Alevi leader Kenanoğlu: Discrimination against Alevis increased in 2013

Date posted: December 22, 2013


Conditions have been worsening for Alevis in Turkey, especially in recent years, as the government has taken sides in the Syrian war and demonizes Alevis, says this week’s guest for Monday Talk.

“When we look at what has changed for Alevis in 2013, the government has often associated Alevis with terrorists, especially in the Gezi protests. Some commentators even said that Alevis are preparing for war in Turkey in collaboration with the Syrian Alawites. We conducted our own research and found no such relationship. In addition, a Justice and Development Party (AK Party) deputy said that cemevis are breeding grounds for terrorists,” said Ali Kenanoğlu, president of the Hubyar Sultan Alevi Culture Association.

Kenanoğlu, who documents discriminatory practices against Alevis, points out that since the start of the Syrian war, discrimination toward Alevis has increased in Turkey.

“[This is] because the AK Party has become a party in this war. The prime minister said that Syria’s Alawite military has been massacring people in Syria and that Bashar al-Assad was an Alawite. Previously, we, the Turkish people did not know whether or not Assad was an Alawite. Plus, Assad’s Baath Party has been oppressing the Syrian people regardless of whether they are Alawites or not,” he said.

Some Alevi houses have recently been marked and vandalized with red paint in several provinces of Turkey. Kenanoğlu said that Alevis are very concerned. Answering our questions, he elaborated on the issue.

You have reported on discrimination against Alevis in Turkey. What has the situation been in 2013?

With the Syrian war, discrimination toward Alevis has increased in Turkey, because the AK Party has become a party in this war. The prime minister said that Syria’s Alawite military has been massacring people in Syria and that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite. Previously, we, the Turkish people were not aware that Assad is an Alawite.

Plus, Assad’s Baath Party has been oppressing the Syrian people regardless of whether they are Alawites or not. In addition, Assad has no relation to Alevism. However, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used Alevism to legitimize his party’s position in the Syrian war. This is how easy it is to use Alevism in politics in Turkey. Before the Syrian war, there had been a positive attitude developing towards Alevis in Turkey. However, this has changed with the Syrian war.

Alevi houses have been vandalized with red paint in several provinces of Turkey. You have been documenting discrimination against Alevis in Turkey in your reports, so could you explain the situation?

This has been very disturbing for Alevis, as they have been guarding their houses in fear of attacks. We remember that before massacres of Alevis in the past, our houses were marked in a similar way. Unfortunately, my research on this has not reached optimistic conclusions. When we look at what has changed for Alevis in 2013, the government has often associated Alevis with terrorists, especially in the Gezi protests. Some commentators even said that Alevis are preparing for war in Turkey in collaboration with the Syrian Alawites. We conducted our own research and found no such relationship. In addition, an AK Party deputy said that cemevis are breeding grounds for terrorists. Moreover, a report from the Turkish police on the demographics of those arrested during the Gezi protests revealed that 78 percent of suspects had an Alevi religious background. Therefore, society has been fed the idea that Alevis are dangerous people who should not be granted concessions. There are two types of problem concerning Alevis in Turkey.

What are they?

The problem of Alevism and the problem of Alevis. Alevism has had problems in Turkey since the creation of the republic; these problems did not start with the AK Party. But when it comes to the problems of Alevis today, the most important problem is that Alevis cannot find jobs. A few years ago, we were saying that we demand equal citizenship rights and have a right to hold high-level positions in the government. But never mind high-level positions in the government. You cannot even find an Alevi high school principal in Turkey. When there are layoffs, Alevis are laid off first. Yes, Alevis were at the Gezi protests. Why? Because they have been left without jobs and bread. When they do not have bread at home, cemevis are not the primary issue for Alevis.
‘Alevi problem harder to solve than Kurdish issue’

Why do you think Turkey’s Alevi issue has still not been solved?

Because the system of governance makes the Alevi issue a problem. The problem is caused by the state’s approach to religion. Without changing this approach, it will not be possible to solve the Alevi problem or the problems of Alevis.

