Archive for December 2012
I previously blogged about the plight of minorities in Turkey. However that post fails to mention Turkey’s largest religious minority, the mostly invisible Alevis. Similar to the United States, the Turkish government does not collect data regarding the religious affiliation of its citizens. Estimates of the number of Alevis in Turkey vary greatly, ranging between 10% and 30% of the total population. A secret Turkish military survey revealed by wikileaks places the number at 7 million out of a total of about 75 million citizens. However, even the smaller estimates place the number of Alevis in Turkey far above the number of all other religious minorities combined. Despite their large numbers, Alevis are still widely misunderstood both in and outside of Turkey. Although their names are similar, Alevis are not analogous to Alawites, the religion to which Bashar al-Assad and his family belong. Alevism is not a “tribal” or ethnically exclusive religion; it is practiced by Turks as well as Kurds.
Alevism is a syncretic religion, meaning their traditions and beliefs draw from a number of different faiths. Many Alevis will quite proudly attest to the fact that throughout its history it has incorporated elements from a diverse array of religions including but not limited to Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Altaic Shamanism. Alevis do not believe that praying five times a day, fasting during Ramadan or performing the pilgrimage to Mecca is required by God. They do not condemn Muslims who do worship in the traditional ways but consider the Alevi worship as being on a higher level and therefore closer to the divine. Alevis also have a more relaxed attitude in regards to proper interaction between the sexes in both sacred and secular spaces. Alevi women worship side by side with men, are less likely to veil and more likely to freely interact with unrelated men.
Alevi worship does not take place in a mosque. In traditional Alevi communities, families with large enough homes would volunteer to host the central Alevi worship ceremony, called a Cem. During the ceremony, worshipers sit in a circle and participate in cycles of sacred readings, music and dance. The Dede directs the ceremony and recites from the works of Hacı Bektaş and other sacred Alevi figures. Most of the time the Qur’an is not cited, nor do the worshipers ever engage in Sunni-style prayer cycles. For majority of Alevi history the Cem was closed to outsiders. Even outsider Alevis were barred from attending local ceremonies. One of the mandatory preconditions for a Cem was a state of peaceful relations between all people in the worship space. The presence of a stranger added enough reasonable doubt to prevent a verdict of community harmony. The secretive nature of Cem ceremonies led to rampant speculation and suspicion on the part of outsiders. Accusations of immoral acts, particularly orgies, were common. Even today it is not unusual for Turkish Sunni Muslims to infer that a Cem concludes with an orgy.
The state provides official funding and support of all recognized religions in Turkey, including those of the dwindling Jewish and Christian communities. However, Alevism has never been recognized as a separate religious tradition. Alevis have always been lumped into the catchall of “Muslim” in 99% Muslim Turkey. Alevis rarely if ever utilize Sunni Muslim mosques and institutions but their Cemevis (Cem houses) and organizations receive no government funding.
In the past few years certain Alevi organizations have worked with the government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in an attempt to resolve the prejudices against and unequal treatment of Turkish Alevis. In 2009 and 2010 a series of “workshops” addressing the grievances of Alevis took place. However, the vast majority of Alevis feel that these workshops had little effect on the discrimination they encounter.
