From our special correspondent in Pazarcik, Turkey – With an estimated population of between 15 to 20 million people, Turkey’s Alevi community is one of the country’s largest religious minorities. Despite being widely discriminated against, Alevis are being given renewed hopes in their struggle for equality in Turkey as Alevi presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu faces off against incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 14.
The Cemevi (Turkish for house of gathering) in the town of Pazarcik situated in the Kahramanmaras Province in southern Turkey has been heavily damaged by the February 6 earthquakes. The Alevi prayer house now serves as a place of storage for aid supplies.
Chairs and tables are piled together and boxes strewn about on the cracked and dust-covered floor of the partially destroyed prayer house where President Hasan Husevin Degirmenci of the local Alevi Cultural Association spoke with FRANCE 24.
The Pazarcik Cemevi, which was originally built with funds raised through the sale of “tea and coffee at weddings of the [Alevi] diaspora in Switzerland”, is far from the only Alevi prayer house damaged by the earthquakes, Degirmenci said, adding that there is no rebuilding in sight.
Meanwhile mosques damaged by the earthquakes will be rebuilt, he said.
Alevism: an old syncretic religion
It is hard to define what Alevism actually is. Some say it is a sect, while others call it a religion, an Islamic branch resembling Shi’ism and Sufism. Alevis, however, regard themselves neither as Sunnis nor Shias.
“We red heads (kızılbaş in Turkish refers to the crimson headwear worn by Alevis during the rule of the Ottoman empire) have nothing to do with Shias,” Degirmenci said. “Ali is Shia. We pray for the 12 imams at each Cem (gathering) so that the prayer is complete.”
The icons of the 12 imams are portrayed above a platform at the far end of the room with Ali, the prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, along with Muhammad’s descendants. The 12th imam is “hidden” (his features are not portrayed) and is believed by Alevis to return at the end of time. The icon of Haci Bektas Veli, a revered 13th century Turkish philosopher and founder of the Bektashi Order, and a photo of Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic and champion of secularism, are also portrayed.
The Alevi faith is essentially a religious syncretism which combines philosophy, Gnosticism, Sufism and Christianity. Unlike the majority of Muslims, Alevis do not pray five times per day, nor do they go on pilgrimage to Mecca. They do not observe Ramadan and do not ban alcohol. Every Thursday, a ceremony called the Cem is presided by a dede (which literally means “grandfather” in Turkish) during which men and women gather to pray. At the end of the ceremony, the devotees perform a dance called Semah accompanied by music played on a Saz, a traditional string instrument.
“The main rule is justice. Don’t do unto others what you don’t want done unto you,” Degirmenci said. “Don’t say things that you won’t want said to you. We don’t have a book. Our belief is passed on orally. We respect the four holy books (the Quran, the Bible, the Torah and the Book of Psalms) and we expect the same respect from others. We exist, even though we’re not recognised by authorities.”
‘They killed children’
Ever since the rule of the Ottoman empire, Alevis have been regarded as apostates, miscreants and followers of Islamic fanaticism in Turkey. Often persecuted for their faith, Alevis have been the victims of several pogroms. Hasan Husevin Degirmenci has himself survived the 1978 Maras (short for Kahramanmaras) massacre, during which over a hundred Alevi Kurds were killed and more than 500 injured by neofascist groups according to official figures.
“The fight was mainly between left and right wingers (communists and neofascists from Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party) but armed groups took it out on Alevis,” Degirmenci said. “They killed children, they eviscerated pregnant women. At that time, there were a lot of Alevis living in Maras, and the community was prosperous. They did it to divide and to weaken us. They reinvented history by pitting Sunnis against Alevis.”
Another more recent pogrom has also left its bitter mark on Alevi history. On July 2, 1993, Islamic fanatics carried out an arson attack on a hotel in Sivas, a city in central Turkey known for its religious conservatism. Academics were gathered at the hotel to celebrate Pir Sultan Abdal, a 16th century Alevi poet. The arson attack left 37 people dead, and among them 33 Alevis. The faces of the “martyrs” cover one of the walls of Cemevi’s main hall.
Despite making up to an estimated 20 percent of the population, the Alevi community in Turkey continue to face death threats and attacks for not observing Ramadan, and their houses are often marked with a cross.
“When I was a child, we weren’t even allowed to speak Kurdish. We had to hide our faith after the Maras massacre. But after what happened in Sivas in 1993, people refused to endure it anymore,” Degirmenci said.
Struggle for equality
“I was born Alevi, I didn’t choose it. I have an identity card, I did my military service, I pay my taxes. I fulfil all my duties as a citizen. There are between 15 and 20 million Alevis in Turkey and all that we’re asking for is to be recognised in the Constitution.”
Despite the continuous hardships, the Alevi community in Turkey have recently been given renewed hopes when the opposition presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu spoke publicly of his Alevi heritage, breaking a political taboo.
“We Alevis, we have hope. We will never give up,” Degirmenci said. “An Alevi candidate will apply his beliefs in morality and justice. There are other minorities in Turkey: Kurds, Syrians, Yezidis … He will not point fingers at anyone.”
However, Kilicdaroglu’s victory is not yet guaranteed, and fears over the incumbent’s potential re-election remain high among Alevis.
“We can’t go on like this,” he said. “The Christians have already left the country. If he is re-elected, the Alevis will leave.”
This article was adapted from the original in French.
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