Turkey's Alevi muslims look to EU for protection from intolerance

19.12.08 @ 20:51

  1. By Teresa Küchler

"From next year, there will be a ban on smoking in bars and restaurants in Istanbul, just like in the EU. There is no chance that that will ever work here though," says Ozlem, a Turkish musician, as he roles himself another cigarette.

  • God does not reside in a stone, but in the heart of people, Turkish Alevi muslims argue. (Photo: EUobserver)

The tobacco is from his eastern home region in Turkish Kurdistan. It has a soft, sweet taste and smell.

"This kind goes very well with raki," Ozlem's friend the taxi driver fills in, serving yet another round of the strong drink, a local version of France's pastis or Greece's ouzo. "I will get you a pack," he adds.

"They are trying to please Europe with the smoking bans," continues Ozlem, who has travelled almost the entire continent with his band, and seems to know every obscure festival in the European alternative music landscape.

If Turkey joins the EU, he could follow his German girlfriend to Germany, would he want to. He pretty much likes Istanbul.

Sitting just off the city's busiest shopping and party street, Istiklar, under a breathtaking sunset over the Bosporus and with some cold Raki in hands, it's difficult to see why he would not.

"In the last ten years, a lot has changed in this country. It is true that you see more veils on women - the new government has made Islam more trendy, kind of. But look around you, the girls are drinking cocktails and wearing tight jeans and all," the 35-year-old divorcé says, pointing at the people around us.

"The attitudes towards Kurds in Istanbul is better now, maybe it is because Europe is watching," he says. Ozlem and his friends are Kurdish and on top of that Alevi muslim, a not-so-trendy - in the eyes of the government - version of Islam.

A progressive, controversial, Islam

Last month, tens of thousands of Alevi muslims gathered for the "Great Alevi March" through the streets of Ankara, demanding full religious rights. They accused the government of pursuing an assimilation campaign, sending imams to Alevi villages to push them towards Sunni Islam.

The demonstrators called for abolition of compulsory Sunni religion classes, and demanded that their cemevis places of worship are recognised as such.

Between 15 and 30 percent of the 70 million Turks, depending on who is counting, follow Alevi doctrine.

"One must not violate the rights of the other person, believe in the unity of God, love the other person and share with the other person." According to Alevi leader Izzetin Dogan these are the four main principles of Islam. He says Alevism is a "philosophy of love".

Modern Alevism is however more political than such a description. Strongly influenced by humanism, it promotes an unflinchingly progressive stance on a number of controversial issues: Alevis favour support abortion rights and equal opportunities for women and gays. They are also extreme pacifists.

Alevism allow alcohol and forbids polygamy, and its followers do not perform the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca - a journey that according to most Muslims must be carried out at least once in a lifetime.

God does not reside in a stone, but in the heart of people, the Alevis argue, referring to the Black Stone within the Kaaba, the most sacred site within Islam.

Commentators on EU-Turkey relations in the country say that the treatment of the Alevis may become the key litmus test to see whether the governing Justice and Development Party, or AKP, a moderate Islamic party that has fought to ease Turkey's strict secularist rules, is committed to religious freedom for any other religion than its own.

The country's government and its Religious Affairs Directorate, a state-run department that funds mosques, churches and synagogues, refuse to recognise Alevi cemevi as places of worship.

Or at least they did until Brussels started presenting the EU candidate state with paragraphs on minority rights in its treaties. Suspicion of Alevis is however deeply rooted in secular yet Sunni Turkey.

Incest rites and orgies

From the magnificent Sultan Ahmet Camii, or Blue Mosque, in the heart of the Old Town of Istanbul, practicing Muslims pour out from Friday prayers into the street and soon mix with crowds of tourists and vendors of religious kitsch.

"We Sunnis do not believe that Alevis are real Muslims, even if some of them seem to believe it themselves. They do not fast during Ramadan; they do not go to mosques ... they have strange ideas," a middle-aged man who lingers around the mosque in the cold autumn sun to enjoy a roasted corn cob together with his son.

The man says he is not bothered with the Alevis in his daily life, for that, he is far too busy. But he would not want his son, Mehmet, a lanky teenager who translates his fathers words into correct school English, to marry an Alevi woman, he says.

Turkish media have reported about assaults on alcohol sellers in neighbourhoods with both Sunni and Alevi populations.

Some commentators argue that the assaults have nothing to with Islamic resistance to alcohol in general - the centre of Istanbul is full of bars who serve the same kind of alcoholic beverages as in any other European metropolis - but rather come from anger from the neighbours that Alevis have moved into the quarter.

False rumours about Alevis engaging in group-sex and conducting religious rites in cemevis involving incest are also widespread.

Alevi goes to court

But despite the intolerance shown them, Alevi self-confidence has grown considerably over the last few years. Many look to the West for support.

Last year, an Alevi parent took the Ankara government to the European Court of Human Rights, angered over the fact that his daughter had to participate in compulsory Sunni religion classes.

The Strasbourg-based court ruled that the school's biased teaching was not upholding principles of pluralism and objectivity, and demanded that the Turkish government develop new school curricula. So far, no new curricula have emerged.

Early this month, however, the governing AKP announced that they might be open to the teaching of Alevi faith in Turkish schools.

"Religion class should depart from individual demands. If Alevis want to learn the Alevi faith, then we can pave the way for this," Nihat Ergun, deputy leader of the AKP parliamentary group recently told media in Ankara.

Furthermore, following EU remarks on what the union perceives as intolerance against non-Sunnis within the Turkish government, Ankara has throughout the year promised Brussels it will increase the rights of the Alevi and other minorities.

But the Religious Affairs Directorate refuses to fund cemevis. Instead, the culture ministry will handle the matter, somewhat surprisingly though, as the culture minister had earlier said his ministry had nothing to do with the representation of religious groups.

"The state cannot define what is a faith, and what is not," culture minister Ertugrul Gunay told Turkish media late last month.

Islam and Europe

The role of muslims in Europe and European attitudes towards Islam has moved up the political agenda in the EU, with the bloc officially celebrating the year of intercultural dialogue throughout 2008.

Focusing on religious education in schools, EU culture commissioner Jan Figel said earlier this year that in most European schools, students are separated according to faith and are taught separately and only about their own religion.

He said he would encourage member states to review school curricula so that pupils will receive knowledge of the cultures they live with and around, such as Islamic cultures.

Individual MEPs have pointed out that even in countries that are not very religious, people should know more about religion, if for no other reason than to be able to distinguish what is not religion - referring to the fact that people wrongly link violence and terrorism to Islam.

Alevi leader Muharrem Ercan from the Karacaahmet Sultan cemevi in Istanbul said recently in an interview that he believes that Alevi doctrine can improve relations between Islam and the West, saying: "We solved the issue of whether Islam could be tolerant 750 years ago".

He said it is now up to the rest of Turkey to catch up with them.

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