“Believe me, I learned so much when I was writing this book, and while I was interviewing people I sometimes laughed, sometimes couldn’t fight back my tears,” wrote Erkam Tufan Aytav, general secretary of the Journalists and Writers Foundation’s (GYV) Medialog Platform, in the preface of his book. The questions that Aytav pondered in the book are various and intimate: What were the Alevi/Sunni perceptions of couples before they were married? What were the prejudices? Did they keep it secret that they were Alevi/Sunni? Solve their differences? Did they compromise?
What do they like in each sect? How do they raise their children, Alevi or Sunni? What do their parents think about their marriages years after they’ve been successfully married couples?
Alevism, a sect of Islam, has distinct differences. The Alevi house of worship is called a cemevi, while Turkey’s Sunni majority worship in mosques. Alevi rituals are conducted mostly in Turkish and sometimes in Kurdish as opposed to the Arabic rituals of Sunnis in the country. The ceremonies of Alevis feature music and dance, called “semahs.” The two sects also differ on rituals of fasting and prayer. In Turkey, only mosques are officially recognized as Islamic houses of worship; and the Religious Affairs Directorate allocates funds only for the Sunni community. While there are no official figures on Turkey’s Alevi population, estimates vary from six million to 15 million out of a country of more than 70 million.
It was not that easy for Aytav to find couples that would open up to him. He contacted many couples, but only five couples responded positively. The couples he spoke with are professionally prominent people who are familiar faces from the Turkish media.
As Aytav sheds light on the effects of prejudice on people’s lives in the book, he also shows how those prejudices are deeply rooted.
Why did you write the book?
You know my previous book “Being Other in Turkey” [“Türkiye’de Öteki Olmak”]. I wanted to dig deeper into the issue. There have been some books and studies concerning Alevis and Alevi-Sunni relations.
Have there really been studies or books on Alevi-Sunni relations?
I read some articles about the topic, but I found nothing in depth. For example, I found nothing specifically on Alevi-Sunni marriages. However, I found a doctoral thesis that was done a few years ago, and there is one that is currently being written.
Why do you think that such works are rare?
Because the issue of Alevi-Sunni marriages is quite current -- they have not been seen much in the past; however, today it can happen. The reason why I wanted to investigate the issue deeper is that I wanted to turn the mirror on ourselves. We are in a psychological mood still thinking like in the story, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” We think that we don’t make any mistakes, and if there are problems, these problems are due to some outside forces muddling things up. This is an indication that we are afraid of some things, and we want to cover them up. That’s why I wanted to hold the mirror up for both sides to look at themselves. In doing this, there could have been two approaches: One is showing the negative examples, the relationships that did not work; and the other one is showing the positive examples, the relationships that worked, and how they actually worked. Understanding these can help us to find ways of living together.
You said that such relationships are more common today than in the past. Would you elaborate on this issue?
There are a few reasons for that. First of all, in the past Alevis and Sunnis used to live in separate villages. Even though they would see each other in the market place or somewhere else, they were “the other” for each other. Religious fanaticism did not allow the marriages of those different sects, either. With urbanization, they started to live in the same districts, and even in the same apartment buildings. Their children are going to the same schools and playing together on the streets. In addition, in the cities, sectarian tendencies have eroded for both Sunnis and Alevis, but especially for Alevis who used to have their “dede” [elderly religious community leaders] and houses of worship. The Alevi community was more in unison in villages. In cities, there were no Alevi houses of worship for a long time. They are still not officially recognized. As a result, a great number of Alevis have started to live secular lives, and their Alevism has become symbolic. When they moved to the cities, they remained on the periphery. And in many cases, they were hiding their Alevism to escape prejudice. For Sunnis, the situation was more or less similar, even though there was a mosque on every corner. Their sectarian feelings eroded in the secular system, too, and this type of life style made it easier for Alevi-Sunni marriages.
