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Saturday, February 11, 2017

Religious Diversity And The Alevi Struggle For Equality In Turkey

http://www.forbes.com

Turkey is a country with diverse beliefs. Its religious diversity, however, is neither acknowledged nor appreciated. Instead, the country is portrayed to be homogenous, with a 99.8% Islamic population, a number that is rather more determined by the compulsory note (“Islam”) in government-issued identification documents and the historic effort to suppress diversity than by the actual status-quo of religious beliefs in the country.

Though in rather low numbers, Turkey’s population includes Christians, Jews, Greek Orthodox and other diverse religions. 
There is also an increasing number of progressive Turks who are agnostic, deities or atheists. However, the main religious group outside of Sunni Islam is the Alevi, a group that makes up an estimated 15-25% of the population. Alevis are also the religious group that Turkey has had the longest-lasting “struggles” with, struggles that continue to-date, as the current government continues to deny the group equal rights.

Who are the Alevis?
Alevi is a religious group in Turkey, not to be confused with Alewites in Syria. They are followers of Ali, the brother-in-law of Prophet Muhammed. Alevi is a mystical belief that is rooted in Islam and Sufism with some traditions of Christianity and Shamanism. It is a religion that is based on humanistic ideals of love and tolerance expressed in mystical poems instead of strict rules, passed on through oral tradition. Alevis have been discriminated against and persecuted in Turkey, based on dehumanizing allegations that Alevi rituals include incestual sexual orgies (“mum söndürmek”).

How are Alevis different from Sunnis?
Some of the differences between Alevi and Sunni include their places of worship. Sunnis worship in mosques; Alevis worship in cem evi. Mosques and cem evi are fully separate entities that have little to do with each other. Additional differences include that Alevis don’t separate by gender during worship, as women and men worship together, a feature of Alevi belief that has historically been one of the major sources of friction, as Sunni men and women worship in separate rooms in the mosque, allegedly making them more “pure” and subsequently justifying harassment against Alevis. Sunni men lead the prayer in the main hall of the mosque, while women worship in a smaller back room. There are, however, also differences in the form of worship. Alevi worship includes singing and Semah, a form of spiritual dance, whereas Sunnis worship via Namaz ritual. An additional distinguishing factor between Alevi and Sunnis includes that Alevis don’t fast during the major fasting period Ramadan, but instead during Muharram.

It is important to note here that some Alevis consider themselves a branch of Islam, whereas others don’t. While until recently, Alevis were not accepted as Muslims regardless of how they identified themselves, today they are denied rights and recognition as Turkish courts argue that “Alevism is a religious movement within Islam”. Apparently, in Turkey any information about Alevis can be interpreted in a way that justifies discrimination against the group.

Quest for equality
Despite the fundamental differences in religious practices between the two groups, the Turkish government to-date refuses to acknowledge Alevi cem evi as the legitimate place of worship and to grant cem evis the same financial support and relief as mosques. Instead, Turkey claims that cem evi is a cultural entity, as if the government should make any such determinations over a religion, particularly a religion that the ruling party does not represent—currently not even by one single member in the parliament. As the Turkish government continues its assimilation efforts, Mr. Erdogan’s vision for Turkey remains his self-proclaimed one religion, one place of worship.

Alevis in Turkey, however, have seen worse times. They have not only been dehumanized and harassed, but also subjected to attacks and killings such as during the massacres in Sivas, Çorum, Maraş and Dersim. Erdogan’s Alevi opening, regardless of how short-lived it was, at least ensured that Alevi existence can no longer be denied in Turkey. Subsequently, Alevis can now demand rights that they previously could not.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
In view of the increase in religious intolerance against Muslims, it is important to protect vulnerable Muslims living anywhere in the world. However, it is also important to point out injustices that happen in predominantly Muslim countries. Religious intolerance and discrimination are despicable regardless of where they happen and who conducts it.

Ms. Dudek also served on the executive board of the International Society for Diversity Management in Berlin, as well as the City of Kalamazoo Community Relations Board. She received The National Security Education Program (NSEP) award in 2014.  

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