In a controversial pre-election move aimed at Turkey’s Alevi population, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan established a new public agency to coordinate Alevi places of worship.
The new organization, attached to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, will, according to the decree, investigate the needs of Cemevis – houses of worship of the Alevi community – as well as Alevism and Bektashism. It seeks to constitute an 11-member consultative body, all of whom will be selected by the President.
Although Erdogan hopes to reach some members of the 20-million-strong minority — which is not part of Erdogan’s traditional voting base — the initial reaction has been skepticism. As the so-called Agency for Alevi-Bektashi Cultural Centers and Cemevis advanced through parliament on Tuesday, several Alevi groups demonstrated outside, with police setting up barriers to keep demonstrators away.
Many members of the Alevi community and opposition parties have criticized the bill as an aesthetic measure that ignores the real needs of the community and denies it recognition as a religious and cultural community. Alevis, Turkey’s second largest minority group, represent a diverse and often ostracized branch of Islam. Like the Shiites, they revere Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, but their faith is a unique version of Islam that combines Sufi traditions with Anatolian folklore. Men and women worship each other.
“What the Alevis want is for their semevis to be recognized as places of worship, not as cultural centers,” Mithat Sankar, co-chair of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party, said in a parliamentary debate. “They want a liberal, secular education for their children” rather than a curriculum that focuses on Sunni Islam and refers to Alevism as a culture.
Sankar said the government’s plan to create an agency under the Ministry of Culture treats Alevism as a cultural community and falls short of what Alevis want and what international organizations are demanding from Ankara.
“This law diminishes their fair fight for constitutional rights to electricity bills and subsidies,” he added, referring to the government’s promise that Semevis would now benefit from government subsidies such as mosques, synagogues and churches.
The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, instead of respecting the rulings of European courts against the Alevi community in Turkey, is looking to use the Alevi situation as a propaganda tactic to “divide society,” Sankar said.
“Police attacked our Alevi brothers who were demonstrating against the bill outside parliament and one of the community leaders, Selal Firat, was taken to the hospital,” he added.
In a statement from the hospital, Firat, head of the Federation of Alevi Associations, reiterated that Alevis want to be recognized as Alevis citizens with equal rights as well as places of worship rather than cultural centers.
Sarwar Ansal from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) also criticized the police crackdown on demonstrators outside parliament. “Police set up barricades and used gas against Alevi citizens who wanted equal citizenship. “Your law is just for show,” he said.
Erdogan posted a celebratory message on the new law. “I hope this stage is ours Democratic reforms“Benefits our country and our Alevi-Bektashi brothers and sisters,” he tweeted. Members of his government followed suit, including the Minister of Culture and Tourism. Mehmet Nuri Ersoy and Home Minister Suleiman Soylu.
Erdogan’s announcement follows a series of attacks on Alevi leaders and places of worship in Istanbul and Ankara in August. Following the attacks, Erdogan visited Huseyn Gazi Simevi in Ankara for the first time in his 20-year rule. The hastily arranged visit created a divide in the Alevi community, some of whom refused to attend the meeting, calling it a political demonstration.
The Alevi community’s distrust of the government stems in part from past insulting comments by members of the ruling party, including the president. When he was mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan, a devout Sunni, called Semevis (Semevleri in Turkish) “Kumbusevleri”, meaning “”Houses of Spree.” More recently, he has previously said that Semevis are cultural centers and that Muslims “worship in mosques,” implying that Alevis are not true Muslims.
Turkey’s Alevis have faced centuries of persecution and discrimination at the hands of the country’s Sunni Muslim majority. Persecuted as heretics during the Ottoman period, they were on a state watch list during the Republic because of their strong leftist leanings and ethnically Kurdish factions. In 1993, a group of Sunni fanatics set fire to the Madimak Hotel in the central Anatolian city of Sivas, where the famous Turkish writer Aziz Nesin was holding a conference. They killed about 37 intellectuals, mostly Alevis. The Alevi community’s demand to convert the hotel into a museum was ignored.
The Alevi community in Turkey has been signaling for more than a decade that discrimination is reaching dangerous levels. Community leaders have blamed Erdogan, accusing him of recklessly playing the sectarian card for political gain, eager to keep his Sunni base strong. But to go to the polls, Erdogan seems eager to get some Alevi votes from the CHP, whose leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu is an Alevi from Dersim.
“The reason we support Alevis Kilicdaroglu is not because he is Alevi,” Heydar Baki Dogan, chair of the Federation of Alevi Foundations, told the leftist daily Birgan. “Whether it’s Kilicdaroglu or someone else, we will support the six-party opposition candidate.”