Özge Genç, Beril Bahadır
In the relationships between state and social identities in Turkey, politicized youth are often times in the forefront as the most visible actors of contentious politics. They come face-to- face with law enforcement during street demonstrations as extensions of conflict processes. Even though they constitute the target of security policies, they do not garner enough attention in the making of future policies. The mentality that views politicized young people as a “problematic group” considers them as players that should be rehabilitated, guided, and directed. Young individuals are invisible during the political and social decision-making processes; they are almost non-existent in politics, parliament, negotiation and dialogue tables, public administration, and policy development. The lack of youth representation at the institutional level and in politics, young peoples’ limited power to have a say in their own lives and make decisions to that end, and the influence of an isolated, closed sense of belonging on the worldviews of some, form the bases of this study.
The Istanbul Youth Mapping Series, conducted by PODEM in partnership with Berghof Foundation, focuses on youth politicized around Alevi, Kurdish, and Sunni/Islamist identities, and looks into their lives, expectations, and relations with their neighborhood, city, and country they inhabit. Not unlike many of the metropoles around the world, Istanbul is a city that leaves its mark on the lives of young people with social problems, such as exclusion, isolation, poverty, social inequality, and drug abuse. The adverse impacts of these problems generally tend to concentrate in the outskirts of the city. On top of these problems, the over- securitization of youth from the peripheral neighborhoods comprises an important problem. As security policies trump social policies, youth may find themselves at a dead-end where they resort to violence, or at least adopt a tougher rhetoric.
The series, of which the current report is a chapter, is a product of several field studies aiming to demonstrate the potential within young people to reinforce social agreement and peace in society. It aims to provide guidance in this regard for adults, legislators, and decision-makers, who view young people as a group that needs to be managed. It focuses on the transformative power of youth on hierarchical, authoritative structures, congregational models, and on gender and parent-child relations. Young individuals are taken into consideration as active subjects rather than passive objects. The political recommendations presented in this report are based on this approach.
In the series, the aim was to map out the modes of politicization constructed around various identities. An effort was made to understand what other factors feed such identity-based politicization. Through interviews with young people, the study attempted to examine the connections between their political attitudes vis-à-vis their daily lives, families and friends, relationships with social structures, and expectations from the future. Through spatial analyses too, the study sought to understand why and under what circumstances consolidations and fractures in political attitudes occur. The processes of belief and ideology formation, and the factors that pull young people away from such processes, were also examined. Answers were sought to determine who exactly young people from certain social identities are, what their similarities and differences are, and who embraces these identities, and to what extent. To this end, interviews were held with young individuals who find themselves in spatial vicious cycles, are influenced by social inequality and lack of means to develop, espouse a sense of belonging to a certain political, cultural, ethnic or religious identity, as well as with individuals with strong observations of these youth groups.
The Alevi youth mapping focuses on the political perceptions, behavior, and mobility of youth from the Alevi-populated neighborhoods of Istanbul. These are the İnönü neighborhood in the area known as Sarıgazi in Sancaktepe, Yavuz Sultan Selim and Ahmet Yesevi neighborhoods in Sultanbeyli, and Gülsuyu and Gülensu neighborhoods in Maltepe. One-on-one and in-depth interviews were held with a total of 15 opinion leaders, in addition to 38 individuals who reside in these neighborhoods, who are between the ages of 16 and 35, and whose families have migrated mostly from Sivas, Erzincan, Tokat, Kahramanmaraş, and Tunceli. Data was also collected by means of semi-ethnographic observation at the Alevi houses of worship (cemevi), tea gardens, and cafeterias in these neighborhoods. The interviews were held between November and December 2015.
- A strong feeling of victimization is prevalent among Alevis. The intensity of discrimination they have been subjected to, coupled with the failure to receive justice in most cases, causes the new generation to experience the same feeling of victimization as well.
- The feeling of victimization emerges mostly from issues such as ignoring the existence of Alevis, not acknowledging cemevis, the existence of Diyanet – Religious Affairs Administration – (or of its exclusion of Alevis and its attempts to define the ‘ideal Alevi’), compulsory religion classes, and placement of symbols that are associated with Sunni Islam in Alevi neighborhoods.
- Such discriminating attitudes, which make Alevis feel that their identity, or their right to life, is under threat, constitute the founding factors in the new generation’s reconstruction of their identity. This, in turn, strengthens the political aspect of the identity vis-à-vis its faith aspect for young Alevis.
- Even though Alevi youth view Sunnis as the “other” identity, the actual tension in daily life lies with the state and police, rather than with the Sunnis.
- Young Alevis more frequently encounter people who are not Alevis in comparison to previous generations who were raised in rural settings. The increase in interaction with different communities leads young Alevis to ponder and discuss what Alevism truly is.
- There are three main tendencies in the Alevi youth’s attempt to define their own identity: 1) emphasizing the cultural aspect of Alevism; 2) highlighting the faith aspect of Alevism; and 3) being a part of a leftist and/or socialist active politics. While young people may emphasize one of such three tendencies at times, there are other instances when they may be stuck in the middle and/or develop hybrid tendencies.
- Among these three tendencies, cultural Alevism is the one more frequently embraced among young people. While those who identify themselves with leftist and/or socialist politics represent a very small percentage, they nevertheless constitute an active group.
- Neighborhoods are comfort zones for Alevis; they prefer living in their own communities rather than other settings with similar conditions. It is possible to explain such a preference with economic reasons or view it as a knee-jerk reflex towards discrimination in the course of urbanization.
- College graduate Alevis with relatively better economic standing do not prefer living in the neighborhoods. These young people generally spend more time at the city center where identity is not the main issue, and get in contact more with non-Alevis. Young people in the neighborhoods mostly consist of low-income workers and the unemployed. However, even this group prefers socializing in places outside their neighborhoods.
- Despite the fact that they make up the least represented segment within the Alevi youth, the presence of leftist and/or socialist groups is clearly felt in the neighborhoods. Quite a few young people in the community are interested in revolutionist ideas. There are four fundamental factors that feed such support towards the revolutionists: a mindset of worry that shapes the Alevi identity; 2) the fact that historical traces causing this worry are fresh; 3) recent developments refresh collective memories: killing of innocent people; police oppression; a belief that the police discriminates against Alevis and the neighborhood; and a perception that they are out to eradicate them; and 4) the sacrifices on the revolutionists’ part to address the neighborhood’s problems.
- Even though they may be sympathetic towards the revolutionists, very few young people in the community join revolutionary groups because such a political stance requires sacrifices, such as giving up regular work life and falling out of line with the family. In addition, as the means for cultural and faith-based Alevism develop, active politics starts losing its attraction.
- In order for young Alevis to freely enjoy their identities, the mindset of worry that leads to extreme politicization needs to be alleviated. To this end, the Alevis’ perception of the Sunni assimilation threat needs to be mitigated. Abandoning the practice of giving names for public places such as parks, bridges, etc., that are offensive to Alevi citizens, meeting basic demands, especially those concerning cemevis and religion classes, and fighting hate speech that targets Alevis are among the imperative measures that would mitigate such assimilation concerns.
- Society needs to view Alevis as elements of cultural diversity. This, in effect, depends on increased contact, dialogue and interaction with Alevis. Young Alevis need to increase contact with other segments in society, especially with fellow religious Sunni citizens. In order to fight Islamophobia—which came into being as a reaction and then gained strength—joint Alevi-Sunni efforts must be exerted by anti-Islamophobia opinion leaders and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
- Normalization has to be accompanied with an increased visibility of Alevis in social and political life. Seeing Alevis take positions in different ranks of politics as well as higher levels of bureaucracy could weaken sentiments that feed a feeling of exclusion.
- Alevis in the neighborhoods need to prosper from an economic standpoint. Education is the main method Alevis resort to in order to achieve this. Even though Alevi NGOs or cemevis hold classes to prepare for university entrance exams, this does not suffice—additional measures should be taken. For example, vocational mechanisms should be developed for young individuals who are not able to attend college. Based on the Alevi narrative of valuing women, the high potential of practices encouraging the participation of young women in work life can be utilized.
This research focuses on the perceptions, behavior, and mobility of Alevi youth in neighborhoods with a strong Alevi presence. The main objective of the fieldwork was to access information and insights that would lead to further research, rather than to collect statistical data.
For this research, data collection comprised of interviews with 15 opinion leaders and 38 young individuals living in Alevi neighborhoods and semi-ethnographic research in Alevi places of worship (cemevi), coffee houses, and cafes (see Appendix 1). The qualitative interviews were carried out by researchers of the YADA Foundation. Only when consent to record the conversations were secured, voice recordings were made and transcribed. In other circumstances, notes were taken to capture the conversations. This report brings together an analysis of these conversations.
YADA conducted two seminal pieces of research between 2004 and 2007 on the discrimination the Alevi community in Turkey faces and the difficulties Alevis experience while forming their identities in an urban milieu. The first of these researches was conducted as part of the “Gelin Canlar Bir Olalım” project carried out by the Pir Sultan Abdal Association Head Office and was funded by the European Union. It was published as a book with the title “Alevi Olmak: Alevilerin Dilinden Ayrımcılık Hikayeleri.”1 The second research constituted the PhD thesis “The Sustainability Crisis of Alevis” by U. Ulaş Tol.2 We referred to these two pieces of research when formulating the background for this report and comparing our more recent findings with our observations from over a decade ago. As a result, we based this report on a set of hypotheses and assumptions, primarily around the relationship between politics and identity. Young people’s relationship with politics is directly related to their identity orientation. We therefore place the focus on the construction of identities. In this report, we explore how Alevi youth arrive at key decisions in the path towards building their identities; aim to understand the situations that keep them in limbo and uncover the impact their identity-building processes have on their political perceptions and mobility.
