Will the Alevi problem be solved? by MÜMTAZ’ER TÜRKÖNE

The seven Alevi workshops that have been held so far demonstrate that Alevi-Sunni polarization is melting, and perhaps most importantly, the issue is being debated at the state level.

February 13, 2010, Saturday/ 16:38:00
The government has embarked on a mission to solve the “Alevi problem.” It assigned State Minister Faruk Çelik the responsibility of heading the Alevi initiative. So far seven Alevi workshops have been held with Necdet Subaşı, professor of philosophy, as the moderator.
The last workshop, which was held between Jan. 27 and Jan. 30, was a summary session of the previous six workshops. Having completed the workshop series, the state minister compiled a report and submitted it to the Cabinet. The report, which was also disclosed to the public, includes the problems and solutions discussed during the workshops. Following this report, the government needs to take steps towards solving the problem.

The workshops had a few major impacts. First and foremost, it’s evident that these workshops established a productive platform because it brought the Alevi problem into the limelight and shared the Alevis’ requests with the public. Living in a Sunni majority nation, Alevis have a history filled with painful incidents, which have led them to hide their beliefs. For a very long time under the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) administration, Alevis have been able to express themselves more freely and have become more self-confident. While Alevi organizations have become more active, it has become clear that the Sunni majority has misunderstood the Alevis because of prejudice. In brief, Alevis have made much progress in the last few years and the Alevi workshops appear to be both one of the causes and effects of this development.

The Alevi faith and politics

The strongest opposition to the workshops, which the government organized to address the Alevi problem, came from the Alevis themselves. Among Alevi civil society organizations, there are some that were determined to protest the workshops. This opposition did not stem from the Alevi faith but from the political plans of Alevi leaders. These organizations disregarded any contributions to solve the problem.

Let’s take a look at the difference between where we were the day the government launched the Alevi initiative and the point we have reached today. Have we covered any distance? The Alevi faith is able to express itself, Sunnis are showing more respect to them, the Alevi-Sunni polarization is melting, and perhaps most importantly, the issue is being debated at state level. Those who reject the workshops need to at least say a thing or two about what they have lost from them. What harm have the workshops done to anyone? What benefits have they provided?

The Alevi workshops were a deliberation process. Deliberation means including the widest possible spectrum of views of the sides in the decision-making process. It gives you the opportunity to express a different view or an interest you represent. At least in this way decision makers can consider your view and stance as well. According to the deliberative democracy mentality, this process does not involve a mechanism for representation. Participants are not expected to be included in the decision-making process. Deliberation is a platform for people to get to know each other, to escape biases and to express themselves.

In this respect, we need to realize that the workshops were very successful. When I attended the second one of these workshops I saw that the state minister participated in the meeting from the beginning to the end as an observer, took notes and never intervened in the debates. Most debates were based on the relationship between the Alevi faith and politics. In terms of politics, Alevis are a homogenous group and align themselves with the Republican People’s Party (CHP). There is wide concern among Alevi politicians that these workshops will lead Alevis to change their political affiliations.

Alevism as a state problem

There is a major obstacle on both sides when it comes to solving the “Alevi problem” that is related to procedure and not principles. The Sunni faith has institutional protection and rights within the state. All of these create a status quo. The Sunni segment of society clings on to this status quo when searching for a solution to the Alevi problem. But the discourse of this status quo consists of futile habits, such as mandatory religious classes taught as a constitutional mandate. Alevis want these classes to be abolished, but Sunnis, supposedly, want these classes to continue. In reality, however, these classes don’t benefit anyone. The solution that was reached in the workshop is appropriate. The solution is to change the content of these classes to include lessons on all religious beliefs and adding elective religious classes to meet religious education needs.

For Alevis, the problem with procedure is more far-reaching. Alevism is a faith that has been banned and excluded by the state for five centuries. This has been the case for Bektashism ever since the Guild of Janissaries was disbanded in 1826. It is for this reason that Alevism does not have a central organizational or homogenous structure. Every step that seeks to solve the Alevi problem, inherently leads to a representation and power struggle within the Alevi segment. Just like the Alevi leaders who are pursuing the problem of participation in these workshops as a power struggle. Certainly it is a tough situation. On one side there is the state and its institution, on another there is the government which is known to represent the Sunni faith more, and on the opposite side there is the Alevi segment, which is facing a stack of political-ideological debates, including the possibility of turning into a political party.

It’s very difficult to solve centuries-old problems with one move. Even if you find the best solutions, you can’t overcome the problem until you establish mutual trust and put the past behind you. There is one point that Alevis who pass judgment on the workshops need to pay attention to. These workshops have positively affected the way the Sunni segment of society and their representatives view the Alevi problem. One of the other issues discussed in the last workshop was replacing the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) with a Religious Affairs Supreme Council. The progressive views of the Religious Affairs Supreme Council revealed the difference between institutional reactions and a scholarly reaction. The Sunni ulema (scholars) are more progressive compared to religious officials. By changing the attitude of the Diyanet, which adamantly seeks to define Alevism, and transferring this task to Alevis is a critical development in the establishment of respect.

There are two major conclusions I have reached. To prevent religion from becoming a source of opposition in Turkey, religious affairs are carried out within the central state structure. There is no need for this status quo, which does not benefit anyone, any longer. No one learns about their religion from the religious courses which are taught according to Article 24 of the Constitution and are a problem for Alevis. The Alevi problem is also a Sunni problem. We need to reconsider and reform the religious bureaucracy properly.

The Alevi faith is a topic of political competition that is vulnerable to exploitation. To solve the Alevi problem it is integral for Alevi leaders to draw a thick line between faith and politics because politics exploits problems instead of solving them and it divides people instead of uniting them. The majority of the symbolic incidents we call the Alevi problem are actually as the Cem Foundation put it “a humanitarian problem.”

The Alevi problem is a more challenging and complicated problem than the Kurdish problem because throughout history the difference in faith has always outweighed race and language. By becoming the other, Alevism became one of the main axes of separation in society. It is difficult for this problem to be quickly solved with simple political measures. What is necessary instead is to eliminate biases, to build mutual trust between the two segments and to find a compromise for the future by putting aside past pains.

The Alevi workshops were a long-term and painstaking attempt. We need to congratulate State Minister Çelik and the talented intellectual Subaşı for bringing Turkey to this positive level. The direction is right and the distance that has been made is very good but there is still much work that needs to be done.

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