The Center for Public Policy and Democracy Studies (PODEM), conducted a study centered on the Alevi community as part of a project aimed toward understanding how events of the July 15th coup attempt in 2016 and in its aftermath have been understood in different parts of Turkish society. The aim of this report is to understand the sentiments of the Alevis regarding the July 15th coup attempt, the process leading to the constitutional referendum to be held in April, 2017, their perspectives on amending the constitution, and their expectations and hopes for Turkey’s future.
The study employed two methods aimed at revealing a general picture of the Alevi agenda in the post-July 15th period. First, in-depth interviews were held in Istanbul with opinion leaders representing a number of subsets of the Alevi community. Later, a meeting was held, also in Istanbul, to debate issues covered by the research, with the participation of NGO representatives, businesspeople, and opinion leaders. In total, the study involved representatives of various Alevi civil and professional groups, including cemevi and Alevi association directors, youth group leaders, lawyers, and journalists.
It is possible to summarize the research findings into the following major categories, which cast light on the perspectives and demands of Alevis on the recent political and social events in Turkey.
- The Alevis, who experienced July 15th in great anxiety and fear, make clear that they were against the coup They remember their victimization after the 1980 coup d’état, and reacted in a cautious and conservative way out of fear that no matter how the conflict began, the Alevis would suffer the most in the end.
- The ongoing investigations under the state of emergency (OHAL) and statutory decrees (KHK) are seen as arbitrary and lacking The uneasiness stemming from this is reflected in the activities of Alevi institutions. There has been a noticeable drop in attendance and the frequency of events related to Alevi congregational activity (the “cem”). Moreover, the arrests of some Alevi civil society leaders through the KHKs has led other Alevi institutions to remain silent.
- Alevis are disturbed by the way any objection to the injustices and suffering following the KHKs is understood as “treason.” Any kind of opposition is equated to support for the coup, which is another factor making it more difficult to react to the ongoing
- In present circumstances, the priority demand of the Alevi community is the maintenance of social peace conditions. After this, they expect to resume the pursuit of social justice. After July 15th, Alevis’ confidence in state institutions has fallen very They think that the OHAL and KHKs have made it harder for them to receive fair treatment.
- The theme of freedom of religion and belief is another priority issue in the Alevi The main features of this heading include the recognition of cemevis as a place of worship and the removal of compulsory religious courses from state education.
- Most Alevis do not have enough information about what the proposed constitutional amendment covers. Seeing the amendment as a change of regime, Alevis focus more on the possible outcomes of the amendment rather than debates over the They are worried that the amendment and the new regime it will create would open the way to increasing violations of their rights, or even the loss of rights protections entirely, especially threatening the erosion of their religious freedom.
Giving more voice to their identity-oriented demands since 2000s, the Alevi community fundamentally wishes nothing more than to live in a Turkey where social peace prevails. They want this most of all for their own community, because of the fragile position they occupy in society and their view that they themselves would suffer the greatest harm from any potential social conflict. For this reason, any peace-oriented step will find a positive response among the Alevis. Developments to the contrary, on the other hand, will increase their sense of danger and cause them to withdraw into their own community.
From the end of the 1980s to the present, Alevis have grown more visible in society, and the number and the organizational capabilities of their institutions have increased. This period of increased public recognition is often referred to as the “Alevi Awakening” or the “Alevi Revival.”1 Certainly, Alevis had begun to create institutions and be recognized in earlier periods, but the movement reached a pivotal degree of popularity only in the abovementioned period.
In a sense, Alevis rose to their feet in the early 1990s, and set down the path of self-organizing: gathering together in meetings, founding institutions, and forming and communicating their goals. In this manner, they entered the 2000s as an organized force ready to demand rights based on identity. In this period, they focused on belief-centered activities and organization. This was also accompanied by advocacy in the name of identity rights. Thus, the Alevis experienced the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) period as an organized community that marked significant progress toward developing their institutions, begun to integrate their faith structure into urban life, and presented more developed identity-based demands.
At the same time, throughout the 2000s, interaction with Europe influenced the political climate in Turkey. In the context of a broader European Union accession process, applications made to the European Court of Human Rights over the operation of cemevis (Alevi houses of worship) and compulsory religious lessons were part of the Alevi agenda for identity-based rights within Turkey. Moreover, while the AK Party’s Alevi initiatives, brought to the political agenda in the early 2010s, were generally received with suspicion on the part of Alevis and are thought to have ultimately ended in failure, they nevertheless played an important role in the further debate and definition of identity-based claims within the Alevi community.
From the process of institutionalization in the 1990s to the present, the Alevi movement arose through two main currents, offering different interpretations of Alevi identity.2 The first emphasized the cultural aspects of Alevism and took root mostly among the leadership cadres of socialist groups in the 1970s. This movement understood Alevi demands in the context of the same leftist framework including groups such as unions, trade associations, human rights organizations, community centers, and similar institutions often described under the rubric of “revolutionary” or “democratic” mass organizations. Freedom of association, thought, and expression, and the struggle against discrimination and anti-Alevi violence constituted the main principles of this current.
