Ertem said that non-Muslim communities in Turkey were some of the original inhabitants of Turkey, and that the state must do its best to provide services for them. “The rights which were or will be granted to you under laws are not favors. They are your rights, which were removed from you in the past. You don’t have to thank anybody for them. Yet your victimization is so great that you feel the need to give thanks for having what you should already have had in the first place. This is actually a paradox,” he added.
We can confidently assert that this is the first time a state official has made such remarks in the last 100 years of Turkish history. Moreover, from previous developments and efforts, we know that these words are truly sincere. But what is more striking is that such a position is displayed not by a politician, but by an official of a “special” institution.
Indeed, throughout the history of the republic, the Directorate General for Foundations (VGM) of which Ertem is head is an institution that has been influenced very little by politics, which has never changed its attitude according to changing governments and which has directly “represented the state.” The VGM has always been an ideological follower and implementer of the mentality of the Committee of Progress and Union (CUP), and has used every opportunity to capture the foundations established by non-Muslim communities. Therefore, there is a paradox: A major institution that represents the “essence” of the state not only acts in breach of this “essence,” but also posits this new stance as an ethical and democratic norm.
This implies that the policy of creating an internal enemy out of non-Muslims in Turkey has been completely abandoned. It also indicates that the attitude of perceiving non-Muslims as the fifth column of the West and portraying and targeting the West as an imperialist actor is being jettisoned as well.
However, turning our face away from this optimism-instilling picture, we come across another paradox which is hard to explain: How can we account for the government’s poor attitude toward the Alevi issue, despite its extremely delicate handling of human rights and the properties of diversity in general? The Alevi issue is not like the Kurdish issue. Alevis do not engage in violent acts against the state with the intention of creating a rebel zone. The state may resort to such justifications, although they are unconvincing, to deny even the most natural rights of Kurds, but it cannot provide any reasonable justification for its treatment of Alevis.
All the demands of the Alevis are extremely innocent and ordinary in a democratic country: making compulsory courses on religion optional, granting the right to open and use cemevis -- a cultural and religious center for Alevis -- as places of worship and the reorganization of the Religious Affairs Directorate, taking into consideration the Alevi community. Clearly, these demands are nothing but a manifestation of the right to enjoy one’s faith...
But although the government has already recognized all of the worshiping rights of non-Muslims and is now “calling” on them to become citizens once again by returning their confiscated properties, it can ignore the most fundamental rights of Alevis. The government had tried to maintain an “initiative” to deal with the demands of Alevis and has held many meetings to this end, but it has never tried to implement any measure contained in the reports written as a result of these meetings.
This ambivalent situation and different perspective on Alevis than on other groups has one clear historical reason: In the Ottoman universe, non-Muslims were defined in a clear and open manner and were placed to a non-Islamic category. But Alevis, though had been taken under state control in the early 16th century, were never openly defined. Instead, they came to be perceived as an eccentric sect, an “immature remnant” of the Sunni community. Politically, the state has never been uneasy about non-Muslims because its administrative legitimacy has come from Islam, but Alevis have always been a source of concern as this faith was part of Islam and was very close to the religious mentality that was dominant at the time of the establishment of the Ottoman Empire.
Today’s Sunni Muslims want to be modern and democratic, but they will not achieve this political culture unless they overcome this ambivalent stance regarding Alevism, and the ensuing paradox.