Undoubtedly, the Alevis in Turkey do not constitute a homogeneous community. Therefore, it is essential to factor in a wide range of parameters when attempting to study the Alevi community. The problem we address with this research is primarily the political behavior of young people who live in places known as “Alevi neighborhoods.”
Our field comprised of three neighborhoods: the İnönü neighborhood in Sarıgazi, Istanbul; the Yavuz Sultan Selim and Ahmet Yesevi neighborhoods in Sultanbeyli, Istanbul; and the Gülsuyu and Gülensu neighborhoods in Maltepe, Istanbul. Our research focused on the daily lives of young people, their perceptions of politics and identity, their political participation, and their mobility. We interviewed local notables, i.e. Alevi spiritual leaders (dede), leaders of Alevi houses of worship (cemevi) or Alevi associations, and other senior figures in the neighborhoods we targeted in our fieldwork.
1 Ulaş Tol, Alevi olmak: Alevilerin dilinden ayrımcılık hikayeleri, Pir Sultan Abdal Association , 2005.
2 Ulaş Tol, “The Sustainability Crisis of Alevis,” unpublished Ph.D. thesis., 2009, https://etd.lib.metu.edu.tr/upload/12610507/index.pdf).
In selected Sultanbeyli neighborhood, pious Sunni residents outnumber Alevi residents. Members of the Alevi community could be living in close proximity, often on the same streets even, or they could reside alongside members of the Sunni community. In the Sultanbeyli neighborhood therefore, Alevis and Sunnis are engaged in more frequent daily interactions. Sarıgazi’s İnönü neighborhood houses more Alevis than members of other communities; however, intercommunal dialogue in Inonu is still relatively frequent. Sarıgazi is also home to a sizeable Kurdish community. Alevi and non-Alevi Kurds and Alevi Turks are closely-knit in this part of Istanbul. The İnönü neighborhood is also where leftist and socialist groups are quite active, carrying out protests and demonstrations which often culminate in confrontations with the police. One last site of our research is the district that includes Maltepe’s Gülsuyu, Gülensu, and Zümrütevler neighborhoods, also populated largely by Alevis.3 Zümrütevler, a locale closer to the city centre, houses as many Sunnis as Alevis. Gülsuyu and Gülensu are more cut off
from the urban scene and the Alevi presence in these two locales is more concentrated. We therefore chose to focus our fieldwork on these two neighborhoods in Maltepe. As Gülsuyu gentrifies, with urban reconstruction projects gradually replacing slums, the Alevi population faces a decline. Gülensu is more insulated and hence the Alevi residents there continue to represent the majority. Gülensu sits on top of a hill, shut off from major transportation lines, and has been dominated since the 1970s by leftist revolutionary groups. Gülensu residents declare that many political revolutionaries have been active in their neighborhood in the past. Some continue to be politically active today. DHKP-C, which goes by the alias “People’s Front” and the Partizan group remain active in this neighborhood. Kurdish political movements also have a significant presence in Gülensu. The fight against drugs is a major issue in all three neighborhoods. The presence of Islamist groups in Sultanbeyli and the regular confrontation between residents and the police in Sarıgazi and Gülsuyu/Gülensu have a considerable impact on these neighborhoods. Also in Gülensu, clashes with drug gangs and “resistance” against urban transformation projects are among the main activities of the revolutionary political groups.
Our research focuses on the relationship young people in these neighborhoods have with the Alevi identity, their daily lives, their interests, their political perceptions, their engagement in politics and culture, and their presence in the community. We aim to investigate the political, cultural, and psychological aspects of political participation and activity.
The first section of this two-part report traces through primary and secondary sources the transformation of the urban Alevi presence through the expectations and problems voiced by the Alevi community and their narratives on discrimination.
The second section focuses on the interactions Alevi youth have with their identity, their lives within their own community, their perceptions of present day political issues and political party positions, and their own paths to political thought and action. Lastly, the report offers a summary of the findings of the research and the conclusions those findings led us to.
3 Throughout the report, we will refer to these three locales as Sarıgazi, Sultanbeyli, and Gülsuyu/Gülensu
Urban Alevism and Its Problems
Alevi identity has primarily been constructed and experienced in the countryside. Faith practices, rituals, and cultural practices associated with the Alevi identity are better aligned with life in villages. The Alevi presence in the countryside is also a very private one, seeking (voluntarily and/ or inevitably) to experience faith in exclusion from the larger community. In the last 30–40 years, Turkey’s society experienced a significant shift from being largely rural to urban. Alevis migrated into cities too. Young Alevis are only familiar with an urban lifestyle, with a few exceptions that have firsthand experience living in rural areas. However, their families’ origins are in the countryside and the ancestral connection to a rural lifestyle impacts how the youth acts culturally, socially, and how they formulate their identities.
Migration from the countryside to the city
Before and after the foundation of the Republic, Alevis resided in the countryside, far removed from the rest of society. Only the handfuls that could attend a nearby high school or a village institute were then able to move into public service jobs or higher education in cities. Around the same time, many rural communities migrated to Europe to respond to the industrial labour needs of countries like Germany, and others moved to slum housing in large cities in Turkey such as Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. These large-scale migration flows began in the 1970s and continued well into the 1990s, even when there were no longer plots of land to fill with slum housing, migrants continued to purchase or rent houses in the slums. In the 2000s, migration into the cities came to a halt and communities that initially took up residence in the slums of different sections of the city began moving closer to where their relatives were settled. At the same time, Alevi neighborhoods started to lift out of urban poverty and exclusion and their residents gradually upgraded to better homes and locales within their neighborhood.
As a result, Alevis began to live side by side with members of other communities and their neighborhoods grew increasingly more diverse. It should be noted though that in these mixed neighborhoods, Alevis represent the poorest community with members who are employed in manual-labour jobs in factories, usually paying lower rent than usual or none at all.
The story of the Alevi migration into cities, which began in the 1970s and 1980s, shows how this community chose to preserve their rural culture of privacy and self-preservation as they settled into the urban environment. In the 1990s, Alevis gradually abandoned their adherence to a rural, private culture and for various reasons,4 began to interact more and open up to the rest of the society.5 With the Alevis’ emergence from the public space, they also developed their ability to clearly articulate their identities and their problems by voicing their demands from the state. The urban context prompted the Alevi community to live more openly and interactively. At the beginning, Alevis clustered together around slums because of economic hardship.
In the relatively closed off environment that the slums provided Alevis clung onto their rural lifestyles and were able to cope with the relative chaos of urban living. However, by the 1990s the physical isolation provided by the slums no longer shielded their residents from engaging more openly with the urban space and the Alevi identity morphed into a more interactive one.
4 – For detailed information on the reasons and dynamics for the acceleration in the Alevis’ struggle for identity in 1990s: Çamuroğlu, Reha. (2010). “Türkiye’de Alevi Uyanışı,” Olsson, E. Özdalga and C. Raudvere (Ed.) Alevi Kimliği içinde (pp. 104- 113) İstanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları.
5 – For detailed information on Urban Alevism and the transformation of Alevi identity: Subaşı, Necdet. (2005). Alevi Modernleşmesi: Sırrı Faş Eylemek. Ankara: Kitabiyat and Tol, Ulaş,.“The Sustainability Crisis of Alevis,” unpublished Ph.D. Thesis. https://etd.lib.metu.edu.tr/upload/12610507/index. pdf)
The “Alevi Awakening”
With the emergence in the public scene of an Alevi identity in the 1990s, the neighborhoods that were mostly inhabited by Alevis became instrumental in the shaping of the urban Alevi identity. In the 2000s, population increase, coupled with organic and planned urban transformation, triggered the erosion of physical and communal boundaries between the Alevi neighborhoods and the rest of the urban context, encouraging Alevis to integrate into the larger society. This transition into an urban lifestyle led to the erosion of some religious practices that were harder to adopt in cities, and by extension, to the loosening of an exclusively Alevi identity. In the last 10–15 years, as Alevis engaged more with the outside world, they found it increasingly harder to practice the spiritual and cultural rituals they inherited. Chasing a path of self-definition since the 1990s, Alevis felt the need for several instruments such as the cemevi to adapt to the urban environment and cope with its difficulties.6 Performing spiritual practices and rituals that bring together various aspects of rural life like socializing, solidarity, justice, and worship became increasingly difficult, and most of the time impossible, especially in the face of decreasing seclusion and privacy, growing population, and increasing social contact with “the other.”
Along with the fact that neighborhoods where Alevis and non-Alevis live together are becoming prevalent, the increase in the number of Alevis who don’t know each other despite being Alevi and the differences in their places of origin and in the “ocak” – religious congregations – they belong to, made it difficult for cultural practices, suitable for closed and relatively small population, to be repeated in urban life. Especially the deep-seated traditions like cem 7, muhasiplik – (guardianship),8 and dede 9 underwent transformation, due to the inevitable impact of urban life. These dynamics, above all, promoted the emergence of “cemevi.”