The other major vein of Alevi institutional growth was characterized by leaders who emphasized the faith-based aspect of Alevism. For them, the essential goal was to preserve and memorialize (perhaps in truth to rediscover or reconstruct) the Alevi faith and guarantee religious freedom for their minority faith. The two currents, leftist and faith-based, clashed with one another. The former group criticized the latter of working for the Sunnification of Alevis, and the latter group accused the former of losing their Alevi identity and assimilating into other leftist groups and beliefs. While there have been crossovers, the first group utilized political action methods like collaborative efforts with other leftist groups, forming mass organizations, and street actions. The second group emphasized changing broader public opinion, raising awareness, and negotiating with established political forces. There are also many varieties of groups falling on the spectrum between these two.
Despite this variety of approaches, by the 2000s Alevis united on the issue of cemevi construction. The spread of cemevis, and especially their use for congregational and funeral services, directed interest and social practice toward the religious dimension of Alevism. With this common or at least similar experience, Alevi demands which had been characterized by diversity and differences during the late 1990s took on a more consistent character coming into the 2010s. The recognition of cemevis as a place of worship was agreed upon as a fundamental demand among Alevis. This demand was then accompanied by others such as the removal or reorganization of compulsory religious lessons and the reorganization of the Ministry of Religious Affairs to change its perceived foundation in Sunni practice.
In addition to making political demands, this political awakening has included an increasing sensitivity and refusal to accept discrimination, insults and any form of denigration of Alevis. Alevis have become aware that things they did not previously react to, in fact things they had become resigned to, were actually infringements of their rights. Beyond their political demands, the Alevis’ agenda also included subjects focused within the community and especially religion- oriented topics: increasing the basic resources for services in cemevis; developing the contents of religious services; increasing the capacity for services; supporting the religious dimension through cultural activities; cultivating faith leaders; preventing the political instrumentalization of cemevis; meeting the needs of young people to recognize Alevism— these types of topics have become important agenda items of Alevis, especial those focusing on cemevis.
This new phase, in which political demands rose to the fore alongside new internal developments, was also important because it coincided with the rise to power of religiously observant Sunnis in government. Alevis, who had spent the 1990s with the concern that “those who want Sharia are coming to power,” felt a distance between themselves and the AK Party government due to cultural, religious, and lifestyle differences. In 2000s, however, they passed a relatively relaxed period, allowing them to focus on their identity-oriented demands. In the elections they continued to support the Republican People’s Party (CHP), although not very enthusiastically.
In recent years, there has been an interest in the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), especially among Kurdish Alevis who see it as having a more peaceful agenda and as a natural ally in pursuit of protections for Alevi rights. While this interest has not yet transferred fully to political support it is certainly a sign of increased attention. HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş, with his bağlama-playing and secular lifestyle, has attracted attention and admiration among Alevis. Interest in the HDP has also increased among the directors of Alevi institutions. In the June 7 general elections, Alevis were thrilled to find an alternative to the CHP after many long years.
There have always been Alevi deputies in the HDP and in the previous political parties of the Kurdish movement. However, in the June 7 general elections, important names like Turgut Öker, Ali Kenanoğlu, and Müslüm Doğan, who had themselves come from the Alevi movement and had presided over a variety of Alevi institutions, were chosen as deputies, which further strengthened this relationship. On the other hand, following the June elections, developments related to the Kurdish problem, the environment of increasing pressure, and the resumption of violence at the base of the Kurdish movement have led to a weakening of the trend of Alevis moving toward the HDP.
Another important development in recent years is the beginning of the return of the anxious mood that had been woven into the cultural DNA of Alevis. First of all, the fact that all of the demonstrators who died during the Gezi protests had Alevi roots, summoned up deep historical anxieties. Secondly, despite the fact that the Syrian Alawites have a very different background than the Alevis of Turkey, the combination of those distant ties and the high visibility of the Alawites in Syria has highlighted the threat that Alevis feel from the growth of ISIS. A spate of threats to attack cemevis, and ominous markings found on houses in some Alevi neighborhoods, have once again brought out a feeling of mortal danger within the Alevi community. The increase of bomb attacks from 2015 to the present (especially the explosions in Şanlıurfa’s Suruç district and the Ankara central bus station) has increased the feeling of fragility — shared with many other social groups, but particularly acute in the Alevi community — and has fed the perception that there is a high likelihood of such attacks taking place.
1 There have been many works written on the Alevi The first, best known, and most influential sources on this subject are: Van Bruines- sen, Martin (1996). Kurds, Turks, and the Alevi Revival in Turkey. Middle East Report 26 (200):7; Kehl-Bodrogi. (1993). Alevîism in Turkey – On the Forma- tion of a Religious Community and its Current Position. Trans. F. Ang. Nefes, 2 (December), 39-42; Çamuroğlu, R. (1998). The Alevi Awakening in Turkey, contrasts. Alevi Identity, Ols-son, T., Özdalga, E., Raudvere, C., (Ed.), Tarih Vakfı Yay., İstanbul
2 Although the two currents vary each other, they both constitute a reference for the others.
The aim of this study is to understand, in the aftermath of the July 15th coup attempt, how Alevis, who on the one hand have a strong sense of identity and make clear demands for social recognition, but on the other hand are once again highly anxious, perceive the current period. The study further seeks to evaluate the basis of their current political mood, the approaches they take to the constitutional amendment, and their perceptions of Turkey’s future.
