Kurds, Turks and the Alevi revival in Turkey

         by Prof. Martin van Bruinessen

(Originally at http://www.let.ruu.nl/oriental_studies/mvbalevi.html)

Until a few years ago, Kurdish nationalism was the only movement in Turkey that openly defied the official doctrine that Turkey is a homogeneous nation-state. Informally, people would freely apply ethnic labels to their acquaintances; everybody was aware of the rich ethnic variety of the country,(1) but it was thought undesirable to acknowledge this and most people were reluctant or afraid to define themselves as anything but Turks. In the 1970s, Kurdish nationalists had begun challenging this official view, and in 1979 a cabinet minister caused a political scandal by calmly remarking that he too was a Kurd.(2) The military regime of 1980-83 made a last-ditch attempt to silence those Kurds who wished to be different, but its oppressive measures had the opposite effect of what was intended; they strengthened the Kurds' sense of their distinct identity and resulted in massive sympathy for the separatist PKK. By 1990, the Turkish government realised that further efforts to impose uniformity would probably be counterproductive and that they would moreover hamper closer relations with Europe, where the protection of minority cultures had become an important political issue. In a sudden reversal of policy, the government in 1991 repealed the law banning the use of other languages than Turkish in publishing.(3) 

 This relaxation allowed not only an upsurge in Kurdish cultural activities. Two other ethnic groups, the Laz and especially the Circassians, also began publishing and organising. These activities were stimulated both by the Kurdish example but perhaps even more by developments in the (former) Soviet Union. The Laz live in the region bordering on the republic of Georgia and their language is related to Georgian. The Circassians (called Cherkes in Turkish) originate from the northern Caucasus; the name is in fact a blanket term for various related North Caucasian peoples, primarily Abkhazians, Adighe and Ubigh, and occasionally Chechen and Ingush are also included. There are hundreds of thousands of Circassians in Turkey, most of them the descendants of refugees who left their homelands when these were occupied by Russia in the mid-19th century.(4) The devolution of the Soviet Union caused a reorientation of young Turkish Circassians towards their ancestral homelands, and some actually went back. The recent struggles in Abkhazia (1992) and the war in Chechnya (1995) have not made remigration an attractive option, but they have had a strong mobilising effect on the Circassian (and Chechen) communities in Turkey. 

 The same period also witnessed a sudden resurgence of the Alevi identity. The Alevis, a heterodox religious minority, began manifesting themselves very much as yet another ethnic group. All over the country, as well as among the migrant communities in Europe, Alevi associations sprang up. Alevi intellectuals and community leaders set out to define the Alevi identity, Alevi tradition, Alevi history. Both the Kurdish movement and the government courted the Alevis, and both did their utmost to prevent the other from making inroads among them. Both, but especially the government, were handicapped in these efforts because they depended on Sunni majorities which had always been hostile to the Alevis. The police, which after 1980 had been purged of left-wing elements, was in many places dominated by conservative Sunnis or right-wing nationalists, and there were a number of major incidents in which the police took part in murderous violence against Alevis, causing renewed alienation between the Alevis and the state. 

Who are the Alevis?

'Alevi' is a blanket term for a large number of different heterodox communities, whose actual beliefs and ritual practices differ much. Linguistically four groups may be distinguished. In the eastern province of Kars there are communities speaking Azarbayjani Turkish and whose Alevism differs little from the 'orthodox' Twelver Shi`ism of modern Iran. The Arabic speaking Alevi communities of southern Turkey (especially Hatay and Adana) are the extension of Syria's `Alawi (Nusayri) community and have no historical ties with the other Alevi groups. Like the first group, their numbers are small and their role in Turkey has been negligeable. The important Alevi groups are the Turkish and Kurdish speakers (the latter still to be divided into speakers of Kurdish proper and of related Zaza); both appear to be the descendants of rebellious tribal groups that were religiously affiliated with the Safavids. 

