With a population said to be between six and 15 million, nobody knows just how many Alevis live in Turkey.
Their numbers fuzzied by state polls that do not differentiate between orthodox Suni and Alevi Muslims, Alevism’s more esoteric take on Islam has long lacked official status in a country where the term “minority” is associated strictly with the country’s Christian and Jewish communities.
The census-taker’s oversight would be just as well for most Alevis, who today largely live in harmony with their Sunni neighbors. But for decades, their lack of official status has denied Alevi groups access to state funds for the construction of their houses of worship -- known as cemevis -- and compensation for the expenses needed to run them.
This week, Republican People’s Party (CHP) Tunceli deputy Huseyin Aygün suggested that a cemevi should be built in the parliament building in Ankara, telling the press that he had sent a formal application to the office of the parliament speaker on Monday. The request was made so that “the necessary procedures can be started to, first of all, set up a space for worship and afterward open a proper cemevi,” said Aygün.
The application, for which Aygün said he had “positive expectations” when speaking to the press on Thursday, is sure to be a symbolic test of the government’s willingness to recognize cemevis as houses of worship. Cemevis -- rather than mosques -- are the center of the Alevi faith’s unique mix of Sufi Islam and ancient Anatolian folk rituals.
The government has made clear strides in recognizing as much in recent years. State leaders have sought warmer relations with Alevi leaders and paid numerous visits to cemevis, including a landmark visit by President Abdullah Gül to a cemevi in the predominately Alevi city of Tunceli in 2009. In 2011, the government took the bold step of formally apologizing for the 1937 Dersim massacre, an acknowledgement of the government’s killing of thousands of predominately Alevi tribesmen in the southeastern town of Dersim.
Despite such steps, Alevi activists say the government still has a long way to go in rapprochement efforts they describe as “important but so far mostly symbolic.” Professor İzzettin Doğan, chairman of the Cem Foundation, expressed his reservations about government-Alevi relations to Sunday’s Zaman on Thursday, arguing that attitudes won’t change until the budget of the Religious Affairs Directorate ceases to be exclusively reserved for the Sunni community. “You are collecting taxes from Alevis but spending that money only on Sunni Islam. Given Article 10 of the constitution, which prescribes that all are equal before the law, what Alevis have been living in terms of practice of faith, it’s just tragicomic,” he said. In January, Doğan petitioned the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to force Ankara to share directorate funds equally.
Doğan and other activists’ deep-seated distrust of the directorate is why many remain suspicious of what Aygün’s measure can accomplish. Mustafa Özcivan, vice chair of the Hacıbektaş Veli Cultural Association, told Sunday’s Zaman on Monday that “it’s quite natural for a cemevi to be established in Parliament, given that people are supposed to have freedom of religion in Turkey,” but warned that such a step may still not change mentalities about the validity of cemevis and Alevis’ traditional method of worship. “The ruling party has never considered the cemevi as a place of worship. Instead, they see it as a cultural center.”
As the government and Alevi leaders remain largely at odds over reform in Ankara, however, hope for reform may still be visible at the municipal level. Last month, the Şanlıurfa Governor’s Office did what Ankara so far has not done, approving financial support for the building of a cemevi in the district of Sırrın.
But such steps, though encouraging, are no substitute for a national rapprochement, said Alevi writer and rights activist Cafer Solgun to Sunday’s Zaman. “These appeals have come up before, but the problem can’t be solved just in Şanlıurfa or in separate provinces. We need a firm decision by the government.” With Aygün’s petition forcing Ankara’s hand, that decision may be closer than ever.