Talisman Gate

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Alevis in the Balance

October 17, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Alevis in the Balance

BY Nibras Kazimi

October 17, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/41692

"The Alevis maintain the secular balance in Turkey," the thoughtful man said, "They are the infantry of Kemalism," alluding to the radically anti-religious doctrines laid out by modern Turkey's founder, Kemal Ataturk. Well, so much for secularism and Kemalism, I thought to myself.

The Alevis are Muslim only in name, for under a thin veneer of Islamic symbolism survives the animating creeds of ancient folk religions. Facts and myths about Alevi history, identity and numbers have been an integral part of Turkish political discourse for the past decade, and this debate is becoming more important as pan-Middle Eastern disputes between mainstream Sunni Islam and heterodox Shiism flare-up.

The Alevis would like to believe, along with their patrons in the Kemalist ideological camp, that they constitute a third of Turkey's population, and that this bloc would be impenetrable by or immune to the Islamist agenda.The thinking goes that such large Alevi numbers allied to other communal forces with staunchly secular tendencies will perpetually deny the Islamists an outright majority at the polls. Only a third of Turks voted for the governing pseudo-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002. The AKP thinks it can perform better in next year's general elections. But their opponents wager that with the Alevi vote, if rallied, they can tip the scales this time.

But there are no clear census numbers for Alevis in Turkey.And even if they indeed constitute a sizable portion of the electorate, it is an open question whether many of them are conscious of a separate Alevi identity or would act according to communal interests. In fact, many Alevis are not vocal about their "otherness"and find it easier, in light of rampant and long-standing orthodox bias against them, to simply dissolve into the prevalent and current trend in homogeneity, which is turning more and more religiously conservative.

This alienation from Alevism is compounded by confusion over Alevi identity.They have inherited a mixed bag of folk magic, mysticism and bits and pieces of defunct religions and sometimes not all the pieces go together.To confuse matters further, the ancestors of Alevis had incorporated, at one time or another, the outward symbols of whatever zealous faiths had lorded over them, namely Christianity and Islam, as an insurance policy against religious persecution.

All these mismatched components have resulted in a clunky sense of self among Alevis as they proceed to define themselves in the modern world. One way of asserting "Aleviness" is to get attached to symbols, and one such symbol is a 13th century holy man called Hajji Bektash Veli whose writings map out a humanistic reading of Islam that focuses on spirituality and is rather lax on the duties associated with Muslim worship.

A festival honoring Hajji Bektash through song and dance has been held at his Anatolian shrine by the local municipality every mid-August for the last decade or so. By my unscientific count, tens of thousands of Alevis attended this year's festivities. I would have expected more given that this has become the most important event on the Alevi calendar.

But then again, why would Alevis celebrate the patron saint of those who killed them many centuries back?

Hajji Bektash used to be the inspiration for a Sufi order that was in good odor with the Ottomans. In fact, Bektashi dervishes, or Sufis, were assigned to become the spiritual guides for an imperial military force of utmost importance, the Janissary Corps. The latter were instrumental in defeating the Shia Safavid state in Iran. At the time, middle and eastern Anatolia was teaming with the Kizilbash. The Kizilbash — literally "red heads" were opposed to the Sunni Ottomans. This latter group viewed them as treacherous supporters of the Iranian emperor, Shah Ismail and beholden to his Shia propaganda. The Janissaries went to work massacring the Kizilbash in the tens of thousands.

The vast majority of Alevis today are probably descended from those Kizilbash survivors, who found refuge in the forgotten corners of rural Anatolia. The soup of ideas and rituals that stand in lieu of Islamic practice and that still endure among Alevis were inherited from the Kizilbash, who themselves were influenced by ancient Turkish shamanism as well as long forgotten Anatolian fertility religions. Their "otherness" became more pronounced with the adoption of the politically schismatic Shia call. Alevis don't pray at mosque, preferring to show their piety through a ritual called a cem (pronounced "gem"). Allah and Muhammad get some mention during these rites, along with Ali, the patron saint of Shiism. In this trinity's honor, three candles are lit at the beginning of the ceremony, followed by a mixed mystical dance of men and women, then some crying, some singing, and exultation in liturgical poetry to the long dead Shah Ismail, with the finale including a ritualistic sweeping with a broom — not Islamic acts at all.

However, as the Alevis began migrating to cities, grave challenges to their communal cohesion confronted them.First, it turned out that cem rituals varied from one region to another, and that there were also language barriers — Turkish and Kurdish — that separated them. In these urban centers, they also found the remnants of the Bektashi tradition that had survived even after they had fallen out of Ottoman favor.The assimilation of the smaller numbers of Bektashis into Alevi ranks wedged another misshapen brick into the structure of identity. Furthermore, many Alevis were caught up in the frayed leftist and rightist politics of those years.

As Islamism began making its bid for dominance in Turkey over the last 20 years, the Alevis were caught unprepared.A hurried, and ultimately unnatural, synthesis of the Kizilbash and Bektashi traditions was enacted by communal leaders, who hoped to wed the Alevi community to Kemalism and its secular legacy.Thus, the Hajji Bektash festival was born and Ataturk was elevated to a saintly status.There are two Alevi TV channels, and many more centers where the cem is performed have been opened in the major cities. These developments are mirrored by an increasing Sunni resentment at nascent Alevi assertiveness.The AKP heads seem to have already made up their minds that activist Alevis will stand against them in any showdown between Islamism and Kemalism, and are consequently ratcheting up the levers of religious harassment.Yet the bulk of the Alevis have failed to coalesce around an agenda capable of rallying them to the defense of secularism, even with all these internal and external forces justifying it.

Thus the Alevis, being fuzzy about who they are and not working together, will not measure up to any real challenge to the finely-tuned Islamist machine in the 2007 elections.Their failure will result in heartbreak for those who wish the Turkish secular experiment well.

Mr. Kazimi was recently in Turkey and can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com

October 17, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >