By Mustafa Akyol
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has just issued in a landmark decision about religious freedom in Turkey. The “cemevis” (or “gathering houses”) that are used as a house of worship by Alevis, do not get the public support received by mosques, churches and synagogues, the court ruled. This, the European judges concluded, constitutes “discrimination” against the Alevi community, which is Turkey’s largest non-Sunni group.
Whether this decision will force the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to take the “equality” step that the Alevis have demanded for years is unclear. If the “New Turkey” of the AKP is to be a true liberal democracy, such a step must certainly be taken. However, the very ideology of the AKP, which is evolving into the de facto “official ideology” of “New Turkey,” makes it rather difficult to move forward.
Before explaining why, let me first quickly give some basic facts. In Turkey, almost 99 percent of the population is counted as “Muslim,” while Christians (Armenians, Greeks, Syriacs, Catholics or Protestants) and Jews constitute very small minorities. In fact, these non-Muslim communities are the only officially recognized “minorities” in the nation, with certain rights to have their own places of worship and institutions for education.
However, the “99 percent Muslim majority” is also divided between the Sunni majority and the Alevi minority. However, the latter - which makes up 10 to 20 percent of the nation - has never been officially recognized. Although the Alevis have generally sympathized with the secularist official ideology of Old Turkey (i.e. Kemalism), their assimilation into a larger Sunni nation was in fact a Kemalist policy.
When the AKP came to power in 2002, it promised to bring more freedom to all social groups that have been suppressed by the Kemalist establishment. This worked quite well for some time, but as the AKP began to revert back to its Islamist roots after 2010, its “reforms” narrowed down to two main groups: Religious conservatives (i.e. the AKP’s own base) and the Kurds. The demands of the Alevis, on the other hand, have been kept under the carpet, despite several symbolic gestures by the government, such as high-level visits to cemevis.
Why the AKP has been able to move on with reforms for the Kurds, but not the Alevis? The answer lies in the AKP’s ideology, which can roughly be defined as Sunni-Muslim nationalism. (In contrast, the ideology of Old Turkey was Turkish nationalism.) The AKP’s ideology proves more tolerant to ethnic differences among fellow Muslims (thus come reforms for Kurds) and even to non-Muslims, which fit into the Ottoman-Islamic tolerance for the “the People of the Book.” But when it comes to “heresy” within Islam, things get more complicated.
That is why it is hard for the AKP to accept the Alevis as the Alevis define themselves. Because this “division” in Islam infringes with the AKP’s vision of a multi-ethnic but solidly Muslim nation — made up of “Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Bosniaks, Circassians, etc,” as President Tayyip Erdoğan often proudly lists. This nation has one house of worship, which is the mosque. An alternative house of worship for the Alevis cannot be accepted.
To be sure, I would be happy to see the AKP accept the Alevi demands. I don’t rule out this possibility, especially under the prime ministry of Ahmet Davutoğlu. But, for this, the AKP will have to question its own ideology, and to accept a broader (liberal and pluralist) framework for its much-hailed “New Turkey.”