 The religion of these Alevis, though to some extent islamicised, differs considerably from Sunni Islam. Prayer (namaz), the fast in Ramadan, zakat and the hajj are alien practices to most Alevi communities. Instead they have their own religious ceremonies (cem), officiated by 'holy men' (dede) belonging to a hereditary priestly caste, at which religious poems (nefes) in Turkish are sung and (in some communities at least) men and women carry out ritual dances (semah). As among other extremist Shi`i groups, Ali and the Safavid Shah Isma`il are deified, or at least considered as superhuman. Many more elements of pre-Islamic Turkish and Iranian religions have been retained than among Sunni Muslims, and pilgrimages to sacred springs and mountains are especially common. Instead of adherence to the shari`a, Alevis profess obedience to a set of simple moral norms; they claim to live according to the inner (batin) meaning of religion rather than its external (zahir) demands.(5) 

 The major concentrations of Turkish Alevis used to be found in central Anatolia, but there are important pockets of Alevi villages throughout the Aegean and Mediterranean coastal regions and in the European part of Turkey as well. Kurdish Alevis were concentrated in the northwestern part of the Kurdish settlement zone, with Dersim (approximately the present province of Tunceli) as the cultural centre and with important pockets further south, east and west. An arc of ethnically and religiously mixed districts, stretching from Gaziantep and Kahramanmarash in the south through Adiyaman and Malatya to Sivas in the north, constitutes a zone of transition from Turkish Kurdistan (the southeast) to the rest of the country. It was in this zone that during the 1970s the most serious clashes between Sunnis and Alevis took place. The Alevis, Turks as well as Kurds, used to live in mountainous and relatively isolated villages, reflecting their history of persecution in the Sunni Ottoman Empire. Only from the 1950s on did they begin to leave these villages in large numbers to settle in the towns of the region or migrate to the large cities in the west. 

Emancipation and politicisation

The secularisation of Turkey made the gradual emancipation of the Alevis possible. It is not surprising that during the first great Kurdish rebellion of 1925, which had a strong (Sunni) religious colouring, Kurdish Alevi tribes actually fought against the rebels. It is true that there also were, in 1920 and 1937-38, rebellions of Kurdish Alevis against the kemalist movement and the Republic,(6) but at no time until the present did Kurdish Alevis in significant numbers join forces with Sunni Kurds against the kemalist regime. By and large, Kurdish as well as Turkish Alevis were supportive of the secular and populist ideals of kemalism; many Kurdish Alevis voluntarily assimilated to Turkish culture and came to identify themselves as Turks rather than as Kurds. 

 Secularisation did not, however, bode the end of the widespread Sunni prejudices against the Alevis (who, like heterodox groups anywhere, are commonly accused of sexual licentiousness and other immoralities). The Alevis' gradual integration into the wider society - migration to the towns, education, careers in public service - brought them into closer contact, and sometimes in direct competition, with strict Sunnis, from whom they had remained socially separated for centuries. This caused growing tension, especially in the towns of the ethnically and religiously mixed zone mentioned above, but also in the large cities further west. Recent immigrants from the villages tended to cluster together with people of the same backgrounds, so that there emerged more or less dictinct Alevi and Sunni neighbourhoods. 

 The political polarisation that began in the 1970s exacerbated the situation. The radical left, defining the Alevi rebellions of the past as proto-communist movements, considered the Alevis as its natural allies. The fascist and religious extreme right, on the other hand, concentrated their recruiting efforts on the conservative Sunni Muslims of the mixed regions, by fanning their fear and hatred of the Alevis and provoking violent incidents. Spreading rumours that Alevis had bombed a mosque or poisoned its water supply was an unfailing method of drawing the Sunnis into the extreme right camp. A series of bloody Sunni-Alevi clashes culminated by the end of the decade in anti-Alevi pogroms in Malatya, Kahramanmarash and Çorum. The local police, infiltrated by the extreme right, did little to protect the Alevis, which resulted in an increasing alienation of Turkey's Alevis from the state. 

These Sunni-Alevi clashes showed that society was moving away from the kemalist ideal of a secular unitary nation without class, ethnic or religious differences. The emergence of a strong, if divided, Kurdish movement and of radical labour movement, and by the end of the decade rapidly increasing political violence similarly appeared to signal the demise of kemalism. When the military took over in 1980, they claimed that their sole aim was to reverse all these divisive trends. They had at best a partial success. The radical left and Kurdish movements were decimated, but it was precisely the most secretive and violent of them, the leftist Dev Sol and the Kurdish PKK, that managed to survive underground in Turkey. By its severe repressive measures the military alienated a growing proportion of the Kurdish population, causing the PKK to gradually gain widespread support in spite of its reputation for brutal violence. 