Two methods were used to collect the material for this study with the goal of presenting a general picture of Alevis’ observations and perspectives on recent events. First, in-depth interviews were conducted with opinion leaders and observers from a wide range of groups representing the Alevi community. Then, a discussion meeting was held with a similar group of representatives who debated the topics raised in the report. This report was based on a combination of data from both. Participants included people from different Alevi groups, directors of cemevis and associations, youth leaders, and additional figures such as television personalities. Attention was paid to ensure the participation of young people and women. The following findings and evaluations are based on the interviews and meeting described above.
How Alevis Perceive the July 15 Coup Attempt
For the last few years, many Alevis have seen a chaotic and uncertain future for Turkey and believe that they face a severe threat of mortal danger. Alevis perceptions of the July 15th coup attempt were formed in the context of this same anxiety. The first impression of the coup attempt among Alevis was that nothing good could come of it. Regardless of what the coup was directed towards, who was directing it, and how it would result, Alevis were certain they would negatively suffer from its consequences the most. This reflex ensured their universal opposition to the coup attempt. However, the profile of the groups that began the public resistance against the coup, accompanied by religious calls from the mosques, kept most Alevis off the streets. Despite this, Alevis share the view that they gave an indirect support to prevent the coup by staying off the streets to avoid any possible event of conflict that could have helped the coup plotters.
“In the eyes of the putschists, the lack of support from groups that were expected to support it was also important. That is, those who didn’t come out had as much an effect as those who did. The fact that opposition groups did not take to the streets [to support the coup] was very important. I think the government is ignoring this. Those who stayed off the streets did not support the coup.”
“In that moment, I saw the country being dragged into chaos. I felt unsafe. This was not a coup to take power, I thought, this was a step towards chaos. At night, after our President’s interview on CNN Türk, a sense of security came. The President is alive, I said; then I felt safe.”
The 1980 coup d’état, which is still vividly remembered, is full of stories of victimization for Alevis. Therefore, Alevis believe that any coup would unquestionably have negative consequences for their community, and this coup attempt also triggered these historical anxieties again. However, despite being opposed to the coup, reciting the “takbir” [God is great”] as an anti- coup slogan by the street protestors created a fear among Alevis that they would be attacked by the angry crowds. Mobs shouting the takbir symbolize a still-fresh memory of attacks Alevis have experienced, so in the face of possible scenarios where anger and tension could lead to provocation, Alevis did not see involvement with the street protests as safe. The outcome of this is that the Alevi response despite opposing the coup was not to go into the streets, but to hide, to bar the door, and stay away from possible areas of tension.
“That night, the news came that attacks had been committed against Alevis. Other small incidents also happened. Some groups tried to deepen these fault lines in society. These may be coup plotters, but there are also people just waiting and trying to take advantage of the coup. This caused an unbelievable worry among Alevis.”
“Everyone in the neighborhood poured into the streets, just us, Alevis, stayed home, we were afraid, if something happened they know who we are, we were worried they would immediately attack us.”
“The night of the coup, we saw people with beards, robes, and pump-action shotguns taking position on the street corners. People with firing shotguns, saying we’ll tear you apart, there’s no law enforcement to stop them, they were the state itself.”
“For Alevis, July 15th was an uncertain, frightening, ‘I wonder what’s going to happen to us’ kind of night.”
After these initial perceptions, the Alevi response was to turn inward in self-protection. The dominant perspective according to study participants was that whatever had just happened and no matter what might be the particular result, eventually the bill would come to the Alevis to be paid. In the event of any mass conflict, they think the attacks will eventually be directed towards Alevis. Because of this, thinking of what they had suffered after the 1980 coup d’état, they began to hide away, close themselves off, and act with deliberation and caution in public.
“I felt very unsafe, at first we even wondered if they would come round us up. That night we had a Sunni acquaintance at the house. We wanted him to leave; we didn’t want anything to happen to him because of us.”
“They were sitting in the Kızılay Square observing dhikr. If I sat down with them I’d be interfering. Don’t go out we said, because we’d clash with the people out in the streets, this time they would think we were on the side of the coup plotters. We told everyone responsible for the region not to go outside. Some did go out. It was their choice.”
In the days ahead the concern that Alevis would pay the price in some way continued. Older people began to warn young people about not talking outside, behaving more carefully, not writing, not drawing, not going out unnecessarily, not walking alone. Many Alevis closed their social media accounts or cleaned up their messages and shared less content. Again during this period the number of participants in gatherings at the cemevis fell, and the number of events decreased. On the other hand, as the days passed without any attacks directed at Alevis, the intense level of anxiety of the first days fell. When the Gülenists were discovered to have been behind the coup attempt, and this was declared, it generated a sense of relief that Alevis might escape unscathed. In fact, the announcement that the Gülenists were responsible, given the Alevis’ long record of criticism directed against Gülenists and the statements that they were a dangerous threat, relieved the Alevis to some degree.
“AK Party people saw that Alevis are no threat. The roads to Alevi villages no one would go to around Erzincan were opened, the support for cemevi construction increased. They saw the lack of support for Gülen. They had entered every institution — they hadn’t gotten into the Alevis. In fact Alevis despise Gülen, since the ones who purged Alevis from the courts, the military, the police were the Gülenists.”
The pro-democracy Yenikapı rally organized after the coup attempt was also effective in diminishing Alevis’ concerns, if only for a brief period. The perception grew among Alevis that there really would be a confrontation with the Gülenists, and that the Alevi community would be safe from any tension. The lack of any government pressure or interference against Alevis too bolstered this feeling of confidence.
