Alevis

This religious minority estimated at 25% of the Turkish population is made up of Turks and Kurds. Alevi habitation zones are mainly situated in northern and eastern Anatolia, bordering Kurdish regions and equally struck by poverty. Many Alevis have recently migrated to the west of the country and to the big cities.

Turkey’s Alevis and Syria’s Alawis (these denominations refer to Ali, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law) must not be confused : they are geographically, ethnically and culturally two distinct Shi’a communities.

Alevis have shown a secular history of persecutions and discriminations ever since they sided with the Safavid Shah Ismaïl who was defeated, in the Battle of Tchaldiran in 1514, by the Ottoman sultan Selim 1st. The latter then decreed that Alevis should be excluded from Ottoman society.

Alevis – who are exponents of an easy-going form of Shia Islam – rarely worship (and never in mosques), do not bother to segregate the sexes, drink wine and keep eating during the fast of Ramadan. Differences of believes and practices often cause strifes with Sunni Muslims, by far the largest religious group in Turkey.

The Alevis had hoped that the advent of Ataturk’s Turkish Republic (1923) would bring along with secularism, better social, political and economic prospects for their community, but that has not yet been the case. In recent history, they were victims of a massacre in Maras (1978), and of a deadly terrorist act in Sivas (1993).

Alevis have long voted for the left-wing CHP party, in power at the time of the Maras massacre, then turned away from it. The Kurdish separatist PKK (mainly made up of Sunnis) tried to attract to its movement Kurdish members of the Alevi community but failed because the religious identity of Alevi Kurds stands well above their ethnic identity, coupled with the fact that Alevi Kurds and Alevi Turks are united in their wish to integrate the Turkish State and society.

It was the Islamist Refah party which then adressed the Alevi community as a whole to suggest a Sunni-Alevi electoral pact : Alevis could be listed among Refah candidates and be elected at the 1994 local elections. However, that did not fill the Alevi community with enthusiasm as it had little liking for the conservative values of the Refah party. Other Alevis went on the lists of the HaDeP legal Kurdish party.

Given the violent riots shaking the Alevi neighbourhood of Gazi, in the suburbs of Istanbul (where many Alevis had voted for the Refah and HaDeP parties) in March 1995 and the rise to power of the Refah party after the 1995 legislative elections, most politicians understood they had an interest in putting an end to the pariah status of the Alevis and taking over their electoral voices. Thus, in October 1997, the President of the Turkish Republic, Süleiman Demirel and the Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz paid an official tribute to the Alevi community during the annual Hacibektas festivities. Yilmaz went as far as declaring that the province of Hadjibektas could become the home of the Alevi movement in Anatolia, the Balkans and the Caucasus.