Young people living in cities were more engaged with non-Alevis than their parents and older generations of Alevis. Therefore, they were the ones to come face-to-face with the Alevi identity which had, until then, always preferred to be kept hidden, even from the youngsters themselves, and to experience the problems and tensions this encounter brought upon them. Unlike their ancestors for whom Alevism was a religious system and a part of their daily lives, they experienced Alevism as a form of cultural values. For young Alevis, their Alevi identity was manifested, also and more particularly, as a political identity. Their politicization was a result of their encounters with the larger society, the fight against discrimination, rising voices claiming for rights, and the spread of Alevi NGOs. The existence of political revolutionary movements in their neighborhood and their reemergence in various periods also encouraged Alevi youth to become politicized. Parents, who had strong interactions with leftist movements in the 1970s, but who felt uneasy with politics while raising their children after the 12 September 1980 military coup, tried to block their children’s relationship with leftist groups. However, they could not prevent young Alevis from becoming familiarized with and drawn to leftist movements. The revolutionary left did lose some of its appeal, however it remained in contact with the Alevi neighborhoods. Young people romanticized the leftist struggle, depicted in the narratives of their elders, and immersed themselves in politics too, despite the many warnings their elders voiced. While this contact mostly consisted of merely sympathy without turning into a rather organic relationship, it still had an impact on young Alevis’ participation in mass protests and their approach to politics. On the other hand, there were intercommunal conflicts and tensions, divisions along ideological lines, and a frustration associated with political struggle that leads to no success or resolution while inflicting heavy costs. These factors, along with constant pressure from parents, prevented and is still preventing most young Alevis from joining such groups. Today, the Alevi identity-based politicization explained above looks more appealing to young Alevis.
Revolutionary-socialist structures, on the other hand, appear to have become more tolerant to the religious elements of the Alevi identity.
6 – In addition to cemevi, we observe that Alevis instrumentalised the following to cope with urban life: kinship and Alevi cultural associations, folk music bars and cafes, kinship festivities, and political protests and demonstrations.
7 – The phrase “cem” signifies communion. Alevis get together on Thursday evenings for religious worship. This gathering is often referred to as “cem.” This word comes from Arabic and combines the words “cami” (mosque) and “cemaat” (congregation).
8 – This phrase means companionship in Alevism. Married couples anoint another couple as their companions. During cem, their companionship is consecrated by a dede and they enter into a lifetime of obligation to care for one another. The children of these couples cannot be wed. If one couple commits a crime, the other is also held accountable.
9 – Dede are Alevi spiritual leaders. They not only represent religious guides but also support their community in social issues and act as neutral par-ties, helping their community resolve conflicts.
Adaptation to urban life
One of the key issues in pursuing the Alevi faith in cities is to freely perform the ritual of cem. Whereas in villages, cem rituals occurred in large estates that housed the Alevi community, the urban context presented physical limitations to such a massive gathering. The cem rituals in cities were first organized in the offices of associations established by people from the same village or of other Alevi associations with different names.10 Later they were moved to the cemevi, dedicated places of worship for Alevis, and thus the construction of these houses of worship, both literally and as an entity, became a new and significant form of resistance for the Alevi community.
Today it is possible to run across either a cemevi, or a construction site for a cemevi in most of the neighborhoods populated by the Alevi community. So much so that building and expanding a cemevi has turned into a core form of community service for Alevis, especially for those in the younger generation. The cemevi represents more than a place of worship for Alevis and they serve as centers of socialization and solidarity. Even though the initial motivation for building a cemevi is to house cem rituals, today its most important and inclusive mission is to provide funeral services. Alevis who do not wish for their deceased to be buried through a mosque service opt for funeral services provided by their cemevi. Also, it is a valuable convenience for the members of the Alevi community to be able to hold the funeral dinners at the cemevi. Other major activities taking place in cemevis include courses especially to teach young people the fundamental principles of the Alevi faith and how to play traditional instruments (saz), how to whirl (semah), and gatherings for conversing on Alevism.
The older generations’ cemevi building and maintaining activities that are countinued to adapt to the city is embraced by younger generations and acknowledged as a form of political struggle. However, religious practice doesn’t appeal as much to them. They are better connected and informed than their ancestors and, though they care about the religious aspects in their quest for an Alevi identity, most choose not to partake in the religious rituals.
The opinion leaders and young people we interviewed agreed that young Alevis show little interest in cemevi activities and rituals. Teenagers who are too young to socialize outside of the community participate in the cemevi activities and rituals whereas their older peers have less of a relationship with the cemevi. Young Alevis who are employed claim they don’t have the time to attend the cemevi, and college students declare that they are disinterested in spirituality.
It may be argued that the youngest generation’s interest in cemevi is undoubtedly related to their growing legitimacy, attainments, and resources. While older youth’s first contact with the cemevi is through providing support for institutions building cemevis in their struggle with the state, the youngest Alevis’ (in secondary education) engagement with cemevis is rather through cultural and spiritual activities.
10 – Since setting up an association with a reference to “Alevi” in its title was forbidden until 2000s, most Alevi associations were formed under various aliases.
Forms of discrimination
Alevi citizens have a profound sense of victimhood, which is undoubtedly fed by their constant exposure to various forms of discrimination and the barriers to their ability to access justice. There exist two sources of the Alevi’s experience of victimhood. First is the discriminative practices Alevis face not individually, but as a whole community. The second form of discrimination determining the construction of Alevi identity is the victimization Alevis experience as individuals.
In all of our interviews on the Alevi experience, our interviewees claimed that the Sunni/ pious Muslim majority overpowers and discriminates against Alevis. They asserted that often their community had to endure physical forms of violence in certain periods in history. In other words, Alevis nominate their own community as a downcast people and argue that this experience of persecution encouraged Alevis to always stand in solidarity with the downtrodden and to align politically with leftist movements. Alevis believe that historically all Sunni/pious rulers have targeted the Alevi community. When asked if they have been personally discriminated against because of their Alevi identity, most Alevis don’t mention their own experiences. Instead they highlight the collective experiences of Alevis being “slaughtered,” “persecuted,” and “desired to be terminated” since Yavuz, and even since Kerbela in some narratives. Alevis relate also to the more recent experiences of their community in the massacres in Maraş, Çorum, and Sivas. They assert that since the coup of 12 September 1980 and the early years of the 1980s, and more recently under the AK Party rule in the 2000s, the Turkish state has been attempting to systematically eliminate Alevis or to assimilate them. That their community has not been granted justice in the face of such events that construct collective memory, also fuels the Alevi narrative around victimhood. The “Alevi Opening” initiated by the AK Party is perceived not as a process through which Alevi demands and expectations will be recognized but as the state’s attempt to redefine the Alevi identity – especially through the Directorate of Religious Affairs. Based on these narratives and perceptions, Alevis conclude that they are repressed and feel threatened physically,
ideologically, and spiritually. This continuous sense of victimhood, and this state of anxiety with its physical, psychological, spiritual, and political dimensions, represents a fundamental feature of the Alevi identity. Most of the young protestors who lost their lives during the Gezi protests being Alevi,11 several deadly bombings took place in 2015 (particularly those that hit Suruç and Ankara), and the presence of ISIS being heavily felt in Turkey seem to have revived the anxiety almost becoming rather intangible compared to the past. Alevis are convinced that they are being persecuted physically, spiritually, and intellectually, and this conviction forms the first layer of discrimination that this community faces. In other words, the first in a pair of discriminatory practices against Alevis is manifested as the targeting of Alevis collectively, leading to their repression as a community. The perpetrator in this case is the ruling party or state. The massacre references uttered by Alevis form a first and fundamental title in this cluster of discrimination.
In addition, Alevis consider the following as evidence of assimilationist policies towards their community:
- The negligence towards Alevis,
- The resistance to recognize the status of the cemevi,
- The existence of a public institution, the Directorate of Religious Affairs,12 representing Sunni Islam and its attempts to undermine the Alevi faith or to define Alevism through its own terms,
- Compulsory religion classes in public schools and Alevi children having to take these courses despite their faith, or Alevism being not included in religion classes or even worse, being mentioned in a negative fashion,13
- The forced inclusion of mosques in Alevi villages – or more recently, in neighborhoods densely populated by Alevis – rural and urban Alevi neighborhoods and the renaming of Alevi streets with Sunni Turkish names.14
These manifestations of discrimination, which lead Alevis to believe that their identities and even their lives are under threat, were founding elements in building the identity of the new generation. Young Alevis define the Alevi identity above all as one associated with repression and siding with justice. A sizeable majority of them have no recollection of a political period outside of the AK Party rule and the fact that as a result of this they grew up with the feeling of, in their own words, “the threat of religious obscurantism” further deepen the scars of discrimination. The fight against discrimination and their demands for rights also have an impact on the political dimension that takes precedence over religious ones in the shaping of the Alevi identity.
Individual cases of discrimination form the second cluster of discrimination we associate as incremental to the Alevi experience and identity building. Individual members of the Alevi community are discriminated against by other citizens, organizations, administrators, and public servants. Alevis deliver their own accounts of facing discrimination from public servants as students and professionals and Alevi men share their experiences of discrimination during their military service. Discriminatory practices include extending special privileges to non-Alevis, isolating Alevi citizens, the exchanging of slurs, and psychological and occasional physical expressions of violence. Alevi citizens report that during the month of Ramadan they become primary target for discrimination because they do not engage in the Muslim fast. Alevis find the deeply-rooted misperceptions towards their community as key cultural and psychological barriers to their socialization with members of the larger society. In daily interactions with non- Alevis, they are confronted by dogmatic statements such as “never eat a meal cooked by an Alevi,” “Alevis are dirty,” “they engage in promiscuity,” and “Alevis have tails.” As Alevis face these dogmatic and offensive reactions the moment they disclose their identity to non-Alevis, they are unmotivated to engage with the larger society. Many Alevis confess that even their closest non-Alevi friends hold such misconstrued notions of the Alevi identity and that these non-Alevi friends offer excuses such as “you do not strike me as Alevi,” or “but you are a good person,” or “there is no way you are Alevi,” to come to terms with their friends being Alevi.
These reactions discourage Alevis from engaging actively with the Sunni majority and facilitate their isolation as a community. Today, Alevis are not met with physical violence, as their older generations were. However, symbolic manifestations of discrimination in the daily lives of Alevis are still very prevalent. Not fasting during Ramadan and not attending the Friday prayer for men continues to represent the greatest rift between Alevis and the Sunni majority. In addition, younger Alevis are most disturbed by the barriers to their friendship with non-Alevis because of their stigmatization as a community.