“Really, three parties being there (AKP, CHP, and MHP [the Nationalist Movement Party], at the Yenikapı rally) gave Alevis hope, at least there was a kind of unity, togetherness, we thought we were in the clear. There were some who asked why HDP wasn’t there. At that time I thought, it is still good that they had the rally.”
“It created peace, even if transitory, in our country. And at once, all the parties sent a message of unity and togetherness. On August 7th, the participation of the CHP and MHP chairmen sent the world the message that we are united, but the announcement of the OHAL showed Turkey had moved to a different place. I don’t consider any decision made under the OHAL correct, I do not accept them.”
Subsequently, the announcement of the state of emergency (hereinafter referred to as OHAL) and especially the purges announced in KHK, or statutory decrees, led once again to uneasiness amongst Alevis. The spread of the purges outside members of the Gülenist group and the presence of Alevis amongst the teachers who were suspended from their jobs created a new perception that these government actions were separate from the campaign against Gülenists. There was a general feeling that there were arbitrary measures taken during the process and that the suspensions and detentions were not conducted in a transparent way.
“It is clear that this [post-coup] process is critical, but there are concerns with how it is being conducted. We have been through a serious coup, but the investigations are not clear, and the charges are ongoing. Saying ‘hey, here’s our opportunity,’ and then using the bullhorn while moving farther away from honesty and fairness is creating huge problems we won’t be able to recover from. The bond between the state and the citizen has already been weak. The citizen does not see the state as belonging to him. The mass of people unhappy with the system is increasing. There is too much unacceptable wrongdoing, which is damaging trust. Hope is fading.”
In addition to these grievances, according to study participants the introduction of an interview requirement for recruitment to public institutions has strengthened the perception among Alevis that they will be completely liquidated from state institutions — where they already suffer discrimination. In addition, increasing ISIS attacks have added a degree of fear. During this time, Alevi community events have become fewer and more limited in scope, and participation has went down. On the other hand, more recently, as a result of developments such as academics and teachers losing their jobs, the detention of some Alevi NGO directors, and the closing of some Alevi television stations, louder reactions have begun to take place, at least at the level of NGO executives. Some Alevis, who have otherwise withdrawn into their shell, have also begun to protest as they perceive the level of injustice increasing. The fact that the public is beginning a more open and widespread questioning of the legitimacy of the KHK decrees has been influential in this respect.
“The point I am not pessimistic about: previously, there have been similar measures taken with KHKs. Everyone said ‘the accused surely did something.’ With the last decree, however, people said ‘this is too much.’”
The belief that the rights violations occurring with the KHKs will spread to the Alevis has galvanized Alevi institutions. This is exemplified by the fact that NGOs that had prioritized Alevi demands in past years has more recently directed themselves to the demands for freedom of expression and basic democratic rights. This situation prepared the ground for Alevi citizens in the base to postpone demands for rights regarding their Alevi identity and prioritize their expectation of a Turkey in which they feel that they are not in mortal danger and can trust in an impartial justice system.
“It is as though there is always a coup. Police point their guns at people in the neighborhood, this really frightens me. The police have been given authority. The authority says you can just kill people.”
“This is the harvest of the past 10-15 years.”
In the anxious climate created by the KHKs and OHAL, the perception that the results of the July 15th coup attempt provided the AK Party with the conditions and means they wanted, has in turn led to a change in the way people think about what happened on July 15th itself. Alevis have begun to frequently discuss the possibility that what occurred on July 15th was not as it first appeared. There is suspicion that at a minimum the government was aware of the plot in advance and directed events according to their own purposes, or that regardless of precisely what happened, that they shaped circumstances following the coup to serve their own goals. As a result they do not perceive the investigations, KHKs, or trials legitimate. As the influence of the KHKs increases, Alevi institutions are reflecting Alevis’ uneasiness through their activities. From attendance at cemevis to the frequency of events, the traces of this unease are clear.
“For now they are managing not to hold funerals or make noise. Tiny gatherings are continuing. They gather to describe the situation, since the people are asking them what they are doing. But it doesn’t go anywhere.”
“Last year 800 people were coming to the cemevi, this year you can’t find 200. People have shut themselves away in their homes. They are afraid of being attacked. Shutting themselves away, acting scared, and asking lots of questions. But people aren’t entering the movement. People refrain from coming. I think the image of July 15th is affecting this.”
“No one can participate in events anymore, people are arrested just for sharing on social media.”
The notion that objecting to the victimization and injustices made possible under the KHKs is “treason” is disturbing to Alevis. Another factor underlined as making it hard to speak out in this climate is the extreme overreaction of the AK Party, which equates any opposition to its actions as support for the coup.
“Because of the fear of being labeled a Gülenist, no one defends anyone anymore. People are afraid to even ask if this is a mistake. They are so scared they wouldn’t even defend the rights of their own brother.”
Alevis already did not trust the police and were frightened of soldiers in times of conflict. For them, only the justice system and the courts remain, but that now they are losing their hope in the courts as well. In this vein, some say current conditions are even worse than those following the 1980 coup d’état, when an innocent person might be tried but could still expect to be released by the courts. Today even this chance is thought to be completely out of the question. As a result, the sense of belonging that Alevis have for the state has worn down. This is a reason for increasing pessimism about the future.