 The military did not treat the extreme right with anything like the severity that they reserved for leftists and Kurds. The fascist leader, Alpaslan Turkesh, was briefly jailed for complicity in murder (and then released without a trial), but his movement was coopted and to some extent even integrated into the state apparatus. Young rightwing hoodlums no longer carried out raids against 'leftist' tea-houses but became policemen and schoolteachers or were recruited into the special forces fighting the Kurdish guerrilla. 

 The official attitude towards Islam since 1980 has represented an even greater departure from the kemalist tradition. Apparently intending to steal a march on fundamentalist Islam, the military actively fostered a version of Sunni Islam. The Turkish-Islamic Synthesis, a confused doctrine combining fervent Turkish nationalism and Muslim sentiment, which was first formulated by a small group of right-wing intellectuals as an answer to socialism, was virtually elevated to the status of official ideology.(7) Religious education, which had been an optional subject in school, was made obligatory. The Directorate of Religious Affairs, which inter alia controls the major mosques in Turkey and abroad, was strengthened, numerous new mosques were built and prayer leaders (imam) appointed -- not only in Sunni towns and villages, but also in Alevi communities. All these measures could be interpreted as government endorsement of efforts to bring the Alevis into the Sunni fold. 

 One effect of the changes in the 1980s was a renewed interest, among the Alevis themselves, in Alevism as a religion. Whereas in the 1970s most of the young Alevis had completely rejected religion as nothing but ideology and had only taken pride in Alevism as a democratic social movement, the failure of the left movement in Turkey made many reflect on Alevism as a cultural and then as a religious identity. On the one hand, some of the radical left movements that in the 1970s had found a measure of support all over the country (although perhaps somewhat more among the Kurdish Alevis than elsewhere) by the late 1980s had lost most of their non-Alevi supporters. Having thus practically become non-religious Alevi movements, they could not help but taking part in the debates on Alevi identity.(8) On the other hand, there was among Alevis of all generations also a strong reaction to the previous flirt with left radicalism, which expressed itself in a desire to know more about their own religious traditions. 

 The imposition of Sunni Islam by the state no doubt was a major factor contributing to the Alevi revival. When in 1989 the ban on associations (which had been total after 1980) was somewhat relaxed, Alevi voluntary associations sprang up all over the country. Under the sponsorship of these associations, Alevi rituals (cem), which like the rituals of the Sunni Sufi orders had been practically banned since 1925, were publicly performed and houses of worship (cemevi) were opened. There was a sudden tidal wave of publications by Alevi intellectuals, purporting to explain history, doctrine and ritual of Alevism and to define its relation to Sunni Islam. Some of the books engendered heated polemics within the community on such questions as whether Alevism is a sect within Islam or an essentially different religion (and whether this different religion is of Iranian or Turkish origins).(9) 

 These developments marked an important change in the nature of Alevism, the transition from a secret, initiatory, locally anchored and orally transmitted religion, which it had been for centuries, to a public religion with formalised, or at least written, doctrine and ritual. Most of these Alevi authors did not belong to the priestly caste that had always held a monopoly in ritual competence and claimed superior knowledge of the tradition. They all have a modern education, and their books reflect their mentalities of educators, all very much in the kemalist mode. The way they reformulate and (at times even literally) invent Alevi tradition is highly reminiscent of what goes on in nascent nationalist movements. 

The Alevi revival received encouragement from secular elements in the political establishment, who had always considered the Alevis as their natural allies against the rise of political Islam.(10) The growing influence of the PKK among Turkey's Kurds, by the late 1980s increasingly also among Alevi Kurds, gave the authorities another incentive to allow and even stimulate the development of Alevism as an alternative 'ethnic' identity. In the early 1990s, the state began to publicly support Alevism, among other things by officially sponsoring the annual festival commemorating the Alevi saint Haji Bektash.(11) Some of the more conservative Alevi leaders were courted and it was attempted to coopt their associations in the pursuit of strengthening Turkey-based nationalism. At the same time, many of the same authorities remained suspicious of the Alevis because of their previous inclination towards leftist politics, and the police as well as certain government departments were in fact filled with elements that distinctly despised Alevis. 