In conclusion, Alevis underline their discomfort with the discrimination they face as a community and as individuals. Their discomfort leads to a strong sense of anxiety and marginalization. Alevi citizens view themselves as “peaceful,” however they disbelieve that building a peaceful society in collaboration with the Sunni majority is possible. On the contrary, they feel profoundly threatened. Young Alevis particularly base their identity building process on this perception of threat. This anxiety, particularly for the young generations, is the fundamental element of Alevi identity and causes Alevism to be constructed as an anti-Sunni, anti-state, and anti-religious identity.
11 – This research does not address the climate surrounding the Gezi protests. However, at the time the government’s public statement about the Assad regime in Syria served to marginalize Alevis in Turkey. After a bombing in Reyhanlı, the government’s response was “53 Sunni citizens were killed”. Through such statements, the government fuelled the anxiety Alevis felt about the imminence of an attack on their secular lives in Turkey. It was this heightened sense of anxiety that triggered young Alevis to join the Gezi protests.
12 – Most Alevis refer to the DIB as “Dinayet” which is a pun to suggest that this institution associates religion (din) only with the Koranic verse (ayet).
13 – In fact, public school curricula on religion now include references to Alevism however most Alevis are not happy with the content.
14 – For example, a region of Sultanbeyli previously named Başaran is now renamed Yavuz Selim.
Alevi Youth, Identity, Neighborhood, and Politics
Young people growing up in neighborhoods densely populated by Alevis are more interested in learning about Alevi culture and traditions than their peers living in non-Alevi neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, Alevis living in more diverse neighborhoods have little interaction with Alevi culture and related activities. They generally interact with secular members of the larger society and bear merely romanticized notions of Alevi culture. One reason for this is that Alevis living outside of the Alevi neighborhoods have higher levels of income and education. Alevis in the neighborhood engage in a more intense debate and confrontation with various approaches in the community and also with other social groups’ approaches to Alevism. They inevitably encounter various Alevi schools of thought and the political mobilizations of these forms of thinking. Their lives in the neighborhood and their daily endeavors are largely shaped around their own search for an Alevi identity.
Youth and the Alevi identity
In the previous section, we discussed the urban climate, in which an Alevi awakening that has been shaping the Alevi identity of the youth has prevailed. Two key questions emerge from the interrogation of the Alevi identity from inside and outside of the community. First, one is about whether Alevism is a form of faith, a cultural lifestyle choice, or a separate religion. And the second and related question is whether Alevism falls within or outside the realm of Islam.
Private, closed-off communities, defined the Alevi experience in the countryside. Alevi communities in the countryside received little external migration, except when groups of Alevis facing forced migration sought refuge. Therefore, ethnicity and faith overlapped. Alevism was passed down from generation to generation. So no clear rituals for converting someone to Alevism were developed. There are not very many cases of people seeking to become Alevi either. Hence Alevism, without intending so, became a religious and cultural practice that is not inclusive. Adhering to privacy, isolation, and exclusion prevented the Alevi tradition from evolving into a more inclusive one. Therefore, in the rural Alevi existence, being born an Alevi was sufficient to be considered a part of the community. Ethnicity was the foremost determinant of being recognized as Alevi and religious Alevi rituals did not feature as prominently in assuming an Alevi identity. In the urban context however, the construction of the Alevi identity demanded more than proof of lineage; because after the Alevi Awakening, they increasingly needed to define themselves, and express who they are to themselves and to others. Even ethnicity gradually lost its significance among the factors determining Alevi definitions acceptable by Alevis. Whereas in the countryside, ethnicity used to play a key role in setting
Alevis apart from Kurds, Turks, or Arabs. Differences between Kurdish and Turkish Alevis were far less than differences between Alevi and non-Alevi Turks. However, in urban life, Alevis adopted the lifestyles of secular Sunni Turks. Their interactions with secular Turks and the references they built with the Kemalist ideology decreased Alevis’ ethnic distinctiveness. The Alevi identity became more of a cultural qualifier and less of an ethnic one. In the construction of urban Alevism, first cultural values, and then the spiritual dimensions became more significant. Though, it should be noted that the ethnic element is still a part of the equation. When Alevis feel threatened, they resort to their traditional attachments to their ethnicity.
The first quality that sets Alevi youth apart from older generations of Alevis is that younger generations have very little to no recollection of a rural past. The second discerning quality is that younger Alevis associate the state authority with the AK Party, as they have not lived under any other political party rule. They identify the state as a mechanism that favors the AK Party and the pious masses.
Moreover, young Alevis are different than older generations that have a rural background because the young grew up in an urban environment with constant interaction with the outside world. As such, the greatest challenge Alevi youths have is to characterize their community and portray their identity accurately to themselves and to the society at large. It is safe to say that Alevi youths are facing an identity crisis. In other words, their most dire need is to define who they are and what Alevism is.
Alevi youth are in more frequent contact with the outside world and with non-Alevis than the older members of their community. In school, at work, during their performance of the mandatory military service, and increasingly as they conduct their daily affairs within their own neighborhood, young Alevis encounter members of other communities. These interactions prompt young Alevis to think about the Alevi identity, to discuss its terms, and to seek to define Alevism. Questions about Alevism and its position, problems and demands of Alevis, and their past experiences feed this quest for a definition. Islam, Ataturkism/secularism and leftist/socialist thought form the core tenets of their thinking around the Alevi identity. As Alevi youth come face-to-face with the questioning of their identity on these three fronts – from inside and outside of the community – the question of how Alevism should be defined occupies a more central place in their lives. Answering their questions about who they are and adopting lifestyles that correspond to the answers they find constitute their foremost pursuit in life. On the other hand, the pursuit of an identity is not a phenomenon that only young Alevis experience. Older generations of Alevis are also facing an identity crisis in their urban lifestyles today. Their experience of transitioning to an urban context hinders their ability to define Alevi identity along rural traditions and they feel anxious about losing their own clear notions of what being an Alevi means.
Alevis strongly believe that the Turkish state and Sunnis aim to annihilate and repress all Alevis and convert them to the Sunni sect through assimilation. Feeling threatened, Alevis concentrate more and more on rethinking and persevering the spiritual elements of the Alevi existence. Older generations of Alevis feel that their young ought to be better educated in the Alevi faith and culture in order for the Alevi faith to persist. Yet the opinion leaders we interviewed agree that young Alevis are not interested in the spiritual aspects of Alevism and that their parents are unable to inspire the young to take up an interest in the faith. It seems like the opinion leaders we have interviewed are worried by the disinterested youth. Moreover, young people are also worried because while they are disinterested in the faith, they are very keen to understand and investigate Alevism. This unique position sets them apart from older generations, especially from rural ancestors; they are indifferent to rituals and their religious ties are weak. However, they still want to be connected to Alevism. In other words, they need an Alevism that goes beyond rituals and traditions and becomes more appealing than present practices. For instance, dede do not possess the same level of authority for younger Alevis
as they do for older Alevis. The heads of Alevi associations or cemevi leaders are far more charismatic for young Alevis than the dede. Surely this perception is also a result of “anti- religiousness” being an important parameter in their identity tensions, because while “dedes” represent a more pious side of Alevism, “heads” represent a rather political and bellicose aspect of it. Besides, younger Alevis are disillusioned by the dede, since these spiritual leaders fail to respond to the questions young Alevis raise about their faith fully.
Young Alevis define their identity first by setting the terms of what Alevism does not entail: “we are not Sunnis,” “we do not perform the daily prayer like Muslims,” and “we are not religious extremists.” However, to respond to the biased reactions and questions they receive from non-Alevis, young Alevis feel they require positive terms to define Alevism, too. To formulate such a positive definition, they believe they need to educate themselves on Alevi rituals and traditions. This requirement creates certain lines of tension in their search for a distinct Alevi identity.
The first line of tension is that Alevism is a faith system and yet the Alevi community adopts a decisively secular lifestyle. A fear that any deeper connection to the faith carries the risk of becoming Sunni creates a parallel line of tension. The third source of tension results from the efforts to define Alevism. On one hand young people want to define Alevism clearly and concretely. First and foremost, instrumental to this is to love saz and folk songs, to be able to whirl, and recently, to memorize the names of 12 İmam and Alevi rituals called 12 Hizmet (services). Many believe that regional- and “ocak”- related differences between cem practices need to be overcome. Some cem practices that are associated with Sunni traditions such as reciting prayers in Arabic, donning Islamic headgear, and gender segregated seating are criticized. On the other hand, Alevism is often described as not being a “rigid” or “dogmatic” belief system, but rather embraces differences (as the saying, “the road is one but the vehicles are many,” signifies). Therefore, any need and attempt to define, crystallize, and concretize Alevism and its practices may turn into a tendency to erode Alevism’s claim of being an intrinsic and non-dogmatic interpretation of Islam.
In sum, Alevi youth determine their stance in the path of identity construction according to these three different positions:
- The approach that locates Alevism within Islam, even sees it as the essence of Islam, and religious, historical and cultural narratives that support this approach.
- The idea that Alevism is intrinsically aligned with the political left, even with socialism, and historical connections, massacre, and memories of persecution that support this idea.
- Loyalty to Atatürk, who they believe to be the one, even the savior, that saved Alevism from Muslim intervention and/or violence and to Kemalism that is seen as a factor that guarantees this situation.