“The issue is the erosion of trust in the people who are responsible for ensuring justice. There is no clear definition of what people did wrong. The suspensions are arbitrary, and because the investigations last so long the effect on society is bad. You’re accused, the process is delayed, society refers to you as guilty, and even if you are cleared of wrongdoing the society still sees you as guilty.”
“All this is beyond what happened on the 1980 coup. Then, there was a chance that after jumping through hoops in the courts you could get a decision in your favor. No longer. Everybody feels insecure. You can’t appeal to the soldiers or the police either. They all work for this government.”
“We all think that the 1980 coup was rough, but what’s happening today is different. My friends who were tried after the 1980 coup were themselves punished, but it wouldn’t cover their families. If the 1980 coup targeted the leftist youth, now it’s the general, the judge, the prosecutor; we are seeing defendants that we are not used to.”
Constitutional Amendment at a Glance
For Alevis, the constitutional amendment is to some extent unimportant to them because they do not see any chance that the problems they face in Turkey today will be solved. However, they regard this as the change of regime, which they perceive a pivotal event that could mark the beginning of a new age for Turkey. In other words, if the amendment happens then the current de facto condition of government will gain legal status. Whether due to the lack of faith in politics and political participation, or due to the intensity of daily events and the fatigue it leads to, the constitutional amendment does not seem to be a crucial issue in the Alevi agenda. Most Alevis are not aware of what the amendment includes or what it aims to do. Some even declare that they are not interested in it. There is no doubt that a significant part of this apathy is due to their belief that there will be no difference between today and tomorrow with respect to their daily lives. They are also reacting to the introduction of a process that will create new tension in society without first alleviating the existing tensions. In other words, they think the amendment came “out of turn.”
“I think that while Turkey is in need of more cooperation, crafting a new constitution and designing a new referendum are actually serving to divide the country. This was certainly a subject that should not have been brought up under these conditions. There is terror, there is war in Syria, there is economic crisis, there is post-coup conflict and division. The constitutional amendment only deepens these crises.”
“People don’t think there will be any change. People are more interested in the rise in the dollar than in the constitutional amendment.”
Among the Alevi community, the comments on the constitutional amendment mainly refer to the general framework of the effect that increasing presidential powers will have on the system of government. The topic is not closely followed, which has a large effect on the debate.
While President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s personal goals are widely believed to be influential in the nature of the proposed changes, objections to the amendment are not rooted solely in opposition to Erdoğan himself. The likelihood that those who come after Erdoğan would abuse their authority and that the powers of the proposed presidential system would in the future be used against minorities like the Alevis is a source of grave concern. For those who have shown more interest in the topic, the issue at hand is the separation of powers rather than particular personalities. Therefore the prevailing feeling is that a future administration will hold arbitrary power that can cause harm particularly to the justice system.
“Tayyip Erdoğan or not, the presidential system isn’t for us. We have a culture of consensus, one-man regime isn’t for us.”
“The separation of powers and checks and balances are not well defined [in the constitutional amendment package] Not even [the constitution after the coup of] 1980 dared to do all that.”
“Actually the proposed amendments don’t look like big changes to me. De facto, a supposedly impartial president has been accepted as being political. It’s a matter of granting the present state of affairs a legal status. The president had always authority and powers, they just weren’t used. The real problem is how to set up the separation of powers, how to ensure the independence of the courts. The lack of those kinds of details is a problem.”
Despite the fact that Alevis doubt that the constitutional amendment will make a great difference, they do, taking into account the implementation of the OHAL, describe it as regime change. But they see this regime change differently than the worry that “sharia is coming” that circulated in the recent past. That rhetoric, which was very intense in the 1990s, has diminished throughout the 2000s—despite the rise of ISIS. There is no longer concern among Alevis along the lines that “they will establish sharia law.” That being said, there is significant concern that there will be intrusions into people’s way of life and that the change in regime will constitute a threat to the republic. There are two primary aspects of the threat facing the republic: the erosion of secularism, and the removal of any independence in the judiciary.
“I think Turkey is on the verge of destruction. The traditionalists, the mullahs have always had resentment against the republic. But this goes beyond that, whether or not there’s a republic, they are working to destroy institutions. Was there no judiciary in Ottoman times? Or will there be no judiciary in the new state model? Will there be no budget? No court, no budget. This isn’t a model, this isn’t ideology. They want to be able to do whatever they want, whenever they want.”
According to the participants, today the state does not include Alevis and in fact works to keep them out, and they do not think things will be different tomorrow. When asked to comment on the need for constitutional change, they note that rather than enduring something like the 1982 constitution which they emphasize they are not defending, the proper alternative to the current constitutional amendment is a genuinely democratic regime. The ideal republic means, to Alevis, equal citizenship and freedom of conscience. In that type of setting, they would not be worried about pressure to abandon their identity. But they fear that without this, in the future the discrimination they will suffer as a result of their religious identity will increase, and that whether by KHKs or by new public sector recruitment that they will be pushed to the margins of society. They also voice their concerns that the constitutional amendment process will result in the erosion of their religious freedom. Thus, for Alevis, “the republic” symbolizes equality, justice, and freedom of religion, while “the new regime” represents the violation and loss of those rights.
“The republic seems sufficient to them. With the republic, Alevis became citizens with equal rights. Now they are concerned this will be taken away from them.”