 Many Alevis were only too happy with the degree of recognition implied in cooptation by the political establishment. It was attempted to turn Haji Bektash, after whom the major federation of Alevi associations was named, into a symbol for loyalty to the Turkish state.(12) Another group of associations named itself after a different Alevi saint, the poet Pir Sultan Abdal, who was believed to have rebelled against the state and to be hanged for his religious convictions. Although generalisations about the Alevis are hazardous, it seems safe to say that the religious-minded and the relatively conservative among the Alevis tended to drift towards the former associations, whereas in the latter one finds a higher proportion of former leftists. 

New outbursts of violence against Alevis

Sivas is one of the provinces with a considerable Alevi population in the villages (both Kurdish and Turkish speakers), whereas its towns are dominated by conservative Sunnis. The Alevi rebel saint Pir Sultan Abdal lived in Banaz, a village in this province, and he was executed in the city of Sivas. When the Pir Sultan Abdal association in July 1993 organised a cultural festival, it therefore chose this city as the venue. Numerous prominent authors and other artists were invited, one of them the aged Aziz Nesin (not an Alevi, incidentally), who had recently provoked the anger of many Sunni Muslims by announcing his intention to publish a translation of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. The festival was protested by a large group of violent right-wing demonstrators, who were clearly intent upon killing Nesin. They cooled their first anger on a sculpture representing Pir Sultan Abdal, that had been erected by the organisers of the festival. Encouraged rather than calmed down by a speech by the mayor of Sivas (who belonged to the right wing of the Muslim Welfare Party), they laid siege to and attacked the hotel where the participants of the festival were staying. Throwing stones and burning rags through the windows, the demonstrators succeeded in setting fire to the hotel. Thirty-seven people in the hotel died in this fire.(13) 

 The events in Sivas differed from the pogroms of the late 1970s. There was no massive attack on neighborhoods inhabited by Alevis this time; the primary targets of the demonstrators were Aziz Nesin and the other, mostly Alevi, intellectuals and artists who had come to Sivas for the festival. The Pir Sultan statue was another, highly symbolic target, but Pir Sultan was less a symbol for Alevism as such than for the rebellious and 'leftist' tradition in Alevism. Another significant factor was the degree of involvement of the local police and civil authorities in the violence and the inability of the central government to neutralise them. The mayor openly sympathised with the demonstrators, and the police did not make any serious attempt to disperse them or to keep them away from the hotel, and they still hesitated to intervene even when the hotel had caught fire. During the siege of the hotel, Aziz Nesin and friends succeeded in reaching vice prime minister Erdal Inönü by telephone, who told them that instructions to protect them had already been sent to Sivas. These had no noticeable effect; in a police film of the events, which was later leaked to the press, one in fact hears the police radio, at the moment when the mob attacked the hotel, give orders not to stop them. Most policemen simply looked on as the hotel caught fire.(14) 

An even deeper low in the relations between the Alevis and the government was reached with the clashes between the police and Alevi demonstrators in the Gazi neighbourhood of Istanbul, in March 1995. Gazi is a poor new neighbourhood with a high proportion of Alevi inhabitants. In the evening of March 12, unknown gunmen in a stolen taxi drove through this neighbourhood and riddled five tea-houses with bullets, killing one and wounding numerous people. The police was remarkably slow in taking action, and the rumour soon spread that the local police post might have been involved in the terrorist attacks.(15) 

 Young people of Gazi neighbourhood took to the streets in protest, and they were soon reinforced by groups from elsewhere who had heard the news on local television. The demonstrators directed their anger at the police post, which was believed to be manned by extremely right-wing and anti-Alevi policemen, and where not long ago a young detainee was said to have been tortured to death. Throughout the neighbourhood police and demonstrators clashed; in the general rioting that ensued a number of shops and workshops owned by alleged 'fascists' were raided and destroyed. That night the police shot one demonstrator. The rioting continued the following days and spread to yet another neighbourhood. Young radicals attempted to seize control of the situation, throwing stones to the police and raising barricades, while moderate Alevi community leaders made great efforts to calm the masses. It was the police, however, who went completely out of control and who instead of using conventional methods of crowd control repeatedly shot into the crowds, killing another 15 persons. The insulting language and threats shouted by the police to community leaders who attempted to negotiate with them showed that many of the police acted out of aggressive hatred towards the Alevis. There were, it is true, policemen who attempted to hold their colleagues back, but they were not successful.(16) 