The AK Party government created an initiative to solve the problem and held several meetings in the past on the issue. What do you think went wrong, causing their initiative to fail?

I participated in several of those meetings. I expressed my opinion there that solving Turkey’s Kurdish problem is much easier than solving the Alevi problem. This is because the state has unchanging reflexes in terms of differing religious beliefs. On the other hand, when it comes to ethnic differences, there is much more flexibility.

Do you think the government should have stayed away from the issue?

The government should be involved, but it should do this in a way that provides religious freedoms instead of dictating them. When the state asks, “What should we do with these Alevis to solve the problem?” then the problem cannot be solved. Instead, the government’s approach should be to provide individual freedoms, including freedom of religion, as part of democratic development. It was important for the state to gather Alevi opinion leaders and hear their opinions, but ultimately it failed.

Was that because the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) claimed that the Alevi house of worship, or cemevi, cannot be accepted by Islam as a place of worship because according to Islamic belief, the only place of worship is a mosque?

The Diyanet was involved in the meetings between Alevi leaders and the state from the beginning. The Diyanet was always there. There were seven Alevi workshops, and the government invited the Diyanet and Sunni Islamic scholars to all of them. The Diyanet’s opinion was decisive on that issue — a cemevi cannot be accepted as a place of worship. Thus, the workshops were made meaningless.

The government produced a democratization package recently, but there was nothing in it for Alevis, despite great hopes that there would be. Why do you think this was?

The public had high expectations about this. There were problems related to the package and Alevis. The prime minister said that there had been a large number of Alevis participating in the Gezi protests, and with a new package, he said, the government was set to solve their problems. But in the new package, there was nothing but a change of Nevşehir University’s name to “Nevşehir Hacı Bektaş-ı Veli University,” [an esteemed figure for the Alevi community]. However, we have some practical problems, and I expected a solution to at least one of these. For example, we have problems in establishing cemevis in Turkey, because cemevis are not considered places of worship in the same way as mosques, churches and synagogues. We hoped that the latest democratization package would at least have some solution to that problem, but it did not. Even AK Party supporters were surprised that there was no solution to this. Then top government officials announced that they were working on another package to solve Alevi-specific problems.
‘Gov’t is trying to design its own Alevism’

Are you or other Alevi leaders involved in this latest package?

Unfortunately not. The government hears the opinions of the people it wants to hear, and there are even some Alevi organizations established with the government’s support, but only their names are connected to the Alevi community. Since 2009, about 100 new Alevi organizations have been created in cooperation with state institutions, and they are not engaged in any serious work. On the other hand, the old, traditional Alevi organizations have not been involved in the process of solving our issues. In other words, the government prefers to work with its own organizations in order to design the Alevism it wants. However, we expect fresh problems if it continues in this way, because Alevis will never accept it. For example, Alevism does not allow religious leaders to be paid by the state; our communities would like to support their leaders themselves. The state has also made illogical moves, for example, it sent some Alevi religious leaders [called “dede”] to Europe to administer to Alevis living there, but there is no such need. On the other hand, an Alevi convict in a Turkish prison in Kandıra, near İzmit, asked to talk to a dede and the Diyanet replied that there is no religious leader called “dede” in Islam, but if he wishes, an imam [Sunni religious leader] can be provided.

Can you tell us about your personal struggle against the state’s imposition of a single religious understanding on its people?

My son is the first child to be exempted from religious education by a court order in Turkey. I filed the lawsuit because the religion class teaches and imposes on us a Sunni understanding and practice of Islam, nothing else. When I filed the lawsuit, I did not ask why the state was not teaching Alevism. Then other Alevis started to file lawsuits against the state, too. And then the government began a project to include Alevi teachings in school textbooks.

‘AK Party adapts methods of guardianship regime’

What do these textbooks include?