“We, as Alevi institutions, do not want to depart from the republic of Atatürk. Secularism most of all. The acceptance of Alevis as citizens happened through Atatürk. Some Alevis ask why Alevis love Atatürk so much, they say the shrines were shut down, but we want to live in a secular, social democratic state, with the rule of law.”
Differences among Alevis and Dialogue with Other Groups
There is a proverb that both underlines and praises the diversity in the Alevi community: “Yol bir sürek binbir,” (The path is one; while [Alevi] practices are a thousand and one). This saying indicates the many points Alevis have in common, despite the many differences in approach. From one perspective, this difference can lead to misunderstandings and unhelpful accusations that make it difficult to talk about shared interests and goals within the community, but on the other hand these variations can be interpreted as a symbol of the lack of dogmatism and openness to change and diversity, indeed as the richness of the Alevi community.
“Alevis are like a jazz band — everyone plays something different. We don’t have a homogenous community. We have an understanding on the basic principles, but on the rest we can’t agree. We are a band with many voices. This isn’t a flaw or bad thing. From our perspective it’s not a problem at all.”
Despite this rhetoric of diversity and harmony, it’s also possible to talk about the limits to the prevalent Alevi discourse. These boundaries sometimes surface in the context of rituals that resemble Sunni practices, and sometimes in the context of political stance over the degree of cooperation with the state or the government. An Alevi who transgresses in these contexts can easily be labeled a “sell-out” and ostracized or accused of being a traitor to the Alevi community. This communitarian feature stands as an obstacle to the internal peace of the Alevis as well as to the creation of healthy bonds to other groups. But despite the present diversity of opinion on issues within the community, a large majority of Alevis share the desire to secure rights defined along community-identity lines.
At the social level, the distance between Alevis and Sunnis is much smaller than in the past. Contacts with Sunni groups have grown, Sunnis are increasingly recognizing Alevis and their beliefs, and as this interaction increases prejudices are breaking down further. There are many ways in which the difference between Sunnis and Alevis is diminishing, as Alevis begin to find their place on television, cemevis become more visible, outsiders participate in congregational activities (the “cem”), mixed families meet through Alevi-Sunni marriages, and people live together including in increasingly mixed neighborhoods. However, the prejudices against religiously devout Sunnis remain strong. The part of the population understood as “religious zealots” are still seen as a group that might attack Alevis at any moment, and are generally put in the same category as ISIS.
“Alevis have no problems with Sunnis who aren’t religious zealots.”
“[Sunnis and Alevis] other than religion, they get along on everything really. They all live the same way, eat, drink, beat their wives.”
“15-20 years ago there was a distance [in their relations] but now they are much closer together. Even if it’s still small, they have started to become more knowledgeable about Alevism. We must change our way of speaking and explain ourselves. We know the Sunnis who come to our congregations [cem] ). We didn’t know them like that before, they showed us something different. The TV shows are important. The Alevi channels should have been explaining what Alevis are like rather than just playing folk songs, but on the TV they always focus on the music.”
“We don’t know much about Alevis or Alevism, and this makes relations with other communities difficult.”
Alevis are ready to engage in dialogue with religious Sunnis, but they think that politics are a barrier to this. According to them, the polarization in politics is putting huge strain on social relationships. Sunni neighbors, work colleagues, or in-laws complain of the way these tensions are reflected even in casual conversation. Nevertheless, when the tension subsides, convergence and dialogue are increasing. The emphasis on the need for normalization comes up in almost every one of the interviews we conducted with Alevis. People are tired of politics and political developments. Everyone is yearning for a kind of daily life in which people do what they can to get by and the tensions that come with politics don’t intrude. If this could happen, they think that dialogue between communities would be strengthened. Outside of politics, there are many areas of shared interest and enjoyments: culture, arts, sports and other activities that could provide a base for interaction and reduce prejudices.
“We too are tired. We too want to talk about art and philosophy a bit. We are always debating the same things.”
“We can create unity on a basis outside politics. In art, philosophy, etc. In the most important areas, first of all love and respect are necessary. We need to learn to say hello, how are you, we must be respectful. We need to break out of this paradigm. This is a dead-end. There are simpler, truer things to do. This is the only solution I can suggest.”
Our interview participants emphasize that the period after July 15th unfortunately ran opposite to this hope for normalization, and the tensions created by politics have only increased. The grounds for being called a “traitor” have spread because of the increase in politically objectionable topics. As a result, openings that were already limited have diminished even further, and people are showing a tendency to retreat into their own communities and homes.
“There has to be an end to the politics of personal greed and communal tension.”
“After the coup attempt the tension between people increased. People started to see anyone different from them as terrorists. An old neighbor said the New Year’s Eve was a sin, we don’t have this in our culture or our religion. They see my celebrating the New Year’s Eve however I want as something bad.”
For Alevis, another factor straining relations with religious Sunnis is that many are afraid that in times of tension, many groups within the category of “religious Sunnis” can attack Alevis in the streets. Study participants see the mood on the night of July 15th as a good example of this. Alevis do not see this group as going out to the streets to engage in civil disobedience, but rather as an uncontrollable, enraged mass channeling its anger into violent massacre. The presence of people who had joined ISIS or have sympathy for ISIS among the religious demographic is an important factor in this perception.
“We don’t have a problem with the religiously devout. Our problem is with ISIS.”
