather it should be based on the procedural provisions that ensure the articulation of disadvantaged positions. [10]However, Alevis do not struggle for a kind of protective recognition but rather they demand equality by referring to the universal human rights.

In Lieu of Conclusion

Throughout this analysis, I tried to summarize the main dynamics of the discrimination towards Alevis and highlights two crucial issues: exclusion by recognition and non-equality even in the case of death. These two points needed to be elaborated and discussed in order to provide new perspectives for the solution of Alevi question in Turkey. Today, the issue is not about non-recognition but it is mostly about the recognition by exclusion and the effort for reinterpretation of Alevilik by the state. In this point, we have to hear the “powerful voice” of Alevi community, the intellectuals, politicians and academics. As in the case of Kurdish Question, the problems of Alevis need to be carried to a different level from the organizations of the Alevi NGOs. There is a need for the involvement of universities, national and international NGOs to the issue. So that a powerful public opinion will be created on the solution of the issue.

Those discriminatory practices involve overt and covert violence and regenerates Alevi question rather than solving it. While European countries began to recognize Alevis as religious community and ensure equality for their Alevi population- which migrated from Turkey to Europe- Turkey turn to the back in the process. The methods which is followed by that countries should be carefully examined and the question and the ways of solution should be discussed by representatives of whole groups of Alevis and the experts of the issue.


Seren Selvin Korkmaz


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[1] “Exclusion by Recognition” is used as a term in order to define the case of Kurdish migrants in İzmir by Cenk Saaraçoğlu. (Cenk Saraçoğlu; “Kurds of modern Turkey : migration, neoliberalism and exclusion in Turkish society “New York: Tauris 2011)

[2] Aykan Erdemir (et al.), “Türkiye’de Alevi Olmak”: Research Report. (Published by Dipnot Basın Yayın, 2010) Available at: . Original quotation: ” Sünni kısmı hep bir olur toplanırlar komşular ama beni hiç çağırmazlar. Alevi olduğumu bildikleri için. Alevi komşuma arkadaşı, Aleviler dinsiz, bacı, kardeş bilmiyorlar demiş. Böyle düşünüyorlar hakkımızda.”  (Mersin, kadın)

[3] Seren Selvin Korkmaz, “The Politics of Everyday Life in Malatya: Class, Identity and Space” (MA Thesis, Bogazici University 2015)

[4] Elise Massicard, “Türkiye’den Avrupa’ya Alevi Hareketinin Siyasallaşması”, (İstanbul: İletişim. 2007), p. 189.

[5] Massicard; pp. 189-190.

[6] Murat Borovalı and Cemil Boyraz, “AKP’nin Alevi Açılımı: Aleviliği Tanım(lam)ak”, Birikim, 309-310 (2015), pp. 143-147.

[7] Kazım Ateş, “Aleviliği Sizden Öğrenecek Değilim”: AKP ve Dışlamanın Yeni Mekanizması”, Birikim, 309-310 (2015), pp. 157-165.

[8] Ali Çarkoğlu and Binnaz Toprak, Religion, Society and Politics in a Changing Turkey, (İstanbul: TESEV Publication. 2007)

[9] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso, 2004).

[10] Cited in Martin Sökefeld, “Struggling for Recognition : the Alevi Movement in Germany and in Transnational Space”, (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008), p. 139.


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