The hotel fire in Sivas had shown up that part of the state apparatus -- the local police and local government in Sivas -- did not stand above communal divisions but sided with the aggressors. Central government authorities apparently did not have control over at least a part of the police force, which through selective recruitment in the 1980s largely consisted of extremely right-wing Sunni Muslims. Reactions to the events showed that society was deeply divided; the division ran right through the government, whose conservative members without blinking declared Aziz Nesin responsible for the events.(17) The rift between the government and the Alevi communities was opened wide and deep again. 

 The events in Sivas and Gazi reinforced and radicalised the Alevi revival. Community leaders who go on closely cooperating with the authorities in the hope of recognition as a distinct religious community or in pursuit of personal gains appear to be losing support from below, and left radicalism appears to be gaining influence among the young. The government's efforts to use Alevi awareness as an alternative to Kurdish nationalism have largely failed. Alienation from the state inevitably brought many Alevis closer to the PKK (which within a few weeks after the fire in Sivas took revenge for the anti-Alevi violence by killing a group of men in a staunchly Sunni village northeast of Sivas). Whereas until the early 1990s most Kurdish Alevis had little sympathy for the PKK, among other things because of its flirt with Sunni Islam, by 1994 it appeared to have gained considerable support among them. 

Many if not most of the Kurdish Alevis define themselves as Alevis first, and only in the second place, or not at all, as Kurds. State-sponsored publications have hammered on the old theme that Alevism is a specifically Turkish form of Islam and that the Alevis, even those who speak Kurdish or Zaza, descend from Turcoman tribesmen and therefore are essentially Turkish. The PKK and other Kurdish nationalists, on the other hand, have made efforts to persuade them that in the present confrontation their most relevant identity is that of Kurds, and that moreover the Alevi religion has Iranian (Zoroastrian) rather than Turkish origins (so that by implication even the Turkish Alevis are related to the Kurds).(18) 

It is hard to establish how much effect both propaganda offensives have had, but it appears that among the radical left Turkish Alevis there is now a tendency to view the PKK as their natural ally because they are up against much the same coalition of extreme right-wing political forces, which have gradually come to control important parts of the state apparatus. This conservative religious and ultranationalist block is not interested in cultural and religious pluralism and rejects compromises with Kurds and Alevis alike. In its efforts to create a monolithic state and society, this block constitutes the most divisive force in Turkey today. 


1. A recent study, Peter Andrews' Ethnic groups in the Republic of Turkey (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 1989), enumerates 47 distinct ethnic groups in Turkey, and the choice of another set of criteria for ethnic identity may yield an even higher number. 

2. This was Serafettin Elçi, then minister of public works. After the 1980 military coup he was sentenced to two years imprisonment for this remark. 

3. This law was a product of the 1980-83 military regime. It violated several international agreements on the protection of minorities to which Turkey was a party. See C. Rumpf, "The Turkish law prohibiting languages other than Turkish", in: Documentation of the International Conference on Human Rights in Kurdistan, 14-16. April 1989 (Hochschule Bremen, 1989), pp. 68-89 and the same author's "Das Sprachenverbot in der Türkei unter besonderer Berücksichtigung ihrer völkerrechtlichen Verpflichtungen", Orient 30 (Hamburg, 1989), 413-27. 

4. See B. Özbek, "Tscherkessen in der Türkei", in: P. Andrews, Ethnic groups in the Republic of Turkey, pp. 581-90; M. Bjedug & E. Taymaz, "'Sürgün' halk Çerkesler", Birikim 71-72 (March-April 1995), 118-24. 

5. There is no satisfactory description in English of Alevism as a religion. Most useful are: S. van Rensselaer Trowbridge, "The `Alevis", The Moslem World 11 (1921), 253-66 and I. Markoff, "Music, saints, and ritual: sama` and the Alevis of Turkey", in: G. Martin Smith & C.W. Ernst (eds.), Manifestations of sainthood in Islam (Istanbul: Isis, 1993), pp. 95-110. The only systematic study presently available is in German: Krisztina Kehl-Bodrogi, Die Kizilbas/Aleviten (Berlin: Schwarz, 1988). 

