News / Europe

Sunni-Alevis Relationship Remains Contentious in Turkey

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Dorian Jones

The Turkish government is seeking to meet the increasing demands of Alevis - a sect of Islam that differs significantly from the country's majority Sunni followers. Alevis claim they suffer discrimination and persecution. But, reforms remain contentious.

Hatice Kose collects her son from school. She is an Alevi Muslim who has successfully brought charges against Turkey in the European Court of Human Rights over the treatment of their children in schools.

She objects to the system of compulsory religious education in Sunni Islam in Turkish schools.

"My son, every week, faces three hours of indoctrination," she said. "When my son says this not my faith, the teacher says, what kind of Muslim are you? Another child she knows was even beaten by his teacher for refusing to pray."

Education is a key point of contention with the Turkish state.  Although Alevis are considered Muslims, they worship in cemevis -  or assembly houses - rather than mosques.

And, unlike praying in a mosque, their ceremonies feature music and dance, where both women and men participate unsegregated.  Many Alevis also believe in the separation of religion from the state, and are traditional  supporters of secularism in Turkey.

Even though they make up as much as a quarter of the population, their beliefs aren't recognized by the state, which labels Alevism a cultural rather than religious identity.

But, attitudes may be changing.

The state run channel for the first time last December, devoted a program to the Alevi celebration of Ashura. Until now Alevis religious celebrations were ignored by state media.

And, in another ground breaking step, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed an Alevi gathering to mark the start of the festivities.

Mr. Erdogan has also set up a series of meetings between Alevi representatives, academics and government members --  a first for Turkey.

Farok Celick is the minister responsible for the initiative. He says they are committed to reform.

He says they will continue their meetings with social institutions, and they are giving utmost importance to their dialog with political parties.  In the coming weeks they will finalize a report. He says they are establishing an alliance on the subject to introduce the necessary reforms with a wide consensus.

The intiative has been welcomed by the European Union. But the Turkish government has repeatedly delayed announcing its planned reforms and observers say initial high expectations are dissipating.

Istar Gozaydin of Istanbul Technical University is an expert on state and religion in Turkey and participated in one of the government sponsored meetings. She says the initiative has reached an impasse.

"For the first time they've been trying quite hard in order to make a dialogue," said Istar Gozaydin. "But its difficult for the Sunni authorities to perceive that there exists another understanding of Islam, which they consider not valid actually. It's important because unless they start accepting it as an other understanding of the religion, its out of the question to come to an understanding of each other. It seems to be dialogue but then it turns out to be trying to assimilate them in their own understanding."  

But recognizing the Alevis as a branch of Islam, is heresy to many pious Sunni Muslims in Turkey.

The call to pray at the Uskudar Mosque in central Istanbul brings the faithful. This area is one of the electoral stronghold of the ruling AK Party. Speaking to people here, there is outright hostility toward Alevis.

"I am a civil servant and I have colleagues who are Alevis and I get along well with them, said a sunni worshipper. "But to be honest, they don't fit with us.  I can't lie about it. Their religious beliefs are not proper."

Despite resistance from many Sunnis,  there is a growing assertiveness among many Alevis.

Though in the past Alevis have kept a low profile, tens of thousands of Alevis protested for greater rights recently.

Alevi analyst Mehmet Ali Calisgun says this growing assertiveness is due, in part, to pressure by the EU and human rights groups.

"After centuries of having problems for the first time, Alevi's are carrying their problem to the legal areas," said Mehmet Ali Calisgun. "For the first time they are assuming the legal area realm is the solution area of their problems."

But with EU backing Alevi demands increasing, Turkish society is under pressure to embrace its diversity. Whether the government intiatives succeed or fail, Alevi rights seem set to remain on the Turkish political agenda for some time to come.

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