“There is a worry that people with an ISIS mentality are more common out in the streets, and we’re worried when they will go off and where they’ll start throwing bombs.”
“I have no hope. Regardless of whether it comes out Yes or No. I’m afraid of ISIS militants. I think even the Islamists will defend secularism when faced with them.”
“The state told us, ‘there could be an ISIS attack, defend yourselves.’ Alevis are afraid based on that. I am hoping that any attacks on cemevis are isolated cases. That’s our fear; we embrace the cemevis but our real fear is that after an attack on a cemevi there will be an Alevi attack on a mosque. We can rebuild cemevis. Just as long as there’s no open war in Turkey. Just talking about this kind of thing is enough.”
Envisaging the Future of Turkey and Expectations
There is a widespread feeling of hopelessness among Alevis regarding the future. The lack of trust in the political system and current government as well as the sense of fear that there is not an alternative are both important factors in this feeling of hopelessness. For one segment of Alevis, the fact that the HDP, which had begun to offer an alternative, itself in recent years lost its effectiveness, weakened their last source of hope. While most Alevis might continue to feel a compulsory sense of support for the CHP, there is no expectation that this party will deliver on their hopes. Hence, the mood of the current period is a kind of resignation or even ‘learned helplessness.’”
“I am 24 years old but I am incredibly hopeless. Whatever it takes just let this chaos end. This hopelessness isn’t just for the government, it’s for the opposition too.”
“There has to be an end to the bloodshed. There are more dead every day. We don’t know where the next bombs will go off. We get up every day with more news of an attack; I don’t even want to turn on the TV anymore. This is a terrible feeling; we’ve started to get used to it, we’ve started to lose our emotions.”
On the other hand, events after July 15th are not the only reason for this degree of hopelessness. After the June 2015 elections, developments such as tensions, attacks, political crises, the Syria issue and increasing ISIS activity have all contributed to fear and anxiety. This mood has led Alevis to turn inwards and behave according to their well-established self-defense reflex.
“Prior to July 15th, it was already clear that Turkey going to be dragged into chaos. There were many signs that showed chaos on the way: various bombings, political pressure, blocking the prospects for opposition parties and being unable to find [some] attacks’ plotters.”
“My mother, my son at university, both tell me not to go out — we’ve gotten to that point. Don’t be visible, they say. We’re at the stage where people are locking themselves into their own homes. We are in a coma — we need to find solid ground where we can think straight.”
“In 2015 there were meetings for dialogue. I could discuss my identity comfortably. The Turkey I hope for is that kind of Turkey.”
The despair is not only based on threats to life and the freedom of conscience. As emphasized above, the significant lack of trust in state institutions, especially the justice system in which the lack of trust is nearly total, are other factors that feed the sense of “learned helplessness.” The seizure of some journalists’ property through the KHKs seems to have reinforced the perception that even property rights are not respected and the future of Turkey seems at risk. The increase in protests against the KHKs and in the number of advocates for a “No” vote in the referendum process are opening a window to a new possibility. Nevertheless, regardless of the outcome of the referendum, there is a prevailing pessimism that the chaos will continue.
That said, despite this pessimism Alevis do not, at least, foresee a civil war like what is occurring in Syria. They do, however, think that there will be an antidemocratic, status quo regime, that fundamentally nothing significant will change, and that the current state of affairs will continue, which will have negative effects on recent victories and their daily life.
“The future will be like Bangladesh or Afghanistan; there may be no civil war but there won’t be anything else either — we are in a horrific situation. You have no army, the schools are being shut down. Military service is another thing. The state has no more talent, there will be terrible fin ancial upheaval. I’m ashamed, I’m ashamed for my children. Our social structure was much, much closer to Germany, to Europe. We have moved away from the developed countries.”
“A Turkey like Denmark, like Sweden, like Holland, a Turkey where Alevis could breathe. That was what I wanted.”
To conclude, the fundamental concern in this pessimistic picture is nothing short of the clear danger of being targeted with lethal violence. Being forced to go to Friday prayers or the closing of cemevis are also big concerns. The demands in response are fairly simple: peace, equal citizenship, and freedom of conscience. They do not want to feel pressured in school or daily life because of their religion.
“Alevis have their own demands but under these conditions they are unspeakable. Today, in Syria people are reduced to just staying alive; the country’s only issue is social peace. If it would prevent bloodshed I would even say yes to the referendum. It’s enough that the funerals stop.”
“Institutions have turned more to daily political issues, turned away from the fundamental rights and freedoms of Alevis towards the general political scene. People don’t get into political events in places of worship, the state of fear is intense. We are a little bit past our own rights.”
“The country is in its greatest need of normalization, its greatest need to ensure social peace. We don’t want anything more than that, what we want is equal citizenship.”
“We’re past the issue of our beliefs, one way or another we’ll deal with that. But now basic security is the number one priority, after that equal citizenship. We need normalization and democratization.”
“The silent majority doesn’t really expect much. The cemevi issue is one thing, but they are already doing it. The silent majority is dreaming of a Turkey in which everyone can just go to work, live their life, without identity issues mattering. Everyone should get the same education. I can worship the way I want, they say. They should be able to get work, they should get the same treatment in the courts and in state bureaucracies. However a normal, just, state treats a citizen, that’s what they want. They don’t expect the state to come and take their hand and protect them, the only charity they want is just not to be intervened that much.”
