Ezgi Stump

You have probably never heard of the Alevis, and this is no accident. According to the Turkish government, over 99 percent of its citizens are Muslim, but this statistic is sociopolitically misleading. An estimated 15-25 percent of Turks are a part of the Alevi community, an ethno-religious and largely secularized minority group which is not recognized by the Turkish constitution. Alevis number around 20-25 million, comparable in size to the Jewish population (15.7 million.) Much like Judaism, Alevism is generally accepted to be passed through the family, meaning someone might be culturally Alevi while also being atheist, although there are well-established Alevi religious beliefs and practices. The Turkish government has reduced the Alevi identity to a heterodox offshoot of Islam, and as such does not even recognize their houses of worship as religious spaces. Because Alevis are deliberately ignored within Turkey, they are usually forgotten outside of it. Even at the University of Virginia, where inclusion is nominally considered crucial, Alevis are at best never mentioned and at worst grossly misrepresented, even by supposed experts of the region.

While Alevism shares common traditions and origins with Shia Islam and Sufism, whether Alevis should consider themselves Muslim is highly contested. If you speak to Alevis today, there is certainly not a consensus on their position in Islam, but instead a heated debate. That being said, if we analyze the Alevis from an Orthodox Muslim perspective, it is clear that they do not fit the standards of Islam. Alevis do not perform the five daily prayers, and when they worship, they do not attend a mosque (a Muslim place of worship) but rather a cemevi, a completely distinct structure with rituals that have nothing to do with orthodox Muslim prayer. Alevi worship is mixed-gender and revolves around liturgical music played on a stringed instrument called a bağlama, whereas in Orthodox Islam men and women pray in separate rooms toward the holy city of Mecca. Alevis do not go on the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca), do not fast for the month of Ramadan (instead fasting during their own holidays), and do not abstain from alcohol. Ultimately, whether you consider Alevis to be Muslim or not, their beliefs and practices are so vastly different from any Muslim group that to ignore them would be to fundamentally misunderstand the fabric of Turkish religious life.

Throughout history, Alevis have been the victims of countless violent persecutions. Perhaps the most jarring in recent memory is the 1993 Sivas massacre in which 35 people, mostly prominent Alevi intellectuals and musicians, were burned in a fire set by Islamist extremists. It was only after this massacre that the concept of an Alevi identity slowly crept into the public discourse. That being said, Alevism is still a deeply taboo subject in Turkey. Although explicitly they are all but ignored in political discourse, they are occasionally subject to hateful or pointed language by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the conservative Islamist party that has been in power for the last two decades. Prior to the most recent national election, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main social-democratic opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), made a statement in which he briefly mentioned his Alevi identity. Although this fact was quietly known in most circles, it was never publicly acknowledged until then. Reactions ranged from support to accusations of making the election a sectarian issue and being an unelectable candidate due to his religion. The statement has since garnered over 100 million views on X (formerly known as Twitter). Kılıçdaroğlu lost the election to the incumbent Erdoğan who maintained power after twenty years. This loss was met with cries of “I told you so!” from so-called secular Turks who claimed an Alevi could never be elected president. Even among those who do not openly espouse hate against Alevis, there exists a glaring taboo to which most people within Turkey are accustomed.

During my time at the University of Virginia, I have observed that this taboo extends beyond national borders. While most college students have come to expect an inclusive and identity-centric discourse, it is unfortunately the case that identity groups like Alevis who are barred from the mainstream in their country of origin are by extension ignored in collegiate environments overseas. The erasure of the Alevis can be separated into two categories: secular erasure and Islamist erasure, and I have seen them both subtly demonstrated at UVA during my time as a student.

A common practice among secular Turks to avoid the topic of religion has yielded decent results for Alevis, as existing in a secular state has often shielded them from outright persecution. However, as secularism in Turkey has faltered, and with non-Alevi seculars having no obligation to support Alevi compatriots, a lack of a publicly established Alevi identity has left the community vulnerable to second-class treatment. For example, Islamic religion classes in Turkey are mandatory, and students are exempt only if they can prove that they are Christian or Jewish. Since Alevis are not recognized as a separate faith group, Alevi children are subject to an Islamic education which is unrelated to their own family’s traditions. When I attended public school in Turkey, I had to attend Islamic education classes despite my government ID not listing any religion. This circumstance is shared by most young Alevis, and is quite specific to the Alevi experience. These past experiences made it impossible for me to ignore a certain theme in a presentation by a UVA professor who spoke at the Turkish Student Assocation’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic. Their presentation, which centered around the idea of diversity, described Turkey as “gaining strength from its differences” and mentioned many ethnic groups (Armenians, Kurds, Circassians) as well as multiple religious groups (“[Turks] practice Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.”) An unsurprising omission, however, was the word Alevi. While this omission is subtle, it is unmistakably a relic of the Turkish discourse which generally avoids the topic of Alevis, although they are the most crucial minority group in Turkey alongside the Kurds. Beyond the facade of political correctness and multiculturalism, the taboo persists even across national borders in the form of secular erasure.

I encountered another example of this persistence, this time in the form of Islamist erasure, when taking a class on the politics of the Middle East. The instructor crafted a narrative that Turkey was almost completely homogeneously Muslim, and thus that there was in fact large-scale support for Islamist government policy. He painted any disagreement with Islamist policy as coming from politically secular Muslims, ignoring the extremely high stakes for Alevis who have historically been harmed the most by Islamist policies. Once again, the word Alevi was not mentioned, while almost every other minority group was. In both instances, with the guest speaker and the instructor, the status of non-Alevi minority groups could be conveyed in a way that was palatable and didn’t challenge the simplified paradigm (whether Secular or Islamist) that either professional preferred.

Why does this matter to us? The status of the Alevis on its own isn’t a particularly relevant topic in American political discourse. However, it is not so unreasonable to suspect that other groups have been misunderstood, misconstrued, and erased in the way that the Alevis have been, unbeknownst to people who consider themselves socially or politically informed. It is clear that while discourse in collegiate America places a great emphasis on inclusive language, rhetoric is not a cure all for ethnic or religious oppression. In fact, rhetoric that is progressive at face value, when utilized by the wrong people, can be a tool to further this suppression and even pretend that a group of people never existed to begin with.