But how does it get entangled? Was the issue a marriage of two young people or a marriage of two families?
The two young people who wanted to get married did not have any problems with their religious backgrounds, but their families had. It was usually a tense situation for both sides. The parents’ prejudices emerged, and in some cases it went as far as threats from parents to disown their children.
‘Alevis felt the need to hide their identities’
You mentioned that Alevis were hiding their identity to escape prejudice. Would you talk about this issue in more detail?
This situation is true for Alevis, but it is not restricted only to Alevis in Turkey. If people are from the “cemaat” [followers of Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen], they also tell their children not to talk about it in order to be saved from prejudice. The same goes for the Greeks, Jews, Armenians, etc. of Turkey. It is true for all “others.” From this point of view, the Republic of Turkey is a huge masked ball. People cannot take a legitimate place in society with their real identities because they feel like they have to wear masks before they leave their houses. Alevis felt the need to hide their identities. One reason for that was to escape from prejudice, and the other was their mistrust of Sunnis because of some past events -- Maraş, Çorum, Sivas, etc., killings as a result of provocations. At the same time, Alevis realized in cities that they were not the only ones who were hiding their identities. There is an example in the book; a Kurdish man marries an Alevi woman, and since both of them were in the category of the “other,” it benefited their relationship. Still, what we see is that even if they love each other, the Alevi side had to say at some point, “But I am an Alevi.”
Is it usually the Alevi side that says that with a “but”?
Yes, because Alevis are a minority in society [in comparison to Sunnis].
One of your interviewees says that she is not just the only woman in her family who has married a Sunni, but she is the only person in her family who has married a Sunni.
The people who were the first ones to go through that experience face most of the hardships, but when others followed that example, they faced fewer difficulties. In one example in the book, a mother who was strongly against her daughter’s marriage to an Alevi man, prays in later years that she would be so happy if her second daughter also married an Alevi. So being first is difficult, and being first might also set a negative or a positive example.
You also write in the book that when parents face such a situation, they go to their religious leaders for advice. Are there religiously set standards for what to do in such cases?
Sunnis consult with the mufti or the Religious Affairs Directorate, which clearly says that these marriages are legitimate based on the fact that both Alevis and Sunnis believe in the unity of “Allah, Muhammad [Prophet] and Ali [cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad.” Therefore, for the Sunni authorities, the marriage of a Sunni and Alevi is legitimate if the Alevi side believes in the concept of “Allah, Muhammad and Ali.” On the other hand, the views of the Alevi authorities vary since some dedes interpret the issue one way, and some do it another way. I talked with many Alevi dedes and also talked about the issue with Binali Doğan from the Erikli Baba order. His interpretation was harsh; he advocated calling those Alevis who want to get married to Sunnis “düşkün,” literally “fallen,” a way the Alevi community ostracizes its unwanted! And if the parents approved of the marriage, then he said they should be called “düşkün.” But this is the harshest interpretation.
‘Alevi dedes tend not to approve of Alevi-Sunni marriages’
What were the other interpretations like?
Even the most moderate Alevi dedes that I talked with did not have a tendency to approve of those marriages because they said that Alevi women would be subjected to discrimination and repression in Sunni families, and they had examples of it. They also added that if a Sunni woman decided to marry an Alevi man, the Alevi community would never interfere with the Sunni woman’s beliefs and would not attempt to change her or discriminate against her.
But what happens if an Alevi man decides to get married to Sunnis or vice versa? I sense some issues here regarding gender discrimination.
The rules or interpretations are the same for both men and women in regards to whether or not their marriage is legitimate. However, in the Turkish culture, women are usually thought to be subordinate to men or thought to be subject to the rules in the men’s family.
You indicate in the book that you should not be misunderstood, and you neither approve nor disapprove of Alevi-Sunni marriages.
