CEFTUS Research Project: Identification and Politicisation Processes in Turkey’s Alevis

Alevism has received increased attention in recent years due to Alevis’ increased social and political mobilisation. The position of Alevis has been one of the most complex and subsequently least addressed issues in Turkey. Conflicts, grievances, fears, and uncertainties about the future have existed for a number of years, and have been attempted to be voiced by different individuals and representative bodies, yet Alevis’ identity-based issues have rarely been properly addressed and even less often resolved.

Alevis have organised politically in recent years, with the creation of numerous associations and foundations, such as the Alevi-Bektaşi Federation and Pir Sultan Abdal Cultural Institution. Their potential for greater politicisation and organisation has been the focus of recent work, especially with increased mobilisation in urban neighborhoods in Istanbul and Ankara, and urban-specific issues such as urban renewal. However, without an understanding of how Alevis view themselves today, questions of politicisation cannot yet be addressed.

Alevis are one of the largest groups in Turkey, with population estimates ranging between 5 and 25 million, however there is no reliable data to reflect the actual population. Starting during the Ottoman Empire and continuing with the Turkish Republic, a significant portion of the Alevi population have been subjected to assimilationist policies and have therefore intentionally hidden their identities due to political and social pressures.

Geographically, Alevis can be found in Turkey and in neighboring countries such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, and Albania. In Turkey, Alevis are mostly settled in Central and East Anatolia, in Amasya, Çorum, Yozgat, Tokat, Çankırı, Erzincan, Tunceli, Sivas, Elazığ, Malatya, Adıyaman, Bingöl, Muş, and Kars. However, due to increased migration in the past few decades, Alevis have made their way to larger cities such as Istanbul and Ankara. Since the 1960’s, increased migration to western Europe, especially Germany, has also influenced Alevi identification processes. Both migration patterns have produced new and different ways to express Alevism, and created new spaces wherein identity is either hidden or expressed.

Alevism has been defined in numerous ways over time. Without a singular definition, understandings of Alevism among Alevis can be interpreted religiously, culturally, politically, and more. When Alevism is situated with different ethnicities (in Turkey, generally Turkish, Arab, or Kurdish Alevi), the cross-cutting nature of the two also influence the way individuals identify themselves. As Alevism moved from its rural origins into metropoles such as Istanbul, perspectives have changed even more. In Istanbul and Ankara, domestic immigrants of Alevi origin situate themselves in particular parts of the cities, and a new way of understanding Alevism related to that space is created, in contrast with the perspectives of their rural counterparts.

Discussing Alevism touches on some of the most important issues in modern Turkish history: nationalism, secularisation, politics, urbanisation, and migration. Different Alevi groups claim different self-definitions and stress social, political, or religious aspects of their identities. Despite sharing a religious background with Sunni Muslims, Alevis have never been recognised as a distinct group or association by the Directorate for Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı). While some Alevis would welcome such recognition, others are concerned with potential continuation of assimilationist policies associated with involvement with the state.

The Centre for Turkey Studies (CEFTUS) is working to more deeply investigate Alevis’ self-identification, their grievances and their interests. The increased attention that this group has received in recent years reflects its increasing mobilisation. CEFTUS feels that better understanding this group is crucial in understanding fluid aspects of Turkey’s current political and security landscape, as well as in Turkey’s neighbouring countries.

To find out more about our work into the Alevi community and ethnic and political identity in Turkey and its neighbouring countries, please contact us at [email protected]


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