Young Alevis generate either contrasting or coalescing opinions across the above-mentioned positions and utilize these opinions in shaping their identities. Alevism’s relationship with Islam represents a major rift in the young Alevi community; on the one side stand those who see Alevism as a faith and culture outside of Islam15 (or at least influenced by Islam but not a part of it) and on the other align those that view Alevism as a part, or even the essence of (real Islam) Islam. Better educated and more affluent members of the young Alevi community are more prone to view Alevism as a separate school of faith, whereas Alevi youth from the neighborhoods tend to make a case for Alevism standing at Islam’s core. On the other hand, it would not be wrong to argue that Alevism’s relationship with Islam began to be acknowledged more and more. However, the Alevism-Islam connection remains tense and does not follow from a submission of Alevism into the Sunni sect. Sure enough, the debate around how Alevism relates to Islam engages both sides of this ideological divide and those that see Alevism as separate from Islam begin to consider a deeper connection between these two faiths and feel less uneasy about Islamic references uttered during cem rituals. Those that see Alevism as a part of Islam, on the other hand, respond to the criticism raised about their submission to the Sunni tradition by suggesting that they pursue an intrinsic connection with Islam16 and reject Sunni rituals that represents Sunni sect the most, such as attending the daily prayers or mosques and reciting prayers in Arabic. In a way, they search for the justification for a non-Sunni expression of Islam. Therefore, they are caught in limbo between following Islam closely and distancing their religious practices from dominant Sunni traditions.
We discussed that three topics of discussion determine the positions. There’s another factor that we expect to come forward but remained in the background for neighborhood youth: Alevism as an ethnicity. As mentioned above, the rural Alevi experience overlapped faith with ethnicity. In the urban context, ethnicity no longer served as a reliable and powerful source of self-identification. The main element of an acceptable Alevism for Alevis inside and outside the community wasn’t based on Alevi lineage. On the contrary, in historical narratives aimed to define Alevi identity, references to Horasan, and to those communities migrated from Horasan reestablish the connection between Alevism and ethnicity. In addition, it is widely believed that the dede are descendants of the Ahl al-Bayt (Prophet Mohammad’s household). This assertion builds a connection between Alevis and Arabs. However, the largest Alevi community in Anatolia is made up of ethnic Turks. The existence of sizeable Kurdish and Arab communities among the Alevis of Turkey further complicates the issue. In addition to all of this, some Alevis claim that Kurdish Alevis are actually ethnic Turks that have learned to speak Kurdish and assimilated into the Kurdish Alevi community over time (even Kurdish Alevis sometimes argue so). Though ethnicity reemerges as an incidental subject within such contexts, Alevis choose not to count ethnicity among the foremost determinants of who they are in their acceptable definitions of Alevism. They are better construed with references to philosophical and spiritual features. And the “constructive outside” is mostly made up of elements like not being a religious fanatic, “bigot,” or Sunni rather than coming from Alevi origins.
For Kurdish Alevis, ethnicity surfaced as a complicated element of their identity with the reactivation of Kurdish politics in Turkey. The majority of Kurdish Alevis speak Zaza, which is either believed to be a dialect of Kurdish or a language spoken by another ethnic minority. Kurdish Alevis, who speak Kurmanci are more likely to embrace their Kurdish identity (the same is true for Safii Kurds). Alevis who speak Zaza on the other hand, consider their community apart from the wider Kurdish and Zaza community and are therefore more inclined to associate with Alevism. In recent years, Kurdish politics showed more of a presence in Alevi neighborhoods and even started to be more effective than leftist groups, which in return increased Zaza Alevis’ sympathy for Kurdish politics and raised the level of adoption of the Kurdish identity among young people.
As we previously underlined, Alevi youth’s relationship with politics is directly related to the construction of identity, since the identity orientations dominant among Alevi youth necessitates political participation to a certain degree. Our hypothesis that was also tested with the findings of this research suggested that three choices stand out for Alevi youth that encounter its Alevi identity in different ways:
- Becoming a religious Alevi,
- Adopting Alevism as a cultural identity and immersing themselves in the larger secular society,
- Actively participating in a leftist and/or socialist movement.
Young Alevis sometimes assume any of the three positions outlined above and sometimes waver in between or develop hybrid positions. However, when it comes to identifying themselves and behaving suitably, one of these three core positions always plays a central role. Religious Alevis also underline their allegiance to social justice and leftist movements and identify with cultural and secular notions of Alevism. The leftist/socialist Alevis speak of the cultural elements of Alevism with pride. However, the prominent positions young Alevis assume impact their daily lives and political mobility.
If we are to sort these three main groups according to their sizes based on our observations and interviews, first comes cultural Alevis, and then religious Alevis in the second place, and then political Alevis in the third place.
In cemevis and other platforms like fellow townsmen associations where they socialize with other members of their own community, religious Alevis care about learning the spiritual dimensions of Alevism, rediscovering their faith, religious Alevism to the fullest, and encouraging others to adopt their faith as well.
Politicized Alevis are more diverse as a group and this diversity can be classified as such:
- Alevis that politicize along the lines of an Alevi identity (Association Alevis),
- Alevis active in other civil activities or political party activities (Democratic Political Alevis),
- Alevis engaged in revolutionary political movements (Revolutionist Alevis).
The first group of political Alevis, called Association Alevis since their political activities is mostly limited to the activities of the association, is a cluster of people in the line of an Alevi identity with a leftist worldview that act together with religious Alevis, claim Alevi rights, and point out their struggles. They are the ones that build the interaction between Alevism and leftist movement and feed the discussions on Alevi identity with leftist elements.
The second subgroup of politicized Alevis do not belong to a labor union or community association but they support Alevi demands for justice and recognition. This subgroup includes Alevis that are politically active, particularly in the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP), and also in other political parties. They pursue politics not only on behalf of Alevis but for all communities in the society and claim that their democratic struggle would ultimately emancipate all. That is why we chose to name this subgroup of Alevis as Democratic Political Alevis.
The third and smallest subgroup we observed among politicized Alevis is also the most visible and popular of all groups: socialist, revolutionist Alevis. Alevi revolutionaries are fewer in number however they are mostly young, which leads us to assume that younger Alevis are more drawn to revolutionary movements. Our interviews with young Alevis and opinion leaders suggest that revolutionary political movements have more secular Sunni members than Alevi members, however public opinion is formed around the perception that socialist revolutionaries are mostly made up of Alevi youth. Several recent developments were incremental in shaping the public opinion, such as the fact that most protestors killed during the Gezi movement were Alevi and that in other instances where lives were lost during leftist struggles, the media captured the services to the dead performed by the cemevi. Also, the proportion of Alevi members of socialist revolutionary movements is larger than the Alevi population’s proportion to the Turkish society. Yet, even among politicized Alevis, socialist revolutionaries constitute the smallest group. In addition, the total number of politicized Alevis is much smaller than the religious and cultural Alevis so it really is a tiny community of young people active in revolutionary movements.
Cultural Alevis represent the largest group and though they are not politically active, they are influenced both by the politicized and the religious Alevis. They often identify with leftist/ socialist political thought and Ataturkism/laicism. They underline the cultural elements of the Alevi identity and associate the universal values of empathy, equality, humanity, and justice with Alevism. Yet, the young people we categorized as cultural Alevis cannot be regarded as apolitical. They too participate in social movements and protests when they are convinced that their political participation falls in line with their values and when they are emotionally moved to voice their demands.
15 – Alevi opinion leaders, especially those with a history of leftist political struggle (mostly concentrated among the leadership of the Pir Sultan Abdal Association), and better educated Alevis argue that Alevism is a synchronic faith system that derives influences from many other spiritual and thought systems. Those who view Alevism as a school of faith within Islam often belong to the densely populated Alevi neighborhoods.
16 – An approach that advocates there is a deeper meaning to Islam than what are apparent in the Koranic interpretation and aims to discover these depths.
Alevi youth may fall on different points in the spectrum of Alevi identity; however, they also agree on a lot of issues. The first of these issues is the perception that Alevis are “naturally leftists.” But they perceive this natural connection to leftist thought not with references to class struggle, instead, as an association with secularism in response to the social polarization in Turkey across religiosity and secularism. According to Alevi youth, the political right represents “religiosity,” “fundamentalism,” and “bigotry” whereas the political left represents “humanism,” “a democratic stance,” “siding with the oppressed” and “laicism.” Their responses to the question of what Turkey’s most dire problems are, they show that they care less about socioeconomic issues. They put forward concepts like “religiosity,” “fundamentalism,” “bigotry,” and referring to the AK Party electorate “ignorance.” Our interviews showed that the Alevi youth are not invested in thinking about other identities in Turkey. For example, on the Armenian issue, Alevi youth repeated the dominant perceptions in society. While most of those who define themselves as socialists have distinct approaches, those who state that they don’t know much about the issue or stay silent on the Armenian issue or say “such things happen in history, they had slaughtered us too” are not rare.
We can suggest that there is a softening in the perception towards the Islamic headscarf in the Alevi community. In the past, most Alevis believed that the headscarf ban was justified, and disapproved of women who chose to wear headscarves. However, it is possible to argue that Alevis have more recently become more at ease with the headscarf issue, claiming that they “too have friends with headscarves.” Though, while Alevis approve of the lifting of the headscarf ban (with the exceptions of children being forced to wear the hijab or public servants performing their service in headscarves), they also consider women’s decision to wear headscarves as wrong, politically motivated, or resulting from the women’s lack of sense or education.
Young Alevis are disinterested in most major issues in Turkey, and the Kurdish issue is no exception. Their thinking around the Kurdish issue is informed by Kemalist teachings. The high proportion of religious Kurds causes powerful prejudices among the majority of Alevis against Kurds. This prejudiced view is even held by Kurdish Alevis. More recently, however, the People’s Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, HDP) pursued a successful campaign to move the Kurdish movement into the mainstream and thus gained the support of Alevis, particularly Kurdish Alevis.17 As the HDP and other leftist political movements grew closer and as the HDP increased its political influence over Alevi neighborhoods, the Kurdish Alevi youth that are more attuned to their Kurdish identities18 or young Alevis that have already established ties with Kurdish politics became more engaged in the Kurdish issue. Selahattin Demirtaş, the current co-leader of the HDP, is a popular political figure among other Alevi youth that make up the majority because he resembles Alevis with his secular appearance and discourse, his ability to play saz, and his singing skills. Then again, the majority of young Alevis are not tuned into Kurdish politics and are influenced by a nationalist interpretation of the Kurdish issue.
