Alevism: mystical, inclusive
and deeply cultural

What is alevism?

Alevism is a religious tradition, largely unknown in the Western world. However, it shares common values of human rights with many other cultures and religions. Bathed in a rich culture, it is a minority branch of Islam that is facing new challenges to its survival.

“We were on the second floor, everybody went down except me, the neighbor from across the street fired a shot, I hid behind the sofa. When he fired a shot, fragments of glass went into my mouth, I didn’t realize.”

This is the testimony of an Alevi during the 1980 massacre in the Turkish city of Corum. This episode, and similar testimonies, aren’t unique. Alevi people represent a marginalized and persecuted faction of the Turkish population. Often wrongly classified as communist, atheist or a humanist philosophy, Alevism has a rich history and culture that is either misunderstood or simply unknown in the western world.

Alevism beliefs developed in the 13th century in the Anatolian region and is a minority branch of Islam in which people are followers of Ali, the brother-in-law of the Prophet Muhammed. They believe in the 6th imam, Haci Bektas Veli. It differs from Sunni islam in that Alevis don’t have the same restrictions, for instance against drinking alcohol and eating pork. So there are no strict rules in this belief, and traditions are passed on through oral tradition. They also don’t have the same rituals — Alevis don’t celebrate the Ramadan, fasting instead during the Muhharam — and they don’t go to the mosque to pray. Because their rituals are not officially recognized, Alevis have for centuries worshipped in secret.

The Alevi comprise the largest minority group in Turkey, with estimates ranging between 12-35% of the population. There are also Turkoman, Kurdish and Zaza Alevis. In addition, Alevis can also be found in Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Crimea, Azerbaijan, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Alevis believe in the existence of God and in its presence in the whole universe, including in human beings. It gives to every human the need to study and understand the universe, and it also permits Alevis to consider scientific knowledge as God’s revelation.

Alevism is a mystical belief that also contains influences of animism, Buddhism and shamanism. Alevis gives the same importance to the four holy books — the Koran, the Bible, the Torah, and the psalm books. Nevertheless, some practices, such as the wearing of the headscarf, are considered out of date and have been abolished.

The spiritual leader and the practice

In Alevism, there is a spiritual leader, the “dede”, whose role is not to serve as a go-between Alevis and God. Professor and dede, Ali Yaman, speaks about them in these terms: “Dedes are professors, books, they are everything for humans.” In this way, the function of the dede is varied. They come from families named “ocak”,  who are descendents of a dede. To the question as to whether women can occupy this role, the professor answers, “Traditionally, no woman has embodied the dede’s role.” But he confirms that he is not against the existence of women in the post of dede if the community as a whole agrees to it. The professor adds that historically some dede’s wives, called “Ana” (or “mother”) have played an important role for the society.

One of the other roles of the dede is to animate the ceremony of the “Cem.” In this ceremony, there are twelve roles determined by the dede. One of the roles, for example, is to distribute food at the end of the ceremony. During this ceremony of roundup, Alevis can take part in the “semah,”  a dance representing the perpetual motion of the universe at the beat of the “baglama,” an instrument that enables the interpretation of songs and religious poems called  “Degis.”

Video: “Aşık Veysel Uzun ince bir yoldayım” (“I’m on a long and thin way”)

But the dede institution is experiencing a crisis at present, as explained by Professor Yaman, with the creation of Alevi associations. It’s the association’s president who now plays a more important role than the dede in the Alevi community. Added to this is a second difficulty, which is the lack of trainings for dedes. All of this weakens the dede’s place in Alevism, which makes them lose their importance in the community.

History of persecution  

Alevis are a minority group with practices distinct from those of the major Sunni Muslims present in Turkey. Therefore, Alevis are victims of both assimilation and repression.

For instance, it was the case in Corum in 1980. Selvet is one of the survivors of that event, and this is how he explains the beginning of it :

“At the origin, it was a political problem, so it was the right wing against the left wing, then it was like everybody was divided into two parts. This division transformed the Alevis against the Sunni. With this change, Alevi people became a minority.”  Indeed, all this began on 27th May 1980, when the vice president of the national political party MHP was killed in Ankara. The nationalists began demonstrations with slogans like ‘Corum will be the tomb of the communists.’ ”

The day after the vice president’s death, nationalists began to attack the areas where Alevis lived in Corum. So Selvet’s family decided to go back to the village. They were tenants in a Sunni’s house in Corum. “This man liked us, as if we were his own children,”  claimed Selvet’s wife. “He helped us to move, and when we went to the village in order to escape from the massacre, he took us in his arms and cried.” So all the Sunni population wasn’t against the Alevi. Friendships and help still existed at that time. Thereafter, the police ordered the removal of the barricades, the confrontation began again, and women were kidnaped, raped and killed. Selvet decided nevertheless to return to Corum in order to work and live in the Alevis’ area at his brother’s.

