Atatürk's Republic

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Posts Tagged ‘minorities

Peace in the Middle East

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It is not an exaggeration to say that the last two days have been of historic importance for Turkey.  First, as anticipated, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan made a Nowruz declaration calling for a cease-fire and reconciliation with Turkey.  Then today, in a quite unexpected turn of events facilitated by President Obama, PM Netanyahu of Israel apologized to PM Erdogan over the phone for the death of Turkish civilians in the Mavi Marmara incident.

The cease-fire declaration by Ocalan is an indisputably important gesture toward real, lasting peace between the Turkish government and its Kurdish minority.  But the question remains will the Turkish government do its part to bring about this reconciliation?  As I previously argued, I believe that PM Erdogan has the power to end the Kurdish insurgency.  There have already been a number of articles which outline the obstacles which still must be overcome before the cease fire can be deemed a success.  Factors such as disarmament and amnesty are certainly extremely important in the short term.  However, the only way to ensure that the peace between Turks and Kurds lasts is to grant Kurds all of the political, cultural and linguistic rights that they demand, without exception.  Any lingering rights issue has the potential to fester into renewed insurgency.  Of course fully and legally acknowledging the rights of Turkeys’ Kurdish minority is not without its risks.  Turkey’s violent and vocal far-right ultra-nationalists will never accept the right of non-Turkish and non-Sunni groups to live freely in Turkey.  Turkey must carefully monitor these extremists to be sure they do not sabotage the peace process, but their reaction must not be given undo consideration.  Turkey must continue to move forward in giving all its citizens equal rights even if there are groups that wish otherwise.

The apology from Israel is situated perfectly (perhaps purposely given the fact that Davutoglu and the Foreign Ministry were circumvented) to maximize Erdogan’s popularity and therefore his power to orchestrate the rapprochement between the Turkish government and the PKK.  Some have worried that if Erdogan appeared too eager to placate the Kurds and Ocalan, he risked alienating his conservative Turkish base.  However, the Israeli apology is the perfect bone to throw to his supporters.  If Erdogan does not take advantage of this moment to do everything he can to ensure a successful peace process between Turkey and the PKK, then he truly never was committed to peace in the first place.

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Written by ataturksrepublic

March 22, 2013 at 8:30 pm

Alevis: Past, Present and Future

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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.

Written by ataturksrepublic

December 21, 2012 at 8:19 pm

Posted in Religion

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The Fate of Minorities in Turkey

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The Old Greek Orphanage on Buyukada

Last summer when I visited Buyukada I briefly discussed the confiscation of properties owned by ethnic minorities by the Turkish State.  The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in 2010 that confiscated properties must be returned.  Predictably, the Turkish government has made few efforts to ensure the former owners of properties in Turkey are given justice.  In August of last year the Turkish government passed legislation in order to comply with the ruling of the ECHR.  However, the majority of appeals by property owners have been rejected.

The once numerous Christian and Jewish minorities of Turkey have been the victims of discriminatory legislation dating back to the Ottoman Empire.  However, the large-scale exodus of these groups did not occur until the founding of the Turkish Republic.  Turkey and Greece exchanged the bulk of their Christian and Muslim minorities respectively in the early 1920s.  Throughout the 20th century, both countries have been guilty of official discrimination against the small groups of ethno-religious minorities which were allowed to remain.  In the case of Turkey, a series of crushing taxes directed specifically at minorities stripped Jews and Christians alike of their businesses, wealth and property.  Convinced of  the Turkish government’s animosity, many victims of these taxes left to rebuild their lives elsewhere.  Non-citizen Greek minorities, many of whom had family members with full citizenship,were subject to several waves of deportation.  These deportations aimed to force families to emigrate en mass with their non-citizen relatives.  This systematic persecution created the 99% Muslim Turkey we know today.  Outside of the property disputes, the Turkish government continues to show little concern for protecting the few minority enclaves that remain in Turkey.

As I discussed in my last post, Turkey’s Kurdish minority population has also been subject to official persecution at the hands of the state.  However, unlike the Greek, Jewish and Armenian populations in Turkey, Kurds are without the benefits provided by an ethnic nation-state.  However, the conflict in Syria has revitalized the movement for an independent Kurdistan.  Although the prospect of a greater, independent Kurdistan remains somewhat of a pipe-dream, in a post-Assad Syria Kurds could officially gain control over an autonomous region, similar to the situation in Iraq.  The power-vacuum left in the wake of the civil war in Syria has already de facto created a such a region.  A Syrian Kurdish autonomous region would certainly go far in ensuring the rights of Kurds in a post-Assad Syria.  However, Kurdish politics are bound to spill across boarders.  The current situation in Syria has arguably already negatively impacted the Kurdish community in Turkey and contributed to Erdoğan’s recent retreat from his previous support of greater Kurdish cultural rights.

Kurdish Syrians and Iraqis seem satisfied to remain in autonomous regions united to their respective countries for the time being.  However,  if either or both should gain true independence, I fear for the continued existence of the Kurdish community in Turkey.  For the past century, the Turkish government has failed to incorporate its Kurdish citizens into greater Turkey either through integration or autonomy.  If a “homeland” is created for them elsewhere, Kurds may face intense pressure to immigrate.  I do not envision it being as harsh as the cleansing of the Armenians from Anatolia, the Turkish government is far too sophisticated to engage in such open brutality.  However, policies similar to those that helped to drive out members of the Greek and Jewish communities (taxes, property confiscation, etc) could be employed to make life (even more) intolerable for Turkey’s Kurds.  At this point in time, it is hard to predict how the Kurds on both sides of the boarder will fare in the wake of the Syrian civil war.  However, I predict that the more power Syrian Kurds have on regions bordering Turkey, the harder life will become for Turkish Kurds.

Written by ataturksrepublic

November 27, 2012 at 8:02 pm