Erdogan Stokes Divisions In Comments on Turkish Alevis

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's remarks on Turkish Alevis seemed to stoke divisions, writes Ali Topuz.

al-monitor A protester holds a banner reading "We are Alevi" in front of a courthouse in Ankara, March 13, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas.

Topics covered

religious, religion and state, religion, oppression, discrimination, alevis

Feb 28, 2013

In one of his tirades last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan marked the Alevis using the measures of “lifestyle” and “us.” This is not a path that someone looking for “social peace and tranquility” would choose.

“It [Alevism] is not a religion,” Erdogan said. This sentence looks like a judgment uttered by a theologian, or maybe by a sociologist or a historian studying religions.

And then he said, “It is seen as an institution within Islam.” This sentence creates the impression that the speaker is trying to make sense of something on the basis of what he is able or unable to see. As if he has encountered something that does not fit into what he knows — an effort to understand.

“It has no clear definition,” he noted. A definition? By this we understand that an attempt to define the thing through “meta-language,” something we are used to in various disciplines, has failed to bear fruit. Whatever the issue he grapples with, what he is tinkering with it as an object — a methodology that exists both in the present and the history of the act of “knowing.”

“In the past, we used to see them as people venerating [the Islamic Prophet] Ali,” Erdogan remarked. The profile of the speaker begins to slowly emerge. He has a history with the thing he is speaking about. It becomes clear this thing is not “an institution” but rather a “group of people” or a “community.” Whoever the “we” are, they keep themselves apart from the ones they “used to see as people venerating Ali” in other houses, neighborhoods, regions or even in other countries — it’s unclear.

Emphasis on lifestyle

“Their lifestyle has nothing to do with the Prophet Ali,” said Erdogan. The meaning becomes clearer. The spokesman of the “we” has made up his mind judging by “lifestyles.” But he doesn’t stop there and continues to present his sociological observations by adding an ethnic aspect to the religious discrimination. “Those who are compatible with our lifestyle are the Turkish Alevis. The others stand on a completely different ground.” So, we learn that “the others” are not Turks. But we are not told what they are. They are only “the others.” Kurds? Persians? Arabs? Laz? Bosniacs? Albanians? We don’t know!

The “we” continues to speak: “The cemevis [Alevi houses of worship] are not places of worship,” Erdogan claims. The initial theologian, sociologist, historian or whatever he is seems to be at work again.  But we already realize that he is not someone using “meta-language” in an effort to “know,” but as an orator addressing an “inside” group with rhetoric about those who are not “us.” It is crystal clear that we are not in the realm of any genuine or quasi scientific discipline, but on a political ground. The cemevis not being a place of worship in his eyes does not seem abnormal if those using them are not “us.”

As if Alevis impose the cemevi

“There is a single house of worship in Islam — the mosque. Cemevis are cultural houses,” said Erdogan. Fine. If the speaker is not a “learned man” who could be deemed “impartial” by the norms of a certain discipline but rather a Muslim who regards the “us” as the “owners of Islam,” then it is normal for him to reject places other than mosques as houses of worship. It means he will never go to a cemevi to pray. And that’s fine since no one is inviting him or putting him under pressure to go. There is a fiat, but is it the Alevis who are imposing it?

“The argument that the Alevis have bigger problems than the Kurds is untrue,” said Erdogan. Now we learn that non-Turkish Alevis do not include Kurds! We’ve already learned that the Turkish Alevis are closer to “us,” and now we are told that “the Kurds” are something different even from the non-Turkish Alevis. Let’s not delve into the horizontal or vertical categories of ethnic and religious classifications and cut it short: The Alevis are entirely outside “us”; only Turkish Alevis are “a bit” close to “us.” Judging by the speaker, we don’t know whether the Kurds belong to “us” but we realize they have bigger problems than the Alevis. This is what the spokesman of the “us” is preaching.

A dangerous parenthesis

Then he concludes: “Their voices are louder.” Meaning that the voice of Alevis is louder. Is it? Maybe it’s because they are far away from “us.” Maybe the “us” is far away and does not hear. Maybe their voices are loud so that the “us” lends an ear, who knows. The speaker, however, not only stands “outside” and away, but he is determined to keep those he is talking about outside and away.

We are in the realm of politics, but the speaker sounds not as the political leader of a “democratic country” but as the leader of a religious brotherhood. He passes religious judgments. He reveals his house of worship. He uses his own Prophet Ali as a measure. On the basis of that measure, he dismisses the places of worship of those outside the “us.”

A religious leader would use the comparison of “us” and “the others” to explain, praise and glorify the dogmas, faith and principles of his brotherhood, splitting hairs to remold definitions over and over again. But what if the speaker is a “political leader” and the head of a “democratic government” who keeps declaring that he stands on an “equal distance” to all religious communities and faiths? What if “the Alevis” and “the Kurds” are citizens of the same state? The speaker is saying that there is an “us” which is “us” and another “us” which is outside us.

There is no problem if a theologian becomes a prime minister in a democratic country. But prime ministers claiming the role of theologians are not good.

Hierarchic citizenship

In sum, it turns out that either Alevis are not citizens of the Turkish state or the Turkish state is bent on dividing its citizens into “us” and “not us” on the basis of religious norms. Moreover, a special parenthesis is opened to entirely exclude a group left between “us” and “Turkish Alevis.”

The state has always been bent on this. [The massacres of Alevis in] Dersim, Elbistan and Maras were all the result of this resolve. Is the “marking” of the prime minister unrelated to the marks that “children” put on the doors [of Alevi homes]? How can the prime minister of a democratic country measure the lifestyle of a group of its citizens? How can we achieve a peaceful society amid the anxiety that those markings cause in the homes of millions of citizens? And when a government head makes all those comments, what does it matter for Alevis (especially Alevi Kurds, as his remarks suggest) if they are seen as citizens on paper? 

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