Most Alevi youth sympathize with the HDP’s left-leaning Kurds and suggest that they are also discriminated against and express their solidarity. But particularly the Şafii and religious Kurds– frequently called “easterns” – are not acceptable to the Alevi youths at all. Their dominant thoughts are that those Kurds are enemies of Alevis, “fundamentalist,” “bigot,” “ignorant,” and “primitive/underdeveloped.” Young Alevis have limited knowledge of the “peace and resolution process (2013 – 2015).” They declare that they did not follow the peace process at all. When we asked young Alevis what they thought about the government’s management of the peace process, they responded by sharing their opinion about other government policies such as policies in healthcare, etc. Some of the Kurdish or socialist Alevis did declare that they followed the peace process, however they were quite critical, too. They suggested that the Kurds were being played and that it was impossible to strike a peaceful deal with the state as the state only sought to dupe the Kurds.
We have mentioned that Alevi youth talk about their common opinions when they are asked to define Turkey’s most dire problem and to share what they perceived as “left” and “right” in the political context. On all these three subjects, the basis of the agreement is their anti- religiosity. This agreement can be seen in their perception of the AK Party. The Alevi youth we interviewed frequently associated “religious extremism” and “corruption” with the AK Party. These two concepts are the dominant associations of Alevi youths independent of their identity orientation. A third cluster is the set of concepts like “dictatorship,” “one-man rule,” “oppression,” “killer,” and “Yazid” that essentially refer to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Even in our interviews with young Alevis who were aligned with the political right based on their own interactions or their families, there was a distance to the AK Party because of its alleged “religious extremism-fundamentalism. These young Alevis are at best critical towards the AK Party and take the good deeds performed by the AK Party with a large grain of salt. In conclusion, we observed a strong anti-AK Party sentiment among young Alevis – a sentiment so powerful that it helps shape attitudes towards the main opposition party, the CHP. Most Alevis vote for the CHP and yet they declare their disillusionment with the party of their choice.
Alevis cast their vote to the CHP always with the caveat that they are voting for the CHP for the last time. They are seeking refuge in the CHP for they profoundly fear an Islamist extremist surge, orchestrated by the AK Party. Therefore, the CHP’s rhetorical commitment to Ataturkist ideals helps reaffirm this party’s commitment to secularism. On the other hand, Kurdish Alevis or Alevis in greater interaction with the Kurdish community are critical of Kemalism and challenge the Kemalist ideology with references to the Dersim massacre, for instance.
We observe great diversity in young Alevi’s perceptions towards the CHP as well. There are scores of Alevi youth that criticize CHP politics in many ways. Some hold negative views alongside positive ones. Their criticism focuses on the gap between CHP politics and the realities of Turkey’s society, the heavy emphasis the CHP places on maintaining the status quo, and the governance problems and infighting within the party. A more marginal piece of criticism directed at the CHP is that it is ultimately an establishment party. There is clearly a wide range of opinions held by Alevi youth about the CHP and yet these opinions do not translate into voting behavior. The fact that the current CHP leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, is Alevi brought in more votes from the Alevi community to the party and with more Alevis entering the parliament via the CHP, the Alevi community began appreciating the CHP more.
We detected a similarly wide range of opinions towards the Nationalist People’s Party (Milliyetçi Halk Partisi, MHP). Alevis living in slum housing in the outskirts of cities have a negative opinion about the MHP, largely informed by their experience with intercommunal conflict in the 1980s. Younger generations of Alevis, on the other hand, are not as pessimistic about the MHP as their elders. Broadly, Alevis do not sympathize with MHP politics. However, they view the AK Party as the greater enemy when compared with the MHP. Devlet Bahçeli, the current leader of the MHP, is seen as a moderate politician and he is appreciated for seeking to discourage youth gangs of nationalists from engaging in violent acts.
17 – Most Kurdish Alevis are from Tunceli. The election results from Tunceli could therefore be very telling about the political preferences of Kurdish Alevis. This eastern city has traditionally been a CHP stronghold. The CHP earned 56% of the votes in the 2011 general elections. In contrast, the CHP’s votes dropped to 31% in 2014 local elections, and to 21% and 28% in the 2015 general elections. In 2011, an independent candidate representing the Kurdish political movement secured 23% of the Tunceli votes and in the 2014 local elections the Kurdish candidate achieved 42% of the votes. The HDP earned 61% and 56% of the votes of Tunceli’s electorate in the 2015 general elections. It is therefore safe to assume that Kurdish Alevis feel closer to the Kurdish identity now than before.
18 – We heard many times during our interviews that Kurdish Alevis believe they are ethnically Turkish however over time they adopted the Kurdish language in the parts of Turkey where it’s more widely spoken.
Social Life and Neighborhoods
Social life is very limited in all three neighbors where we carried out our fieldwork, primarily because their residents are low-income families. Moreover, young Alevis do not prefer to socialize where they live. Residents of Sarıgazi and Sultanbeyli prefer Kartal for socialization and the residents of Gülsuyu/Gülensu prefer Maltepe. At times, they also spend time in Kadıköy and other neighborhoods farther from their home.
The main reason why Alevis live in these peripheral neighborhoods is their lower socio- economic status. In these neighborhoods, they can afford to pay lower rates for rent and live in the vicinity of their workplaces. Often, Alevis are employed in factories or at the far end of service sector jobs. Only a few are employed in public service or local government jobs. Women, mostly belonging to an older generation, fill jobs in the informal sector, such as cleaning homes. Alevis see better education for their children as their only chance for their socioeconomic status to change. Then again, university-educated Alevis choose not to live in the neighborhoods into which they were born. As a result, the demographic makeup of Alevi neighborhoods remains the same. Most young Alevis that spend time in these neighborhoods are either in low-income households or are unemployed. The working population spends most of their time outside of their neighborhoods, either at work or in transit.
As a result, there is little room for socialization within these neighborhoods. Young Alevis socialize with their colleagues or school friends from other neighborhoods instead. Even in the most isolated neighborhood we studied, Gülensu, we could not observe patterns of socialization. We did not come across young people or children out on the streets of Gülensu and our conversations with Alevi opinion leaders also supported our observation. Similarly, an interviewee declared that in Sarıgazi, young Alevis stage protests and demonstrations in their own neighborhood but choose to spend their social time in cafés on Demokrasi Street, outside of Sarıgazi.
However limited, patterns of socialization in these neighborhoods flow around the cemevi, the offices of socialist magazines or civil society organizations, and teahouses. The cemevi especially stand out as a place where Alevi youth, religious youth particularly, come together through various courses and cemevi volunteering. There is strong rhetoric suggesting cemevis cannot be a place for politics. This sensitivity is respected even by Alevi youth in left-socialist groups. Similarly, it is observed that leftist groups that didn’t consider the religious aspect of Alevism legitimate in the past began to encompass religious Alevi youth. There were even young people from leftist groups that fasted during Muharrem and attended or at least embraced cem. Opinion leaders also stated that the revolutionary groups’ attitudes on this issue are pretty different from those of the past and that they began to respect and embrace the Alevi faith’s religious demands.
Young Alevis may choose to socialize outside of their neighborhoods but their choice of friends are always members of their own community. They sometimes do befriend “others“ i.e. non- Alevis, however they always marry within their own community. Exceptions to this rule come from university educated and more affluent Alevis. Better-educated and higher-income Alevis move outside of their neighborhoods and socialize less and less with their own community anyway. Despite these developments, Alevis generally frown upon the idea of wedding their daughters to non-Alevis. There is a widely held belief that Alevi girls married into Sunni families suffer emotionally whereas Sunni girls married into Alevi families are very well-off. Alevi women married into Sunni families get exposed to social biases and stigmas attached to the Alevi identity and thus feel alienated. The Sunni yet secular and leftist women that marry into Alevi families, on the other hand, are seen to better adjust to the community and are more at ease.
In contrast, Alevi women married into pious Sunni families struggle to adapt to the traditions of their in-laws. Eventually, though there are no political objections to marrying outside of their community, most Alevis rely on these narratives to conclude that marrying “the other” will potentially cause great discomfort.
Protests and revolutionists
Leftist socialist groups, commonly referred to as “revolutionary structures,” make their presence clearly felt in the neighborhoods we studied. One exception is Sultanbeyli where revolutionary movements are not operational. Alevi neighborhoods in Sultanbeyli are very close to Kurdish neighborhoods, therefore Kurdish political groups operate in both Alevi and Kurdish populated parts of Sultanbeyli. In Sarıgazi and Gülensu, leftist/socialist groups are more active. Graffiti is a pretty normal element of the neighborhoods. So much so that even non-political messages are given through graffiti frequently. Revolutionary groups also gain visibility through the protests they hold in these neighborhoods. Various revolutionary groups organize their events independently from adjacent or competing groups in the same neighborhood. The most common demonstrations are those held against police violence
or commemorative events. When demonstrations highlight the innocence of the people remembered, more residents join in solidarity. Among those who we interviewed, Alevis who were not politically active declared that they supported commemoration events to venerate innocent lives lost. The murder of Hasan Ferit Gedik at the hands of a drug gang; the shooting to death by the police of Dilek Doğan who only insisted on following the hospital policy of wearing galoshes; and the murder of Berkin Elvan and other young lives lost during the Gezi protests are counted among “innocent” deaths. It is frequently mentioned that Alevis always preferred to be peaceful in the past but were subjected to state massacre even if they are “innocent.” These memories draw even the apolitical Alevis to the street protests. Police violence is a key element that builds and empowers the perception of “innocence.” Most young Alevis feel that law enforcement targets them and aims to annihilate their community. Young Alevis work up enmity towards police officers and justify acts of violence towards the police as forms of retaliation. Demonstrations in Alevi neighborhoods are justified often as reactions to police violence. Consequently, we observe among members of the Alevi community a widely held perception towards the police that they hate Alevis and attack innocent members of the community. In many ways, police officers are viewed as extensions of a state that seeks to exterminate Alevis. On the other hand, most young Alevis declare that they oppose violence, support peaceful civic action, and disapprove of demonstrations that result in public strife and damage. Even against these reservations young Alevis have towards protests and demonstrations, they also seem to have accepted revolutionary socialist movements within their community. Their acceptance is rooted in the fact that members of these movements are their friends and that such movements also serve to protect their neighborhoods against potential attacks.