The workshops, despite their ultimate ineffectiveness, were at least a step in toward addressing discrimination against Alevis. As in the case of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, the AKP has recently been back sliding toward a more repressive position on Alevi rights. An Alevi member of the Turkish National Assembly recently requested that worship space be provided for him in the Assembly building. His request was denied by both a ranking member of the Assembly and the local court because “it is not possible to consider cemevis and other [such] premises as places of worship, because Alevism, which is a sub-group of Islam, cannot have a place of worship other than mosques or mescits, which are common places of worship within Islam…”
Because of their more “liberal” beliefs and practices, they are often portrayed by the Western media as the “good” Muslims. Time described as Alevis as practicing “… a faith-based humanism big enough to incorporate both piety and modernity” and a version of Islam that is “unflinchingly progressive.” This simplistic depiction of Alevis does nothing to help their position. Alevis themselves are struggling with how to define and take ownership of their religious traditions. The last thing they need is for the Western media to hold them up as a shining example of what we think Muslims should be. Defining Alevis as “good” Muslims is on par with the Turkish government’s insistence that Alevis are Sunnis. Both of these assertions stem from an urge to shape Alevis to preconceived ideologies. When the West seeks out “progressive” Muslims such as the Alevis they are reinforcing the notion that “fundamentalists” Muslims are in the majority. When the AKP insists that Alevis are Sunnis, they are protecting the appearance of a unified and uniform ethno-religious nation-state. The AKP and the West alike must acknowledge and accept that Alevis fit within the broad spectrum that encompasses Muslim belief and practice in Turkey (and the Muslim world at large) and allow them to freely define and practice their religion without ideological interference.
Television in Turkey has become a hot topic over the last few weeks. First, PM Erdoğan decided to inform the world of his dislike for the immensely popular soap opera Muhteşem Yüzyıl. He based his disdain in the program’s depiction of the Sultan Süleyman I convorting in his harem and drinking wine instead of fighting and conquering. Erdoğan went on to make a barely veiled call to ban the show. Now a member of parliament has taken up the cause and is introducing a bill that would restrict the depiction of historical characters in a “humiliating” manner.
In a separate incident last week, the Turkish television and radio regulatory agency fined a Turkish television channel for airing an episode of the Simpsons which they found offensive. The episode is describe as insulting God and religion by the agency. They claimed to be acting in the interest of “protecting children, not God” from subversive material.
It would be easy to dismiss the public uproar over this incidents as overblown. After all the programs in question are merely a soap opera and a foreign cartoon. However, the the censorship of these shows is part of a larger trend of the Turkish government quashing of freedom of speech. The Turkish press is unhealthily restricted. Notoriously, Turkey currently has more journalists in jail than any other country in the world. Websites such as blogger and youtube have been periodically blocked and Turkey has the dubious honor of lodging the most requests for content bans with Google. In the beginning of 2012, Twitter agreed to censor insulting remarks aimed at Ataturk and any discussion of the Armenian Genocide.
Some media outlets, especially those which subscribe to theories of “creeping Islamization”, have interpreted the recent acts of television censorship as proof that Erdoğan and the AKP are out to create an Islamic state. Out of context, it may appear as if Muhteşem Yüzyıl and the Simpsons were targeted because of their glorification of practices and beliefs that go against some of the teachings of Islam. However, the actions taken by this current government fit into the long history of state censorship in the Republic of Turkey. As Dov Friedman puts it “the AK Party acts increasingly authoritarian in ways unrelated to its Islamist roots.” The first three leaders of the Republic, Atatürk, Inönü and Menderes, all restricted the freedom of the press in the interest of advancing their own agenda. Previous to the 1998 soft coup, Turkey also led the world in number of imprisoned journalists. The new law created in response to Muhteşem Yüzyıl would in effect be an extension of the already existing bans on insulting both “Turkishness” and Ataturk. Law 5816 About Crimes Against Atatürk has been in effect since 1951 and article 301 of the Turkish penal code regarding insults to “Turkishness” was passed under the current government in 2005. Despite being passed under an “Islamist” government, Article 301 has all the features of classic Turkish secular nationalism. There is no mention of Islam, only the “sacred” institutions of the Turkish Republic: the branches of government, the military and the Turkish “nation”
Having been born, raised and educated in a society which accepted and even welcomed a certain level of state media control, the leadership of the AKP has now begun to echo their secular predecessors, almost in spite of themselves. After all, Erdogan himself spent
nearly a year four months in jail for a speech crime. The censoring and/or banning of Muhteşem Yüzyıl and the Simpsons is disturbing not because it is a sign that the AKP government is becoming more “Islamist” but that they are returning to the bad old days of Turkish secular authoritarianism.