Erdoğan said on Thursday that Alevi cemevis are places of cultural activity and not worship, in what was a response to a demand by ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Ankara deputy Haluk Özdalga that cemevis -- which literally means a gathering house -- should be recognized as places of worship by the state.
Erdoğan also said that Alevism is not a separate religion, in contrast to some Alevi groups that insist that their beliefs are outside of Islam. He said these groups “don't have any relation to Ali or the Prophet in terms of their lifestyles. What fits our lifestyle are the Alevis of Turkey.”
Erdoğan maintained that cemevis are places of cultural activity and mosques are the only places for worship in Islam. “Have you heard of any other places of worship apart from churches in Christianity?” He said Alevis are also Muslims and should practice their religion in mosques.
The issue has long been part of a political dispute as the country's Alevis have been pushing for recognition of cemevis as places of worship for many years. Representatives of Alevi groups have also brought a case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).
In remarks to Today's Zaman, Alevi-Bektaşi Federation (ABF) Chairman Selahattin Özel said: “We are getting tired of repeating these things over and over, but the prime minister hasn't. For one thing, the prime minister is discriminating on the basis of religious creed. Secondly, a prime minister cannot decide where Alevis or any other religious group should worship. It is just very unfortunate that he as the prime minister is making such a statement, as if he is some ulema [religious authority]. If Alevis want to worship at a cemevi, it's their business and all the state can do is afford them ease by recognizing the legal status of a cemevi.”
Özel also noted that this was an issue of freedom of religion and should not be politicized. “The prime minister does not have the right to say if a certain belief constitutes a religion or not; this should be our common grounds which we agree on.” He said the prime minister's words were provocative and likely to create tension.
Kemal Bülbül, chairman of the Pir Sultan Abdal Cultural Association, responded to Erdoğan's statements with a press release, which he also shared with Today's Zaman. Bülbül accused Erdoğan of violating the principles of democracy by offering a definition of his understanding of a certain creed. “True, the place of worship in Islam is a mosque/masjid. But for Alevis, the place of worship is not a mosque/masjid. As we have said, written, explained and proven [though it is something we don't really need to prove] many times before, Alevism is not an interpretation, denomination, subset, subculture, sub-belief, etc. of Islam.” He said Alevism is a belief with its own tenets and rituals and that cemevis are the appropriate places of worship. He accused Erdoğan of violating religious rights. “The state has to accept that cemevis are the places of worship for Alevis.” He also accused the government of trying to Islamize Alevism.
Writer and intellectual Cafer Solgun, himself an Alevi, said it was unacceptable for a prime minister or president to define the beliefs of others or make judgmental statements about other groups' beliefs. “If Alevis see cemevis as places of worship, then they are places of worship. What a democratic state should do is grant these places of worship legal status as accepted by members of that faith group. The state has no other responsibility.” Solgun said that even if Erdoğan does not agree with some varying interpretations of Alevism, he had no duty or right to define a faith group on his own terms. He also said that Erdoğan's words made it clear that Alevis, who have other demands in addition to this demand for legal status for cemevis, were not going to be granted any of these anytime soon. “We have an Alevi question. [Its solution] doesn't seem very possible judging by these words from the prime minister,” he said.
Another reaction came from Selahattin Demirtaş, head of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). He said the state had to accept cemevis as places of worship as Alevis only attend cemevis for religious practices. He also said that the existence of the Religious Affairs Directorate, which only caters to the Sunni majority, is unnecessary but also violates the rights of non-Sunni taxpayers.
The issue has long been one of discontent in Turkey, with the AK Party government holding several “workshops” in which government officials had meetings with Alevi representatives. However, none of the issues have been resolved.
The AK Party government has made it clear that it has no intention of recognizing cemevis as places of worship. The Parliament Speaker's Office said in a statement in December that it is not possible to consider cemevis as places of worship because Alevism, as a part of Islam, cannot have a place of worship other than mosques and masjids.
Republican People's Party (CHP) Tunceli deputy Hüseyin Aygün filed a formal application with the parliamentary Human Rights Commission in May 2012 requesting that a space be provided for a cemevi within the Parliament building. However, Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek sent a written response to Aygün, saying that his request had been denied.
“Alevism is not a separate religion but a development that originated in Islam and a cultural treasure that emerged during the course of Islamic history. Islam's places of worship are mosques,” Çiçek said in his response.