Yes, I neither approve nor disapprove of Alevi-Sunni marriages. What I am saying is that if those marriages are successful, they serve as cement that unites the two communities; in particular, their children can achieve this because they know about both sects from their families. However, if those marriages are not successful, then tense relations between the two communities could become tenser. Those marriages are risky. They can’t be seen as tools to improve relations between the two societies. Still, when we see those marriages that are successful, we can try to understand how they managed to do that.
How do they manage it?
For those couples usually a secular lifestyle is the common denominator, in addition to their love and respect for each other. It is hard to find examples such as where one spouse fasts during Ramadan, the other spouse fasts during the month of Muharram. Usually, either one of the spouses adopts the other’s sect, or they adopt a secular life style. So it does not matter for the spouses whether or not they are Alevi or Sunni, but this is not usually the case for parents as we talked about.
In your family, do you have such marriages?
None. I heard about Alevism for the first time when I was in high school. In my classroom, somebody said something like “mum söndü” [literally “the candle was blown out” -- a phrase used to refer to Alevi religious ceremonies pejoratively and in which participants supposedly turn to debauchery and incest], and my classmate started to fight with him. When I asked him what is happening, he said that he was Alevi.
You say in the book that you learned a lot in the process of writing the book. Would you talk about that?
For example, I was not aware of the strict attitude of the Alevi dedes in that regard. And in the Sunni families there is a wide-spread saying: “I would not give my daughter to ‘cenabet’ [cenabet is a person who does not go through full ablution or ‘guhsl’.” This is a prejudice against Alevis because Alevis do not have such a problem and go through full ablution. While writing the book, I’ve realized how deep the prejudices were between those two societies who have lived together for all those years. Prejudices were not based on facts. I was astonished to find that out.
‘Religious education focuses on Sunni Islam’
In an example in the book, there is a religious education teacher who says in the classroom that Alevis practice “mum söndü.”
If a religious education teacher who received religious educations says that, you can imagine what other people in society can say or think about that. It is surprising how this smear has been accepted even though chastity and purity are very, very important for Alevis. As a follower of Fethullah Gülen’s ideas, I should add that Gülen encourages the opening of cemevis; he even says that there should be a cemevi next to each mosque in Turkey. He has spoken and written extensively about this issue. He refers to Alevis as, “Our Ehl-i Beyt borthers,” [used to refer to people in the house of the Prophet Muhammad] which is important.
The government has attempted to rewrite religious education books to erase prejudices. How successful do you think it has been? Recently, there were news reports that Syriacs/Arameans were concerned about discriminatory language used in the textbooks.
In Turkey, there has been religious education which concentrates on Sunni Islam. Currently, there is a debate going on regarding whether or not the religious education class should be mandatory. In my opinion, it should be mandatory, and the class should be taught in such a way that it gives information on the basics of all belief systems and corrects prejudices. The government acts hesitantly in regards to this issue.
Why is that the case?
It has a short-sighted vision. When government officials look at society, they only see votes. Since the government officials see that the majority of its supporters would not like reformist ideas in that regard, they will not take steps to act on it. This is populism. However, a party leader should come out and say that they are doing it out of respect for human rights, and they do not care if they are elected or not. The media, which has been acting for a long time on the side of the official state policy, also has a role in that. The media has been on the side of the state policies which adopted discriminatory practices against the “other.” Civil society also has a role to play. For example, when Alevis are victimized as a result of some prejudices, they should think about steps that they can take in order to destroy those prejudices instead of just blaming the other side.
What has been the media’s response to the book?
Many columnists have written about it including Mehmet Ali Birand and Mahmut Övür. The Islamic media recently started to realize that they were not the only ones who were repressed. It is promising that the size of the conservative Sunni Muslim community which realizes the repression of groups other than themselves is growing. This is important for Turkey’s democratization because without the democratization of this backbone community, there is less hope for the democratization of the whole country. Of course, it is also important that the CHP [main opposition Republican People’s Party] goes thorough a normalization process for Turkey’s democratization.