For Alevis positioned on the political left, there is no chance for a solution coming from outside the left. They have absolutely no expectations from the government. They see the solution as being in forming a coalition between groups they describe as left/democrat, resisting government oppression together, and continuing the struggle with mass activism. For them this is in a sense a return to the 1990s.
“We can more or less raise our voices, we can take to the streets, we think these too will probably be taken away from us. They are even trying to obstruct our press statements, they want no one to say what they think, they want no one to take to the streets.”
“The left needs to put up a fight on secularism. On the least common denominator, without going too much into details. On economic freedoms and secularism.”
“People need to just say enough is enough and head out to the streets. That’s my only hope.”
Apart from organized struggle, they believe in the need for the creation of a communication and support network that can reach all Alevis. The politically engaged Alevi associations have reflexes primed for turning inward and only reaching out for support to groups close to them. As a result, the mood of the identity-based rights struggle of the 2000s in which open-minded negotiators sought out dialogue is being replaced by the inwardly direct struggle to organize and fight for fundamental rights and freedoms that characterized the 1990s. However, neither the Alevis in the base nor the individual leaders seem likely to give up the identity-based approach they experienced in the 2000s.
Alevis have spent the period following the July 15th coup attempt in concern and fear. The first reason was the worry that they would eventually suffer the consequences of the coup attempt despite being uninvolved. On the night of the July 15th, when the uncertainty was still prevailing on what was going on, Alevis treated the masses of people who took to the streets not in civil resistance but rather in an enraged mob whose anger can turn into violence.
The revelation that the perpetrators of the coup attempt were Gülenists and that there is no direct accusation against the secular community was a relief for Alevis, since they had worried that as long as there was uncertainty, there was a possibility that they would be made scapegoats and end up suffering attacks from both the state and society. The Yenikapı rally was another source of reassurance, and was understood as a sign that Alevis and secularists would not be persecuted.
However, the declaration of the state of emergency, and the purges announced in statutory decrees following immediately thereafter, reinforced Alevi fears that the post-coup reaction would spread far beyond the Gülenists. They believe that as soon as the opportunity arises, this process will lead to Alevis being purged from state institutions. Along these lines, they fear that the introduction of an interview requirement for new employees at state institutions means that the door to civil service careers will be completely closed to Alevis. That is to say, members of this community, who already believe that the state does not adequately represent them, now fears that they will be completely purged from the bureaucracy.
The most destructive impact of the post-July 15th period on Alevis, however, is the erosion of their confidence in the justice system. Alevis were always wary of state institutions, but now the level of fear and mistrust, especially of the courts, is significantly worse. They believe that the purges and restaffing of the judiciary means that the possibility of fair treatment has been completely eliminated. For Alevis the police have always represented the most oppressive face of the state, and now that the military and the judiciary have been hollowed out and reshaped as well, Alevis feel a sense of insecurity and lack of belonging that has reached a breaking point.
The Alevi community is both deeply invested in the constitutional amendment issue and uninterested by it. They do not expect a different Turkey to arise as a result of the amendment, but they do recognize that the ramifications of changing the system of government could be vast, and represent a pivotal opportunity. In this spirit, they are not closely following the debates over details of the amendments, but they are interested in the general outcomes of the amendment process. They are most concerned by the risk that justice, equal citizenship, and fair treatment for their community will be put at risk following a change in the regime. This perception of risk is unrelated to their views on Erdoğan as an individual. On the contrary, Alevis see the possibility that all government power and decision-making authority will be concentrated in one person’s hands as being an inherently life-threatening and dangerous development.
They share the opinion that Alevis see themselves as a community that others will always try to eliminate or at least whose rights others will try to bargain away, depending on changing circumstances. They worry that the constitutional amendments will erode their rights and religious freedom, and in response to the call for the amendment they hold up the idea of “the republic.” The “republic,” for Alevis, symbolizes fair and equal treatment and religious liberty, while the “new regime” symbolizes the violation and loss of these rights.
In the present circumstances, the Alevis, who have very little hope for the future, want nothing more than peace. They fear any departure from social peace and stability will bring harm to their community and increase the threat of mortal danger towards them. Once peace is attained and those concerns diminish, the next priority is the establishment of justice. In the courts, in employment, in exams and other areas, they want to receive equal treatment in these fields, because based on their experiences up to the present, if justice is not established in these fundamental areas, then they will never enjoy the guarantees of equal citizenship and will suffer from discrimination in the rest of their daily lives.
Once a justice system they can trust is established, the ultimate goal of the Alevi community, according to the interviewees, is to guarantee freedom of religion. The fundamental objectives are: the recognition of cemevis as places of worship, the removal of compulsory religious education, and the restructuring of the Ministry of Religious Affairs in a manner symbolizing the equal treatment of all citizens. However, despite how important the demands related to religious freedom are, Alevis recognize that in present circumstances these demands may need to be set aside or postponed.
Today, Alevis’ expectations are concentrated in three interlocking rings. First, they want a Turkey where bombs are not going off, where their lives are not in danger, where they do not have to worry about fighting in the streets. If in addition to reestablishing peace, steps are also taken to establish a judicial system that they can trust, and finally to provide for equal treatment in public, then Alevis may begin to have hope, rather than fear, for the future of Turkey.