Turkey’s Alevis and their demand for equal rights
“With my colleague Cemil Boyraz we conducted a research on the Alevis in Turkey. One interesting result is that the opening with good intentions by the state, lead to great unity among the Alevi groups, but at the same time it lead to some disillusionment and disaffection among the Alevis considering the state, because their suspicions were reinforced,” explains Murat Borovali, Vice Rector of Istanbul’s Bilgi University. “They were not trusting the government’s motives initially anyway and for some their suspicions have just been reinforced. In that sense the opening itself may have even lead to a greater divide between the Alevis and the state, rather than to a rapprochement. Secondly, what we have seen is that the Alevis desire a platform to meet their needs, which is roughly a democratic constitutional measure and which – not only on paper but in practice also – offers and implements equal citizenship, equal religious rights and religious freedoms for all.” We interviewed Prof. Borovali during our Istanbul Seminars 2013.
Interview and editing: Nina zu Fürstenberg
Filmmaker: Anna Fanuele
Full transcript of the interview
With my colleague Cemil Boyraz we conducted a research on the Alevis in Turkey. This is a relatively large belief group, with about 9-10 million people in a population of 70 million. We mainly looked at the political implications in their operations and in their relationship with the state, which is assuming more and more a very mildly religious, but sunni, undertone. We looked at the Alevi question to the prism of three focus-groups and we also evaluated the recent Alevi opening performed by the state. It started in 2009 and went up until 2010: we looked at the effect of that opening, what really took place during it, how it was perceived by the Alevi community, what were the political implications of it. We see that one interesting result is that the opening with good intentions by the state, lead to great unity among the Alevi groups, but at the same time it lead to some disillusionment disaffection among the Alevis considering the state, because their suspicions were reinforced. They were not trusting the government’s motives initially anyway and for some their suspicions have just been reinforced. In that sense the opening itself may have even lead to a greater divide between the Alevis and the state, rather than to a rapprochement. So that is an important point we noted.
Secondly, what we have seen is that the Alevis desire a platform to meet their needs, which is roughly a democratic constitutional measure and which – not only on paper but in practice also – offers and implements equal citizenship, equal religious rights and religious freedoms for all. That seems to be lacking at the moment, as the governing Akp is trying to address the issue. In a way that wants to make it palatable to their sunni theological concerns and therefore there seems to be a limitation regarding the future of meeting Alevi questions.
Currently – we are talking in May 2013 – the government made a huge step in trying to solve the Kurdish issue, spending political capital and moral energy, and it dedicated all its efforts to solving a hugely important issue. It remains to be seen whether in the near future will Alevi demands will meet a receptive side on the part of the government, because they probably will be too concentrated on the Kurdish issue and they may not see solving the Alevi matter as a vote-winning strategy, because the Alevis have traditionally been for the main opposition party. But there are great moral advances to be made and the Prime Minister may go down in history for not only solving the Kurdish issue, but also solving the Alevi issue the Our certain hope is that government will take that opportunity to be able to find a platform of mutual agreement, accommodating some of the Alevi demands, which are really equal citizenship demands in nature.
The interesting thing about the Alevi issue, is that it is really a manifestation and a good example of a political problem having roots in a theological divide and difference. There are uncertainties about how to take this issue: is it going to be a theological issue that needs to be solved in a theological way, or – if we adopt a more maybe defeatist or realistic approach – should we treat it as a political issue, simply evaluating the wishes of the Alevi section of the population among more liberal democratic or constitutional lines.
Personally, I may have to points to make. One is that there are no grounds to be immediately optimistic about a solution in the short term, because there are certain theological limitations dominating the minds of the governing party and they may find it very difficult to really address this issues without compromising some aspects of their beliefs. So, it will be challenging for them.
But on the other hand, my personal opinion is this issue is never going to go away. We are talking about 7 or 8 or 9 million people at least who have undergone an Alevi revival, politically. What we can expect is that they will only get more vocal, more energetic in their wishes and more energetic in their organizations. So, the issue is not going to go away in Turkey. The issue is [also] going to get more prominent in Europe, in the Alevi diaspora in Europe – 500.000 living in Germany and the rest 500.000 living in other parts of Europe – so while not much to be optimistic about in the near future, it certainly will be an issue that will stay on the agenda until it is addressed satisfactorily sometime in the next decade or decades.
This issue of the “civil war and the dictator versus the people”, the discussion puts it into an ironclad framework, where you cannot really discuss it openly. Because the moment you talk about, let’s say, the similarities or brotherhood between the Turkish Alevis and the Syrian Alevis it seems as though you are defending the dictator who oppresses his majority, which happens to be Sunni… so it turns into a very delicate political problem which is not easily addressed. So that puts the Alevi in Turkey into a difficult position: they don’t want to be seen as being on the side of dictators who kill their own population, who oppress their own population. But on the other hand there is 15 of Alevis in Syria and there are many similarities and brotherhoods. The frontier itself was very porous, it was not really a heavily guarded frontier. You would had members the families living on different sides of the border. So, all of a sudden the issues become much hotter and it gets difficult to try to get an objective position on that, in my opinion.