Many Alevis in Turkey have protested that their houses of worship, know as cem houses, are not officially recognized by the government. Yet even these protests are quashed. Pictured: The Kartal Cemevi Alevi cem house in Istanbul, Turkey. (Image source: Cemyildiz/Wikimedia Commons)
In Turkey, several methods are employed to eliminate religious minorities, not only by physical violence. Instead, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tries to erase minority faiths by preventing their ability to function by denying them the freedom to establish and safely operate their own institutions and places of worship. The Alevis, for instance, a historically persecuted religious minority in Turkey, are all-too-familiar with this form of oppression.
The Alevi-owned broadcaster, TV10, for example, was closed down in September 2016, two months after the failed coup attempt against Erdoğan, for allegedly "threatening national security and belonging to a terror organization."
A TV10 cameraman, Kemal Demir, was taken into police custody on November 25, 2017 and arrested on December 2. Veli Büyükşahin, TV10's chairman of the board, and Veli Haydar Güleç, a TV10 producer, were arrested on January 10. All are still in prison.
After the closure of TV10, employees and supporters held protests every Saturday for 82 weeks at Istanbul's Taksim Square, demanding that the authorities reopen their media outlet. On April 28, they ended their demonstrations, stating in part: "We have not been able to take back our TV channel, but we have declared that the voice of Alevis cannot be silenced."
In a speech before the Turkish parliament on November 1, Kemal Peköz, an MP from the opposition Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), criticized the closure of TV10 and the continued arrest of its employees and executives:
"TV10, one of the voices of Alevis, was a TV channel established by Alevis with the resources and money that Alevis so devotedly and scantly donated. Its [reporters] travelled across villages and towns to produce programs to keep the Alevi culture, practices and traditions alive. TV10 did not belong to a major business. While it was trying to carry out its activities with its few employees and very limited resources, it was closed down by executive order. Moreover, its properties were seized [by the government] and then sold by the Savings Deposit Insurance Fund (SDIF). As if all this were not enough, the channel's employees and executives were also arrested."
"The indictments against them contain no criminal element and judges have turned down the indictments twice. Yet, these people have been detained for 10 months and there is still uncertainty as to when they will be tried in a court and when a result will be obtained from the hearings."
The fate of the detainees remains to be seen. In general, however, the Turkish government not only discriminates against Alevis, but claims that Alevism "is a sect of Islam." It is a claim disputed by many Alevis. One such Alevi is Mustafa Genç, a dede (faith leader), who has described the difference between Alevism and Sunni Islam as follows:
"In Sunnism, they pray five times a day and fast for a month. These things do not exist in the Alevi faith. According to our faith, God is in the human and not in the sky. In the Alevi faith, women are sacred, and to divorce a woman is the most difficult thing. This is not the case in Sunnism. Sunni Muslims think a man can marry four women."
The author, Naki Bakır, has also emphasized the difference between the two religions:
"The Alevi faith is different from Islam and some of its elements are contrary to Islam. For example, according to the Alevi belief, each human will be born into this world several times in different bodies until he or she becomes perfect and when that process is completed, he or she will unite with God. This belief is contradictory to the Islamic belief in the 'afterlife' represented in the 'award-punishment' or 'heaven-hell' mechanisms.
"The basic faith foundations and forms of worship of Alevism are at variance with Islam. It is impossible to find the Alevi beliefs and forms of worship in the Koran or in the historical heritage of Islam. The Alevi ritual is 'cem' -- during this ritual, alcohol is drunk, women and men worship together and turn in circles, to the accompaniment of some musical instruments... These things do not exist in the Quran, hadith, or in the life of Prophet Mohammed. They are actually prohibited in Islam. And the Alevi belief in 'hulul' (that God is manifested in the human body) is idolatry, according to the Quran.
"Islamic phenomena such as salat (five daily prayers), ablution and adhan (Islamic call to prayer) are not accepted by Alevis. Also, Alevis do not follow the Quranic requirements, such as fasting during the month of Ramadan or doing pilgrimage (haj to Mecca)."