Revolutionary socialist groups are also seeming to secure the neighborhoods from “prostitution,” “drug abuse,” and aggressive urban transformation projects that abruptly uproot residents from their homes. In Gülensu, the Partizan group is congratulated for their resistance against urban transformation projects and the People’s Front is well known for their fight against prostitution and drug gangs.19 Gülensu residents suspect that their neighborhood is a popular site for reconstruction and lucrative urban transformation projects and therefore they are being pressured into leaving. They also fear that they will be forced out of their homes. A teacher we interviewed in Gülensu told us that the students in her class felt the anxiety of an imminent and forced eviction from their homes so profoundly that they drew pictures of demolished homes in their art classes. Children and young people experience the anxiety of demolition and forced relocation very strongly. Another source of anxiety for young people is the widespread use of drugs. Drug use is reported to be very common in the three neighborhoods we studied. Some interviewees suggested that drugs were being deliberately introduced to Alevi neighborhoods so as to forcibly assimilate Alevis into the larger society. In the case of Gülensu, drugs are viewed very negatively as instruments to cause strife within the community and to undermine social solidarity.
To sum up, the police represent the main cause of conflict and tension in these neighborhoods. We did not detect any other group or institution that attracts the same level of hatred. On a rhetorical level, Alevis are at great odds with Sunnis, however this rhetorical clash does not translate into real life episodes of conflict between these two communities. On the contrary, many interviewees report that they interact more frequently with Sunnis today, discuss current events and Islam, and that some Sunnis even indicate their willingness to partake in cem rituals. In Sultanbeyli, for instance, Alevi communities live within arm’s reach of pious, Sunni communities. Symbolic forms of discrimination towards Alevis do exist in Sultanbeyli. However, there are also many cases of close interaction and inter-communal dialogue. A more recent development in Sultanbeyli is the emergence of ISIS and the anxiety that it causes among members of the Alevi community. Alevis perceive their conservative, pious neighbors as ISIS supporters because of the way they live and dress so they experience more anxiety about a potential surge in Islamism now than before. Alevis speculate that ISIS fighters are training in the forests surrounding their neighborhood and that many ISIS sympathizers reside in their neighborhood too. A latent fear of being “hunted down” reemerges with the nascence of ISIS in the global public agenda. As a result, Alevis resort to stereotypes about religious conservatism. This new upsurge in their collective anxiety is yet to manifest itself in the form of inter-communal conflict, however.
Many interviewees reported that there are episodes of conflict and violence between leftist groups within their neighborhoods. A recent episode that many referred to broke out between PKK supporters and members of the People’s Front. In the Nurtepe neighborhood of Kağıthane, members of the People’s Front reacted to members of the HDP, who set up a stand to promote their party’s Presidential candidate, Selahattin Demirtaş. The tensions, which escalated quickly and caused the death of an innocent resident20 gradually spread to other parts of the city that house Kurdish and Alevi residents and supporters of the People’s Front.
Sarıgazi was not spared in the escalation of tensions across the city. Interviewees declared that the fighting between these two sides have come to a halt but they also warned that revolutionary socialist groups were not necessarily on good terms with one another.
This psychology of anxiety, which shapes the Alevi identity, is fed by the memories of a traumatic past, the killing of innocent people, police repression, acts of the police that lead residents of these neighborhoods to believe they are hated and targeted, and the sacrifices that revolutionaries are seen to make in the service of their community. The historical narratives shared by the residents of these neighborhoods, the contribution to the securing of family homes that revolutionary groups have made, and the relatives and friends that are active members of revolutionary groups render these political bands affable to the Alevi community. Almost every young resident in these neighborhoods sympathizes with revolutionary groups however very few actually do sign up. The existence of personal connections has the greatest impact on membership decisions. Groups connect to young new recruits through friendship ties and cultural activities. On their own, these groups are hardly able to attract new members. They cannot offer comfortable lives and choosing to actively pursue the revolutionary struggle means making great sacrifices. They cannot achieve promising outcomes and induce very little hope. Most young Alevis are already well integrated into society and therefore confining themselves to a tightly knit network seems to be a difficult decision. Cemevi activities also quite effectively rival the activities organized by revolutionary groups. Cemevi offers not only spiritual but also cultural and artistic paths to community engagement in a relatively safe environment. As a result, revolutionary groups are left with the choice of recruiting new members from a smaller sample of Alevis that are skeptical towards the spiritual aspects of Alevism. In contrast, the spirituality in Alevism becomes more appealing to younger generations every day. Families also stand in the way of their children losing interest in Alevi spirituality and opting for a political struggle by way of revolutionary groups.
Family elders that have a history of revolutionary/leftist struggle make this cause appealing for younger generations; however, family elders are also the most effective barriers to youths signing up to the cause. Families actively discourage their young from joining revolutionary groups as they fear the repercussions for them and their children and wish their children to contribute to the family income by entering the labor market.
Young Alevis often take part in larger scale popular protests around “laicism” and “democracy.” These types of protests and mass demonstrations feel almost like religious practice to young Alevis. Going to public demonstrations mean, for young Alevis, leaving their neighborhoods, socializing, and partaking in cultural and social activities (these mass meetings often include poetry readings, music, theater performances, dances, etc.).
Young Alevis perceived the Gezi movement as a legitimate and innocent form of public demonstration. Even those Alevis that did not partake in the demonstrations exchange positive remarks about Gezi. Young Alevis agree that the Gezi movement was a justified public outcry against unjust and disproportionate acts of violence, just as they concur that emotional reactions to “innocent deaths” are legitimate. That before the Gezi protests began, the AK Party’s policies increasingly hindered individual freedoms is a widely-held belief, compounded by the Alevi community’s anxiety about being targeted and persecuted. These feelings prompted many Alevis to take part in the Gezi protests. In the minds of many young Alevis, the Gezi movement was innocent, legitimate, and just, regardless of whether they were in it or not.
In addition, for socialist youth Gezi signified the reemergence of a long-lost hope that a socialist utopia was possible. For the same set of young Alevis, Rojava represented another myth, and for socialists closer to the Kurdish movement, a symbolic and a real platform for struggle. Gezi and/or Rojava began to represent the hope for revolutionist youngsters that their efforts aren’t wasted and the prices they paid or will pay do have meaning. In fact, in one of the groups, “going to the mountains” and becoming a guerilla appears to be a romantic longing for those whose revolutionist friends have gone to Rojava.
As Alevis age and enter into married and professional lives, their relationship with their identities and the activities that they are compelled to perform in line with their identities change considerably. A stable professional life and commitment to revolutionary groups do not go hand in hand. Young Alevis that are more politically active often have part-time or temporary jobs. Families react to their children’s involvement in revolutionary groups because they wish financial stability for them and for the whole family. Marriage and family life often signal the decline of political activism for young Alevis. That is why revolutionary groups often bring together younger, unattached Alevis.
19 That Hasan Ferit Gedik was killed during this struggle impacted the community profoundly and rendered this struggle as legitimate and just. This has at the same time served to increase the social pressure on young Alevis to steer clear from drugs.
20 A 14–15 year old young man İbrahim Öksüz, who was allegedly non partisan, was caught in a cross fire and lost his life.
Alevi youth are searching for their identity. They seek to define who they are and to answer the questions raised about their identity from within and outside their community. Our focus with this research was the political mobility of the Alevi youth living in low-income Alevi neighborhoods. The interviews we conducted and our observations showed us that the Alevi quest for identity is paired with the process of their politicization. Young Alevis build their identity with political content rather than cultural and/or religious elements.
Neighborhoods like Gülsuyu/Gülensu, Sarıgazi/İnönü, Sultanbeyli/Yavuz Sultan Selim and Ahmet Yesevi offer safe havens for the Alevi community. They choose to reside in these neighborhoods and nowhere else. Their choice of these neighborhoods might be explained by financial reasons, however, Alevis’ desire for isolation can also be seen as a reflexive reaction for fighting against discrimination in the urbanization process. On the other hand, neighborhoods are transforming too. They are becoming more diversified. Young people move outside of their immediate neighborhoods to socialize. Urban transformation and the replacement of slum housing with high rises change the social structure. Access to better education and more income drives residents away from these neighborhoods.
As a result of these transformations in the neighborhoods and of the Alevi awakening, Alevis have, for a long time now, been opening up to the outside world. However, as they venture out of their close-knit communities, their identity attachments weaken and they encounter a crisis. They veer away from their fundamental values of privacy and isolation, which were long held because of their fear of persecution, destruction, or assimilation at the hands of the Sunni majority. This fear is still very persistent and supported by many recent incidents where Alevis were targeted and attacked. They feel an existential threat to their presence in Turkey. The events in Suruç and Ankara and the deaths from within their community during the Gezi movement add fuel to the fire. The Syrian crisis and the emergence of ISIS as a key Islamist threat in the region particularly threaten Alevis. The persistence of AK Party rule, which they detested since its initiation and presents various forms of restrictions on their lives, is a daily reminder that they are facing assimilation or annihilation.
