Alevi in ​​the Republic of Turkey (2) –

In the 11th-14th centuries, huge masses of Turkic tribal groups gradually invaded the Middle East and Asia Minor. This leads to major changes in political, ethnic and religious aspects. In three centuries, the continuous human flow from the regions of eastern Iran and Central Asia has considerably changed the ethnic and religious aspect of Asia Minor. In the first half of the 13th century, Turkish migration to the west intensified due to the Mongol invasions. Turkish women arrived in Asia Minor with their own clan and tribal institutions and with a preserved attachment to Turkish traditions. In their social organization, tribal chiefs – beys – and tribal councils play a major role. Some of the Turkish tribes are in the period of acceptance of Islam, among others it has already established itself. The Seljuq rulers adopted the Persian-Muslim tradition of royal authority and politics, which required obedience from the ruler’s subjects. In their quest for centralization, the Seljuks relied on civil servants and advisers of Persian origin who entered the administration quickly and efficiently. Some scholars even admit the possibility that the Seljuk Empire was actually an Iranian Empire. The Persians quickly realized the danger of the strong positions of the Turkish tribal beys and made efforts to limit their power and influence. In order to keep the incoming Turkic tribes away from the center, they created a belt of ujes (border areas) made up of Turkic nomads and semi-nomads behind the state borders. This policy leads to two results. First, the state gets rid of the restless elements at the center who are always ready to oppose the central authority, and thus strengthens its borders. Second, the creation of ujes pushed the Turkish nomads to new conquests. Groups (akandjis) constantly come to the ujjas in question, disturbing the peace of the Christian neighbors. Anarchist tendencies began to be noticed among the Turkic tribes, which continued to manifest themselves in a later period. The first Seljuk sultans oscillated between the discontent of the Turkish tribes and the policy of centralization carried out by their Persian viziers. The contradiction between the centralization efforts of the Seljuq rulers and the Turkish tradition of tribal organization and independent life on the steppes has never been resolved. Due to their limited rights, the Turks revolted. Unrest increased in the first half of the 13th century due to the influx of new waves of nomads, which created a problem with their displacement and limited accommodation options. The arrival of new waves poses great difficulties for the authorities.

The Alevis have their own religious ceremonies, during which hymns are sung and ecstatic dances are performed. Not only men but also women participate in these ceremonies. In fact, women participate equally with men in all religious ceremonies. There are also many other practices, for example the worship of mountains, stones and trees or the worship of springs. They are often called “popular Islam”. Some regard these customs as vestiges of pre-Islamic beliefs borrowed from the Turks of Central Asia or from the ancient population of Mesopotamia. Others see in Alevi syncretism a trace of the superficial Islamization of local Christian groups. These interpretations, often used for political purposes, remain difficult to clarify from a scientific point of view. Religious music is an essential part of Alevi worship. It is a means of spiritual upliftment and, along with dancing, helps members of the given faith community to unite with God. According to Alevi concepts, the center of divine energy in each person is the heart. The song of their bards is powerful and devoid of ornamentation. Alevi music, transmitted by oral tradition, is fully preserved. All musical elements that would give the song the slightest lightness or refinement are rejected. Ornaments, voice effects and complex rhythms are prohibited. The melodies stand out with a certain frankness, the rhythm is clear and emphatic, and the style is energetic. The lyrics of the tunes are based on a simple vernacular. The main themes relate to the personality of Ali, his son Hussain and Yazid/Hazar, whom they consider to be the lord of time and immortality. Other themes relate to the transience of the world, the observance of the divine order, the renunciation of all pretension and vanity, the acquisition of patience, gratitude and fidelity. They are esoteric texts, which are distinguished by their polysemancity, where each listener discovers for himself the separate meaning. The best examples of Alevi songs are those with long melodies singing about love and nature. Since the 16th century, the Alevis have been the subject of a whole mythology dealing with their supposed moral deviations (orgies, ritual incest, etc.). The accumulation of such attitudes is due to political, religious and social reasons – the persecution of the Qazalbashi, the heterodoxy of their faith and their closed way of life. The religious ceremony, which takes place in secret, the ritual use of alcohol, the music and the dance appear to foreigners as a violation of Muslim principles, even as a rejection of them by the Alevi. However, the Alevis themselves strongly disagree with such accusations. They not only consider themselves deeply moral, but also perceive their own religious values ​​as superior to those of the Sunnis. The homogeneity of the group has long been maintained by rules aimed at guaranteeing its integrity and protecting it from the outside world: strict endogamy, prohibition of divorce, initiation rites, existence of justice within the community. The mythical genealogy, the collective memory of the uprisings and the existence of a kind of preparation for resistance contribute to a strong sense of belonging. The Alevis do not, however, form a homogeneous whole, even from a religious point of view. They have been persecuted for a long time and find refuge in isolated and difficult to reach places – high mountains and forests. Thus, the Kizalbash groups isolate themselves from the outside world and from each other. Relations between the groups in question are very loose. For example, it was only during their military service that some learned of the existence of other Kizalbash groups. As a result, there is a great diversity of rites and even beliefs among them. The Kemalist reforms eased the territorial and social marginalization of the Alevis by introducing compulsory education, establishing communication networks and exercising strict state control in all areas, including those that had previously been completely isolated from the world. Another reason for the troubled integration into Turkish society is the mass migration from villages to cities, which began in the second half of the 20th century and continues until today. Today, Alevi communities are mainly present in cities in the Asian part of Turkey, but a sizeable number of them also live in Istanbul, mainly in its cheap suburbs. At least for now, however, there is no tendency for Alevi communities to break up and assimilate, even though they are currently scattered throughout the country and to some extent secularized. Not only does the community division not disappear, but it is also politicized. Among the lesser known aspects of modern Turkey is the Alevi question. It can be said that the Alevis are a religious group with a strong political connotation. They form a syncretic and heterodox group which represents approximately 10 to 20% of the population of modern Turkey. Alevis are little affected in the studies of sociology and political science in the Republic of Turkey. Turkey turns them into a “statistically invisible” group, which has long been a taboo subject. For a long time, they did not formulate their own public demands and did not participate in the international scene. This is gradually changing. Since the end of the 1980s, the mobilization of Alevi identity and the inclusion of its representatives in political life have been noticed. The Alevi movement is divided and its many actors have different, sometimes opposing, views on the nature and roots of Aleviism. Various interpretations are offered, often deliberate. In this context, it is difficult to draw the contemporary political, social, religious and cultural traits of Aleviism, especially since the political situation in Turkey does not allow the Alevi question to be fully clarified.


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– Bilici, F. “The function of Alevi-Bektashi theology in modern Turkey” in Tord Olsson, Elizabeth Ozdalga and Catharina Raudvere (eds.), Alevi Identity, Swedish Research in Istanbul, 1998.

– Shankland, D. The Alevis in Turkey: the Emergence of a Secular Islamic Tradition, London, Routledge Curzon, 2003.

– Schuler, H. “Secularism and Ethnicity: Alevis and Social Democrats in Search of an Alliance” in Stephane Yerasimos, Gunter Seufert and Karin Vorhoff (eds.), Civil Society in the Grip of Natinalism, Istanbul, OrientInstitut, 2000.

Photo: Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute.

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