By Sahin Alpay
29 September 2013
A most valuable book on Turkey's politics published recently is Markus Dressler's rigorously researched study “Writing Religion: The Making of Turkish Alevi Islam” (Oxford University Press, 2013).
The book provides an excellent background on one of the main problems of the democratization and secularization of Turkey that awaits resolution: that is, an end to the legal and social discrimination of the country's largest religious minority, the Alevis, estimated to comprise about 15 percent of the population.
The main question Dressler's study addresses is how “Kızılbaş” communities, who during the Ottoman period were regarded as heretical, immoral and disloyal and subjected to oppression, came to be referred to as “Alevis” in the republican period and identified as Muslims, even if of a heterodox kind and as an integral part of the Turkish nation.
Dressler argues that one of the major problems faced by the secular nationalist, Kemalist founders of the Republic of Turkey (established after the Armenian deportations during World War I and the forced population exchange on the basis of religion between Turkey and Greece in the wake of the war), in the context of their efforts towards the construction of a secular and Muslim Turkish nation, was how it would be possible to integrate the Alevis. Alevis displayed great ethnic and religious diversity, with about 20 to 30 percent being of Kurdish ethnic origin and divided between those who regarded their religious belief as a (third) sect within Islam and those who perceived it as an entirely separate religion.
The solution the Kemalists found to this problem, according to Dressler, was this: They rejected the exclusionary Ottoman discourse that regarded the Alevis as immoral and disloyal heretics and identified the Alevis as the carriers of Central Asian Turkish culture and beliefs. The Kemalists also rejected the discourse of Western missionaries who traced the ethnic origin of the Alevis at least partially to ancient Anatolian civilizations and Armenians, maintained that their beliefs were strongly influenced by Christianity and instead identified Anatolian Alevism as part of Islam, if of a heterodox kind.
It is well known that in the 1980s Alevi communities in Turkey started to question the Turkish-Islamic identity ascribed to them by the Kemalist state. Anatolian Alevis are today clearly divided between Turks (who speak Turkish) and Kurds (who speak the Kurmanchi or Zaza dialects of Kurdish), with the latter displaying the strongest reaction against their official inclusion within a Turkish-Islamic identity. Irrespective of ethnic identity, they are divided between those who regard their religious creed as a third sect within Islam, while others believe it to be an entirely separate religion.
If Turkey is ever to consolidate a liberal and pluralist democracy it is absolutely necessary that the state give up its efforts to impose an ethnic and/or religious identity on citizens. It must lift all restrictions on the free expression and exercise of their identities. Under the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government in Turkey, in response to mounting protests, it has finally put an end to the sheer denial of Kurdish and Alevi identities and has even taken certain steps towards their official recognition. The official imposition of a Turkish-Islamic identity on society still continues, however, by the state monopoly and control of religion through the Sunni dominated Religious Affairs Directorate, established in the early 1920s as one of the main pillars of the Kemalist state.
Full legal secularism is a major achievement of the republic, but without separation of state and religion, either through the adoption of an autonomous status for the directorate or its abolition and the lifting of restrictions on the religious rights of all citizens, Turkey cannot claim to be a secular state in the proper meaning of the term.
Dressler's study of Alevism in Turkey is a highly valuable contribution to the understanding of the problems posed by the Kemalist policies of authoritarian or assertive secularism in Turkey.