6. On these rebellions see: H.-L. Kieser, Les Kurdes alévis face au nationalisme turc kémaliste. L'alévité du Dersim et son rôle dans le premier soulèvement kurde contre Mustafa Kemal (Koçkiri, 1919-1921) (Amsterdam: MERA, 1993); M. van Bruinessen, "Genocide in Kurdistan?: The suppression of the Dersim rebellion in Turkey (1937-38) and the chemical war against the Iraqi Kurds (1988)", in: G.J. Andreopoulos (ed.), Genocide: Conceptual and historical dimensions (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), 141-170. 

7. See B. Toprak, "Religion as state ideology in a secular setting: The Turkish-Islamic synthesis", in: M. Wagstaff (ed.), Aspects of religion in secular Turkey (University of Durham, Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, 1990), pp. 10-15; Feroz Ahmad, "Islamic reassertion in Turkey", Third World Quarterly 10 (1988), 750-69. 

8. This is notably the case of the TKP-ML (Communist Party of Turkey/Marxist-Leninist) and its various splinters. 

9. An excellent overview of this recent flood of books on Alevism, understood as part of the process of construction an Alevi 'ethnic' identity, is given by Karin Vorhoff, Zwischen Glaube, Nation und neuer Gemeinschaft: Alevitische Identität in der Türkei der Gegenwart (Berlin: Schwarz, 1995). 

10. The Alevis vote has always been divided over the whole political spectrum, but the political party closest to the Alevis was the Social Democrat Populist Party (SHP), which had several vocal Alevi deputies. In 1991 the SHP became a junior partner in the government coalition with the True Path Party (DYP), led by Süleyman Demirel and later Mrs. Çiller. 

11. This festival, celebrated for the first time in 1964, had become the country's major left-wing cultural festival during the 1970s, was depoliticised during the 1980s, and received government patronage in the 1990s. Politicians of all parties now put in appearances in order to show how much they like the Alevis. 

12. Historically, the Bektashi Sufi order had played a role in integrating heterodox and insurgent groups into the Ottoman fold. In the war of independence, the order had given Mustafa Kemal's movement significant support, and in the early years of the republic word was spread among the simple Alevis that Mustafa Kemal was no less than a reincarnation of Haji Bektash. Around 1990, this theme was revived, and other Alevi authors presented Haji Bektash as a proto-nationalist, some even calling him an ülkücü ('idealist', a term monopolised by the extreme nationalists and fascists of Türkesh' party). 

13. The most accessible reports on the events (all in Turkish) are in: Ali Yildirim, Ateste semaha durmak (Ankara: Yurt, 1993); Çetin Yigenoglu, Seriatçi siddet ve ölü ozanlar kenti Sivas (Ankara: Ekin, 1994); and, by a prominent Alevi intellectual who narrowly escaped the fire, Lütfü Kaleli, Sivas katliami (Istanbul: Alev, 1994). 

14. There were, however, individual police officers who did make efforts to save people. One of those saved, ironically, was Aziz Nesin, who was not recognised at first. Once they realised whom he was, some firemen and a policeman started beating him up, but others protected him and rushed him to hospital. 

15. The actors were never caught, but according to the press the raids were claimed by a radical and violent Muslim organisation, IBDA-C, which had carried out numerous terrorist acts before, and by a more shadowy ultra-nationalist organisation, the Turkish Revenge Brigades. 

16. See the interview with prominent Alevi spokesperson Lütfü Kaleli in the weekly edition of Cumhuriyet, March 24-30, 1995. A description and analysis of the events from the view of young Alevi radicals is given in Zeynep Çabuk, Gazi direnisi: tas, yürek, barikat... ('The uprising in Gazi: stones, courage, barricades', Istanbul: Öz, 1995). 

17. The public prosecutor of the Ankara State Security Court, Nusret Demiral, even announced his intention to start proceedings against Nesin and request the death penalty. 

18. On these ideological debates, see my forthcoming "Aslini inkar eden haramzadedir! The debate on the ethnic identity of the Kurdish Alevis". 

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