While Alevisim, experienced on the basis of faith within a relatively safe rural environment, was differentiated in the urban context and Alevi youth sought their identities through political means. Young Alevis’ politicization triggered three dynamics. The first is a growing sense of anxiety we alluded to above. A result of more engagement with the other in the urban scene, young Alevis nursed fears of being “hurt,” “hunted down,” and “exterminated.” The threat they felt came from Sunni Islam and its perpetrators were the AK Party, the police, and more occasionally, radical Islamic groups, and recently ISIS. Young Alevis exploring their identity used references such as “victimhood” and “oppression” to capture what Alevism meant to them. They held the opinion that Alevis were repressed even though they were an “innocent” community, whose members are peaceful and non-violent. Many “innocent deaths” within their community coax young Alevis to join political movements. Anxiety and a sense of injustice represent the two key motivations of young Alevis for engaging in politics.
A second significant factor determining young Alevis’ politicization was the “Alevi Awakening.” Since the 1990s and especially after 2 July 1993, Alevis have been openly expressing their identities and actively defending their rights. For young Alevis who grew up in cities the struggle for their community’s rights became synonymous with Alevism. For young Alevis, defending the cemevi was more significant than attending rituals. Street demonstrations and protest marches signified not only a political struggle but also a means to form solidarity through socialization and cultural exchange. Alevi youths thus defined Alevism as “a struggle for their rights to exist, which will probably never be granted” and “a resistance against assimilation.”
A third and more minor, though not to be neglected dynamic in Alevi politicization is that revolutionary movements roam Alevi neighborhoods and encourage younger people to join them. Youngsters, who learned that those revolutionary groups they recognize through graffitied walls and clashes with the police have a share in the building of the neighborhood and protection of it and its Alevi residents from the rightists, come to sympathize with revolutionary/socialist groups even though they don’t participate. This sympathy is another factor that impacts youth’s political mobilization. In many ways, young Alevis are prone to become politicized.
On the other hand, the most dire need for young Alevis is to define the Alevi identity and to express who they are. Alevism is an embraced and loved identity for them. However, they are not clear about what it is and how it is experienced. Is Alevism more of a “faith system or religion or a culture and philosophy?” “Is it nestled under Islam or a separate faith system?” “How to describe its relationship with Kemalism?” These and other questions present challenges to young Alevis as they search for their identities. In response to these questions, young Alevis choose to characterize Alevism by highlighting what it is not: “We are not religious extremists, we do not follow the Muslim daily prayer.” They opt for more positive descriptions of Alevism when mentioning its history: “We are an oppressed people and always side with the oppressed.” Within the climate shaped by the three dynamics we listed above (anxiety, a search for identity, and a connection to the political left) Alevi youths take ownership of their identities; however, their sense of ownership is not motivated by Alevi spirituality only. As such, young Alevis’ search for identity follows three distinct paths:
- Being a religious Alevi and prioritizing the religious aspect of Alevism,
- Experiencing Alevism culturally, taking ownership of this identity, however showing little or no interest in the religious aspects of Alevism,
- Pursuing politics actively and experiencing Alevi identity politically.
We observe that the second path is the one most commonly trodden by young Alevis. However, we also detect a growing interest in the spiritual aspects of Alevism, especially among the youngest members of the community. Active politics was out of the question for Alevis in the past. Today, political activity – across the entire political spectrum – aligns well with the Alevi identity. Only a fraction of politically active young Alevis are in revolutionary socialist groups. Party politics is a more visible and predictable path that fewer members of the community pursue. On the other hand, as the two paths (of spirituality and cultural engagement) attract more and more young Alevis, political engagement gradually loses its appeal.
Young Alevis focus on the spiritual aspects of Alevism to support their identity formation processes. However, as they experience Alevism as a form of victimhood and an anxious state, they turn to defending their rights as a community and, almost inevitably, become politicized. When young Alevis cannot freely engage in the spiritual and cultural aspects of Alevism and as long as they continue to feel anxious and threatened, they end up perceiving Alevism as more of a political identity.
To facilitate a process whereby young Alevis freely experience the cultural and spiritual aspects of their identity, reversing the persistent state of anxiety, which generates over politicization, emerges as the first and most immediate step forward. Alevis in general and young Alevis in particular require an environment of safety and security away from life threats. They need to believe that members of their community will no longer be lost to “innocent deaths.”
Secondly, in order to change this sense of anxiety, signs that point to a Sunni assimilation threat in the perception of Alevis needs to be weakened. Renaming neighborhoods, parks, bridges, etc. offends Alevis and this practice needs to be abandoned. Essential Alevi demands starting with the ones about compulsory religion lesson in public schools and cemevi need to be responded to.
Another positive step would be to address the shared sense of anxiety that the Alevi community have is to pursue a broader process of normalization of the Alevi identity. The majority of Turkey’s society is completely alienated from the Alevi identity to the extent that most people feel shocked when they find out their close friends of many years were Alevi. The distance between the Alevi community and the larger society feeds into Alevis’ perceptions of isolation and oppression. Turkey’s society will need to view Alevis as a community that contributes to cultural diversity and not as a people that will need to be changed and assimilated. This could be achieved by making Alevism more visible and by encouraging more intercommunal dialogue and exchange. In tandem, young Alevis could be encouraged to engage more closely with Sunni citizens, especially the pious and practicing ones. To tackle reactive Islamophobia, anti-İslamophobic opinion leaders from the Alevi and the Sunni communities could collaborate, organizing projects in partnership with NGOs.
Another significant step in the normalization of relations is to lift the existing barriers to the Alevi religious practice. However, it should be noted that for Alevis, spirituality is intertwined with cultural practices. Even they see their cultural and spiritual presence as locked together in an organic bond. Therefore, when they are able to express themselves culturally, they feel the whole Alevi experience to be better lived. The cemevi function not only as houses of worship but also as cultural centers. Strengthening the capacity of the cemevi to serve as much as a cultural center as a house of worship would go a long way towards supporting the identity formation processes of young Alevis. Already, the cemevi offer courses in music, singing, and folklore. However, more structural and comprehensive services in the realm of culture are needed.
Young Alevis also feel anxious about being minorities and this layer of anxiety also impacts their identity formation. Though they are a minority community, Alevis distance themselves from the notion of being a minority. Being registered as such frightens Alevis as they seek to avoid further marginalization. They view their community as a core member of the founding nations of modern Turkey. Yet, Alevis also believe their community to be downtrodden and oppressed because they are weakly represented economically, politically, and in the state bureaucracy.
Against all the above-mentioned sources of anxiety, Alevis need to find sources of hope. Often they turn to the CHP to foster hope despite all their reservations and criticism of it. The HDP’s co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş partly fulfilled this mission, since his positive remarks about Alevism inspired a fraction of young Alevis before June 2015 elections. Another source of hope for young Alevis was the Gezi movement. Gezi signified for young Alevis a utopia of liberation. Yet, the hopes surrounding Gezi were short-lived, and save for a small group of people,
Gezi gradually lost its euphoric effect. To generate hope for young Alevis and change their anxious moods positively, steps towards normalization need to be taken as mentioned above. Normalization also needs to be complemented by moves to strengthen Alevis’ participation in politics and the economy. The recent rise in the Alevis’ once hesitant support to the CHP should be accounted to the fact that a member of the Alevi community was able to rise as high as party leadership within the CHP. Stories of success encourage Alevis to adopt a more hopeful approach and feel less anxious. Achieving more visibility and recognition and rising in the ranks of bureaucracy and politics would inevitably support feelings of hope among Alevis.
The same principle applies to the private sector. Furthermore, any moves within the AK Party to include Alevis would help alleviate some of the fears of Alevis. One of the explicit reasons why young Alevis are fervently against the AK Party is that they observe that Alevis cannot exist or rise to positions of influence within the AK Party. Similarly, Alevis are not represented within the state bureaucracy. Feelings of marginalization and oppression would fade if Alevis were able to see members of their community in established positions in politics and bureaucracy.
Another way to allay fear and anxiety among members of the Alevi community is economic empowerment. A newly urbanized community, the Alevis still represent a low-income cross-section of Turkey’s society. Residents of Alevi neighborhoods are particularly vulnerable economically and need to be supported with policies to facilitate their economic empowerment. Alevis have so far relied heavily on education as an instrument for economic mobility. Many Alevi NGOs and cemevi hold free courses to prepare students for university entrance exams. Certainly, university educated Alevis achieve better incomes and bring prosperity to their families. However, there could also be additional measures to trigger economic empowerment. For young people who cannot attend university, vocational training programs could be developed. Alevis also feel that great importance is given to women in their culture. This high potential for programs promoting women’s participation to work life could be considered.
Finally, Alevis need to rediscover and rebuild their faith while preserving their differences. They find their current situation far from ideal; however, their discontent is not caused by their distance from the spiritual aspects of Alevism. Rather, they require channels and institutions to support the development of their faith.
AUTHORDr. Ulaş Tol
About Berghof Foundation
This study is published in the context of a joint project of PODEM and the Berghof Foundation, an independent, non-governmental and non-profit organisation that supports sustainable peace through conflict transformation. With the mission of “creating space for conflict transformation”, the Berghof Foundation works with like- minded partners in selected regions to enable conflict stakeholders and actors to develop non-violent responses in the face of conflict-related challenges.
The opinions of the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Berghof Foundation.