During the eight-year academic life of a student, only two weeks are dedicated to the teachings of Alevism, and remember that religion classes are only two hours a week. In addition, there are problems in the books; for example, we have a special fast period called “Hızır fasting.” In the school textbooks, Hızır fasting is presented as a “traditional” fasting practice of Alevis, but it is not a “tradition,” it is part of a belief system for us. Additionally, there are problems concerning the teachers of those classes. The instructors are Sunnis who graduated from religious schools following the Sunni Islamic practices and doctrines. Unfortunately, we have seen awful behavior from some of these teachers. For example, some teachers said Alevism is a “deviant” belief system, and others beat kids for being Alevi. It seems that these classes should not be taught by a teacher of any religion. Indeed, I believe the state should not be involved in religious education, as this belongs to the individual’s life and civil society. The ruling party was once a victim of the old state system which tried to impose a certain kind of religious practice on people, so the AK Party should be much more pro-freedom of religion, but it is acting in the opposite way.

Would you say that the AK Party has adopted the dictatorial stance of the old state in terms of religion?

Apparently, the AK Party government wants to continue the same old understanding of the state towards religious beliefs, especially in its latest term in office. You must go to work and the mosque during the day and come home in the evening to your family, and you cannot belong to a special religious community or order. The state considers Sunni Muslim belief to be acceptable, as does the government, but its practice should also be in a way that the state accepts. So. the AK Party has adopted the ways of the old guardian regime which victimized the AK Party and its supporters during their rise to power. It is ironic that the AK Party is now using the same method to victimize others. This is demonstrated by the prime minister’s statement that he is 100 percent Alevi. He was trying to say that it is enough for people to look at him and live like him, then they will be perfect Alevis. He also said that if Alevism is about loving the prophet Ali, he has the utmost admiration for Ali, and therefore he is the best Alevi. Of course, our belief system is not that simple. I think he is not ignorant about this fact, but he is trying to appeal to his conservative Sunni base before the elections.
‘Gov’t also pressuring Gülen group’

You made some objections to Fethullah Gülen’s project of a joint mosque-cemevi complex. What are your concerns?

Can Fethullah Gülen build a cemevi? Of course he can, if he wants. Can some other people do that? Yes, they can. Can a cemevi and a mosque be side by side? Yes, they can, and there already are some like this. These are not problems for us. The problem arises if the cemevi is not accepted as a place of worship by Alevis and it is built as an auxiliary building on the side of a mosque. This is because Alevis say that their place of worship is a cemevi, and it is up to them to decide, not anybody else.

What do you think of the recent statement from the Abant Platform meeting on Alevis?

I was pleasantly surprised that the statement raised points that we have been making for years — that the Diyanet should be redesigned as an independent foundation and other religious groups should be allowed to establish such independent foundations, that the issue of religion should be left to civil society, that nobody should attempt to describe the faith of others on their behalf, that religious groups and communities should be recognized as legal entities, that there should be legal recognition of Alevi cemevis, that mandatory religion classes in schools should be abolished and that discrimination against Alevis must end, especially in the government’s hiring practices.

It must be realized that religion is a matter for individual citizens. It is likely that the Gülen community will face restrictions and pressure from the government [as the AK Party government’s supporters have accused the Gülen movement of discrediting a number of ministers and their relatives in relation to a recent investigation into alleged bribery in public tenders, which saw the sons of three Cabinet ministers taken into custody alongside construction moguls and bureaucrats]. What we have been defending are universal rights, including the freedom of religion and belief. If these can be achieved, everybody will benefit from them, not just the Alevi community.


Ali Kenanoğlu

Kenanoğlu is from the Hubyar village of Almus, Tokat province, and completed his primary school education there. He is president of the Hubyar Sultan Alevi Culture Association, an Alevi association founded in 2002. Previously he was a director of the Okmeydanı Cemevi from 1997-2002. He also served on the board of directors at the Hacı Bektaş Veli Anatolian Cultural Foundation in Ankara. He was also vice president of the Alevi-Bektaşi Federation (ABF). He has an economics degree from Anadolu University, in Eskişehir, and works in finance and accounting. He is co-author of the book “Hubyar Sultan Ocağı ve Beydili Sıraç Türkmenleri” (Hubyar Sultan’s Teaching and the Turkmens of Beydili Sıraç).

Source: Today's Zaman , December 22, 2013

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