Prisoner scores small victory in struggle for Alevi rights in Turkey

An Alevi religious figure was for the first time allowed to pay a counseling visit to an Alevi prisoner in Turkey.

al-monitor Alevi demonstrators shout anti-government slogans during a protest against violence in Okmeydani, a working-class district in the center of Istanbul, May 25, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Murad Sezer.

Topics covered

turkish politics, turkish education system, sunni, religion in turkey, religion and state, religion, prisoners, alevis

Jul 14, 2015

In a first for Turkey, the authorities in May allowed an Alevi religious elder — a dede — to visit for religious counseling an Alevi convict in prison. The move came as a boost for Alevi efforts to have their faith officially recognized. Yet, the way in which the visit took place and the authorities’ reluctance to allow further visits has caused fresh frustrations.

Under Turkish law, inmates are entitled to meet with clerics representing their religious beliefs. The Justice Ministry and the Religious Affairs Directorate (RAD) have even signed a protocol to facilitate such meetings. Muslim preachers now visit prisons on Fridays to teach inmates the Quran and prayers, hold talks on Islam and offer counsel on an individual basis.

But, as the nature of these activities suggest, only Sunni Muslims are able to benefit from them. Non-Muslim inmates are required to apply in writing to prison administrations to request meetings with their clerics. Alevi prisoners, for their part, were practically unable to see Alevi religious figures until recently.

Last year, Miktat Algul, an Alevi inmate in the southern city of Osmaniye, asked the jail administration for a meeting with an Alevi dede, citing the law under which Sunni inmates are able to meet with Sunni preachers. But instead of an Alevi dede, two Sunni preachers were sent to visit him.

Earlier this year, Algul — now moved to an Ankara prison — reiterated his request for a meeting with an Alevi dede, lodging a series of applications first with the prison administration and then the prosecutor’s office, the Justice Ministry, the Public Ombudsman and the Bar Association. The Justice Ministry finally acquiesced, and on May 18, an Alevi dede visited a prison on a religious mission for the first time.

The meeting, however, failed to comply with Alevi rites, according to Kazim Genc, the attorney the Ankara Bar Association’s Human Rights Center assigned to assist Algul.

“In Sunni Islam, an imam can lead the prayer for anyone. In Alevism, however, people belong to different hearths. And because of the Alevi principle of mutual consent, Alevis are supposed to receive religious services from the dedes of their own hearths. This principle was disregarded and a random dede was summoned to the prison,” Genc told Al-Monitor.

After the May 18 meeting, Algul requested a second one, but his repeated applications have remained unanswered so far, the attorney said. And since the applications have not been formally rejected, Algul is unable to pursue further action in court.

“The law allows detainees and convicts to meet with the clerics of their faiths while in custody. Sunni inmates can see their preachers every week, but Alevis and others cannot. The law is perfectly clear, but is not being implemented,” Genc said.

So, why are Alevi inmates denied their rights in spite of the law? The core of the problem lays in the way RAD views Alevism. Ever since its creation as a government institution in the 1920s, RAD has catered only to Sunni Islam and sees Alevism not as a faith but as a “culture.” Though this interpretation lacks any theological basis, RAD has rejected Alevi demands for religious services.

Ali Kenanoglu, an Alevi parliament member for the Peoples’ Democratic Party who follows Algul’s case, says the authorities’ attitude is unacceptable both in terms of human rights and religious freedoms.

“That the state should decide whether Alevism is a faith or not is absurd. Their attitude here has been undemocratic,” Kenanoglu told Al-Monitor. “The inmate is unable to overcome the problems he is experiencing, needs help and requests his religious representative. Whatever faith he declares to have and whoever he requests to meet is up to his beliefs. The state cannot make the decision here.”

In comments on RAD’s description of Alevism as a “culture,” the lawmaker said, “This interpretation is in fact a denial of Alevism as a whole, a denial of reality. It is based on the following reasoning: Alevism is a sect within Islam and hence Muslims are supposed to have a single religious leader and RAD determines who that person is. This amounts to a denial of Alevism as a whole. The Alevis’ perspective of Islam and their own faith differs from that of the state and Sunni Islam. They have built their own set of beliefs in the course of a historical process. They have their own religious leaders and their own places of worship.”

The narrative of Alevism being a “culture” is not something new. It is the rhetorical reflection of the state’s long-standing assimilation policies against Alevis, which lead to discrimination not only in jails but in all spheres of life. The Turkish state refuses to formally recognize the cemevis, the Alevi houses of worship, and the dedes, while subjecting Alevi students to compulsory Sunni-dominated religious classes in schools.

In this context, a dede’s visit to an Alevi inmate was a significant step forward. Yet, by allowing the visit Turkey simply did what its own law requires it to do. Should the authorities prevent further visits, they will be not only breaching the law but reinforcing the image of a state oppressing its Alevi citizens.

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