According to the Alevi scholar, Mehmet Bayrak, one of the reasons that some Alevis say they are Muslim is their misconception of their own religion. "Due to the centuries-long propaganda they have been exposed to, some of them think that they are true Muslims," says Bayrak, adding that a more alarming reason for their denial is fear of persecution.
"As Alevis are still under political, social and cultural pressures, they are still scared of saying that Alevism is outside of Islam. It is impossible for them to express themselves freely."
The closure of TV10 appears to be a perfect example of the stifling of Alevis' free speech and religious liberty. Alevis are continually exposed to these and other forms of discrimination, including arbitrary arrests, physical threats, such as "red marks" on Alevi-owned homes, and bias against Alevism school curricula. The scholar Ayşe Ezgi Gürcan wrote in 2015:
"The limited content of religions/beliefs other than Islam and the biased language of the textbooks have continued to be an issue... If we look at all the textbooks for the compulsory 'Religious Culture and Moral Knowledge' courses from grades 4 to 12 for the 2014-2015 academic year, we see that the notion of religious plurality is mostly ignored. Looking at the 4th grade textbook, we see that the book frequently speaks of the Sunni (Hanafi) interpretation of Islam as 'our religion.' Additionally, any sign of religious plurality is almost non-existent in textbooks before the 7th grade."
Alevis have repeatedly requested exemption from the above-mentioned compulsory religious classes, which teach Sunni Islam to Alevi children and promote the superiority of Islam. In addition, Alevis have for years been seeking to have their rights upheld, both from Turkish courts and at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), whose judgements Turkey is bound to implement. For more than a decade now, the ECHR has issued rulings according to which the Turkish government is guilty of failing to recognize Alevi rights.
According to a February 2017 report in the newspaper Hürriyet:
"Compulsory religion classes in Turkish schools will be taught in such a way to approach all religions equally while an approach that championed Sunni Islam will reportedly be eliminated in accordance with European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rulings, Education Minister İsmet Yılmaz has said...
"According to the curriculum, the changes are based on an ECHR ruling that said it was a violation of the freedom of belief for a state to inculcate one religion even if it is the belief that the majority of that country follows...
"In 2014, the ECHR concluded a case opened by 14 Turkish citizens against the content of compulsory religion classes, ruling that teaching more about Sunni Islam constituted "brainwashing" and that the class was pushing Alevi students toward a clash between their values and their schools..."
By the following school year, however, Turkey had failed to implement these changes. As the Alevi faith leader Cemal Şahin said in November 2017, "Despite the rulings by the European Court of Human Rights, the Sunni faith is forced on Alevi children. We are exposed to a serious campaign of [forced] assimilation."
Many Alevis have also protested that their cem houses are not officially recognized. Yet even these protests are quashed. On June 4, for instance, the Alevi Anadolu Canlar Association in the Istanbul neighborhood of Esenler -- home to at least 120,000 Alevis -- were prevented by police from demonstrating on behalf of their right to build a cem house in the district.
Cemal Özdemir, the head of the Association, told the Pir News Agency:
"We already conveyed our request for a cem house to the mayor of Esenler. He promised that they would help us build a cem house on a piece of land, but we have learned from the members of the municipal parliament that projects are underway for the construction of four mosques on that land, and no cem house is included in their plans."
During last year's protests against the closure of TV10, the political activist Celalettin Can summed up the Turkish government's attitude towards dissidents and minorities as: "Submit to us and find peace."
Celal Fırat, an Alevi faith leader, made the following public plea to the government:
"We have always promoted brotherhood and co-existence throughout history. We are Alevis and will remain as such. Do not try to assimilate us in vain. Accept us as we are and immediately give up on your ambition to assimilate us."
Sadly, however, the Erdoğan government is presumably not interested in the biblical tenet of "doing unto others as you would have them do unto you." On the contrary, as the 1,400-year history of Islamic mistreatment of non-Muslims demonstrates, political Islam does not recognize the right of other religions to exist as equals, and, as we have seen from past and current terrorism in the name of Islam (for instance here, here and here), it sometimes does not recognize the right of other religions, including other Muslim sects, to exist at all.
Uzay Bulut, a journalist from Turkey, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute. She is currently based in Washington D.C.