Alevism is a branch of Shi’a Islam that is practiced in Turkey and the Balkans among ethnic Turks and Kurds, and is related to—though distinct from—Alawism in Syria. Alevis make up 20% of Turkish Muslims and comprise Turkey’s largest religious minority community.
Alevism emerged in Turkey during the 10th century. Like other Shi’a Muslims, Alevis believe that the Prophet Muhammad’s nephew ‘Ali Ibn Abi Talib was his rightful successor, and they reject the leadership of the first three “rightly guided caliphs” following the Prophet’s death. Alevism is also strongly influenced by Sufism, and maintains close connections with the Safavi and later Bektashi Sufi orders, and its organization closely mirrors Sufi brotherhoods, led by dedes instead of a Sufi sheikh. However, Turkish Alevism also contains traces of Buddhism, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism and Shamanism and rejects some basic tenets considered to be normative in Islam, such as the pilgrimage to Mecca, the five daily prayers, and fasting during Ramadan. Alevis gather for religious services in cemevis instead of mosques, which are not recognized by the Turkish government.
Alevis, who were marginalized under the Ottoman Empire, supported Atatürk, though their activities were curtailed with the dissolution of Sufi orders in 1925. The government mandated disconnection between dedes and Alevis grew further during the 1950s with rising migration and urbanization and in the 1960s and 1970s, as Alevi youth were drawn to leftist political movements. The tumult of that period laid the foundation for an Alevi revival as ultranationalists accused the Alevis for their leftist politics, their supposed Kurdish ethnic origins, and their heretical religious beliefs. A rising Alevi secular elite seized upon opportunities in the 1980s to empower their networks, and against the backdrop of the Islamic revival both in Turkey and elsewhere in the world, the religious components of Alevism came to prominence. Alevis reject the hegemonic association of Turkish identity with Sunni Islam and have resented projects such as the construction of mosques in Alevi villages.
As such, Alevis have embraced a human rights discourse in which they are entitled to recognition by virtue of their distinction as a unique religious group. Alevi scholars began producing academic works examining their cultural roots and religious practices, which contributed to a heightened sense of Alevi identity. These trends were strengthened by anti-Alevi acts, such as an arson attack on hotel in Sivas in 1993, during which 35 Alevis were killed at an event celebrating an Alevi poet.
Tens of thousands of Alevis protested across Turkey in October 2013 after recognitions for Alevi rights were conspicuously absent from a series of reforms introduced by Prime Minister Erdoğan that month. As neither they nor their places of worship are recognized by the government, essentially, they call for the right to hold an interpretation of Islam that is different from that of the mainstream. Erdoğan’s base of support is among mainstream Sunni Muslims, the majority of whom consider Alevi beliefs to be so heterodox as to be heretical, and thus he is unlikely to take an inclusive stance.
Turkish Alevis have also been negatively impacted by the Civil War in Syria. Erdoğan is an outspoken critic of President Bashar al-Assad and frequently mentions that Assad is an Alawi. While Alawites and Alevis are both Shi’a minority groups, they are distinct; nonetheless the political rhetoric has associated Turkish Alevis with their Syrian neighbors.
Marcus Dressler, “Religio-Secular Metamorphoses: The Re-Making of Turkish Alevism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 76, No. 2 (2008), pp. 280-311.
Dorian Jones, “Tensions Rise Between Turkey’s Government, Alevi Minority,” Voice of America, October 22, 2013, accessed November 4, 2013.
Kerem Karaosmanoğlu, “Beyond essentialism: negotiating Alevi identity in urban Turkey,” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power, Vol. 20, No. 5 (2013), pp. 580-597.