The problems of Turkey's Alevi community were discussed over the weekend at a two-day meeting at İstanbul's Grand Cevahir Hotel organized by the Abant Platform, which regularly holds conferences and symposiums about crucial issues in Turkey. The highlight of the meeting was undoubtedly a confession from the Religious Affairs Directorate, the body that oversees religious affairs in the country, that it has long neglected the views and demands of Turkey's Alevi community. The Directorate's vice president, Professor Mehmet Görmez, admitted their omission, saying, "We should have listened to the Alevis' demands, requests and complaints."
In perhaps one of its most important meetings to date, the Abant Platform discussed one of Turkey's most persistent social issues; the friction between Turkey's Alevis and the Religious Affairs Directorate. Most Alevi organizations in Turkey have long criticized the directorate for not recognizing the legitimacy of the Alevi clergy or Alevi places of worship. Alevis have also claimed that the directorate purposely appoints non-Alevi clergymen to Alevi villages and encourages the building of mosques in them. Alevis organize worship activities not in mosques, but in community centers called cem evleri (cem houses). In turn the directorate has claimed that Alevis and Sunnis are not subject to discrimination because, except for certain local customs and beliefs, there are no differences between these two as to basic religious issues, an argument which some Alevi groups said amounted to a denial of any separate religious identity.
On the first day of the conference the participants, including representatives from the Religious Affairs Directorate, Alevi organizations as well as academics, highlighted that Alevism was a cultural asset for Turkey. All participants also agreed on the need to make an effort to resolve the problems.
On the second day of the conference, the participants agreed that Turkey did not have an "Alevi problem," but admitted that there were problems that had to be addressed. Alevi participants complained that compulsory religious education classes in Turkish schools did not cover enough information about their religion. Associate Professor Osman Eğri proposed that the Religious Affairs Directorate trained and paid the salaries of "dedes," (grandfathers) who are spiritual leaders in Alevi communities. Eğri, currently part of a Religious Affairs Directorate committee overseeing an Alevism project, emphasized that they were concentrating on teaching the tenets of Alevism without imposing Sunni traditions on members of the Alevi community. Dr. Ali Yaman acknowledged that the recent efforts of the Religious Affairs Directorate were noteworthy, but added that they were hardly enough. He said Alevis were not a minority, recalling a European Union Progress Report of 2004 that referred to Alevis for the first time as a "Non-Sunni Muslim Minority." This conceptualization led to heated debate in Turkey. Although later reports did not include this definition, the EU has stated its frustration with the slow developments to better the Alevis’ situation of. The EU has expressed concern that they face difficulties in opening cem houses. Furthermore the EU also criticized the compulsory religious instruction given to Alevi children in schools.
Perhaps in reference to the involvement of the EU, Dr. Yaman urged, “We should solve our problems among ourselves without any intervention from outside.”
Head of the Alevi Foundations Federation Doğan Bermek, addressing the conference, expressed his belief that currently some groups in Turkey were trying to manufacture an “Alevi question.” “As long as we correctly apply our laws the problems we currently face may easily be overcome. Indeed they are already being overcome in a de facto manner. Politicians and administrators should fill the gaps that we have in the laws’ implementation.”
Bermek also expressed frustration that some in Turkey viewed Alevism as a divergence from Islam. Professor Ahmet Yaşar Ocak indicated a similar confusion, “The greatest problem is that Alevism is frequently taken as an offshoot of Shia Islam. Alevism has integrated an outlook unique to Turkish culture, something that the Shiites do not have.”
The directorate’s Görmez announced plans to raise awareness of Alevis. He said that the department had launched a program educating its appointed religious leaders at which they would be taught about Alevism and the prejudices causing it to be misunderstood.
Sociologist and journalist Ali Bulaç hailed the Abant Platform’s decision to hold a conference on Alevis as a “first.” Bulaç asserted his opinion that the most crucial statement during the first day of the conference came from Görmez, in his confession of the directorate’s lack of sensitivity toward Alevis’ problems in a courageous act of self-criticism. “About 15 million people visit mosques every week. The Directorate could enlighten mosque-goers on Alevism and correct their misperceptions and unfounded prejudices about Alevis,” he suggested.
Bulaç’s hailing of Görmez’s self-critical statement is likely to regarded by most as just. In Turkey Alevis generally feel that they have been persecuted for their beliefs and cultural values for centuries. Alevi parents commonly complain that their religion is either totally ignored or described as an immoral, non-Muslim belief system by teachers of the statutory religious education classes in public schools.
Alevi classics published by directorate
The vice president of the Directorate of Religious Affairs also spoke of plans to publish literary works from the Alevi tradition, citing three books already published as an example.
Bulaç admitted that nothing concrete may come of the meeting, but that is was still significant, “because now the channels of dialogue between the two sections have been opened and the need to speak to and understand one and other has been confirmed.” He added, “This by itself is a victory, an auspicious development.”