Buket: “What did you decide to do when you saw that the confrontation began again?” Selvet: “Man stood guard until the morning, everyday, every-night.”  

But one day the Sunni nationalists succeeded in entering the Alevi area where Selvet took refuge.  

Selvet: “We were on the second floor, everybody went down except me, the neighbor from across the street fired a shot, I hid behind the sofa. When he fired a shot, fragments of glass went into my mouth, I didn’t realize. They called me to come downstairs and one of my brother’s friend said, ‘Haci’s friend will save us, let’s go downstairs’. They went down and I stayed upstairs. Someone said that an unknown man was in the apartment block, let him go down and let’s see what he’s got. I wanted to escape by the roof but I didn’t dare to do it because I was afraid of the neighbors fires shot again. I went down, they searched me, they were Sunni. They didn’t beat me, some of them said  ‘push him inside the apartment block’. They would kill me. Others said ‘take him to the truck’. Finally they told me: ‘You see the truck? So run’.”

Later, Corum entered a more and more difficult situation, especially on the 4th of July. A rumor affirmed that communists had burned the Alaadin mosque. At the end of that day, two men were burned alive in the bakery of their neighborhood. “They put one of them in the bread oven, they burned him alive. They said ‘you, you are a dede, so go on and save yourself from the fire!’ ”  

That is how Selvet remembers that moment. Unfortunately, the Corum massacre is not the only one, there were other massacres — in Maras in 1978, in Sivas in 1993. Nowadays, in some cities like Malatya, the Alevi people’s houses continue to be stamped with an identifying sign that could put them at risk. There is also still no official recognition of the massacres.

Place in civil society  

Some people have decided to defend Alevis’ rights by establishing cultural associations, because Alevism is officially recognized as a religion only in Germany, Austria and Denmark. What motivated Durak Arslan, the former president of FUAF (United Alevis Federation in France) to campaign for the federation is the lack of cohesion in the Alevi community: “My goal was to bring an organization model to the Alevi mouvement because I noticed a lack of structure,” he states. Organized in 12 commissions, some examples of the FUAF mission were to make the Alevi community more visible, and to give a training to dedes.

Concerning the lack of cohesion, the problems are numerous. Among them, according to Professor Ali Yaman, are migration and urbanization, which “prevent the natural evolution of Alevism.”

Concerning the conflict between Turks and Kurds, Durak Arslan states: “Alevism is above ethnic origins, it is a culture, a way of life, a philosophy.”  Professor Ali Yaman has  a completely different approach to the subject. He feels that Alevis in politics try to make a place for themselves by instrumentalizing the Kurdish question.

Unfortunately, opposition and conflict between different Alevi groups continues to exist. We understand that the challenge to continued existence for Alevis in the future involves the need to create cohesion on a global scale between different Alevi groups.

Personal experience of Alevism

I come from an Alevi family, and I have grown up with these beliefs and values. I heard my parents telling me “Eline, beline, diline sayip ol” (that is, “Count on your hand, your waist, your tongue”), though at the beginning I did not understand very well its meaning. As I grew up, I learned that this was a sentence that every Alevi must respect. To stay master of his or her hand means that they mustn’t steal; master of his or her waist is to control their desires; and master of his or her tongue is to avoid hurting others with words.

My parents have also taught me other values, and I only now realize that they are the key precepts of Alevism — for example, to respect all forms of life. As a child, I didn’t realize all of this, when in the middle of the living room my cousin and I were dancing the Semah — I thought it was just a game, not realizing it was something so meaningful. From now on, I realize the meaning of these acts and the cultural wealth that accompanies them.

I sometimes ask myself whether Alevism is a religion, a culture or a way of life. But the real question is not that. I think Alevism is all of it. The real question, and the current stake, lies in the reinvention and reappropriation of Alevism by the new generation.

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