Are Alawites and Alevis the same?

A friend in Turkey alerted me to a weird situation of two media outlets telling different versions of the same story. First, from Hurriyet:

A group of deputies from the ruling AKP and the main opposition CHP visit the eastern Anatolian province of Malatya following rising Sunni-Alevi tension in the area

News reports suggesting rising Sunni-Alevi tension in Malatya have led to serious concerns in Ankara as deputies from the ruling and main opposition parties headed to the eastern Anatolian province to speak with Alevi families.

Due to past Sunni-Alevi tension in the area, deputies of both the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) met with members of an Alevi family that was recently attacked by a large group of people in the village of Sürgü. The deputies also held talks with Sürgü Mayor Faruk Ta?demir and Ercan Geçmez, the president of the Hac? Bekta? Veli Anatolian Cultural Foundation.

Now, the New York Times:

ANTAKYA, Turkey — At 1 a.m. last Sunday, in the farming town of Surgu, about six hours away from here, a mob formed at the Evli family’s door.

The ill will had been brewing for days, ever since the Evli family chased away a drummer who had been trying to rouse people to a predawn Ramadan feast. The Evlis are Alawite, a historically persecuted minority sect of Islam, and also the sect of Syria’s embattled leaders, and many Alawites do not follow Islamic traditions like fasting for Ramadan.

The mob began to hurl insults. Then rocks.

“Death to Alawites!” they shouted. “We’re going to burn you all down!”

Then someone fired a gun.

It’s a riveting story. But was the family Alawite or Alevi? And either way, what’s the difference?

Since I harshed on web site commenters yesterday in the aftermath of the temple shooting in Wisconsin, I can now turn to Howard of Columbus, Ohio for his comment to the New York Times story:

The article confuses the Alawis, who traditionally lived in the mountains east of the Syrian coast and are also found today in the plains around Hama and Homs as well as in Syria’s main cities (with perhaps 300,000 in the Turkish provinces of Antakya, Adana and Içel), with the Alevis of Turkey, the majority of whom live in eastern Anatolia, though in recent decades many have migrated to cities throughout Turkey. While both Alawis and Alevis belong to the broader community of Twelver Shiism, they have distinct histories and practices. Specifically, the Alawis of Syria probably descend from the religious movement founded by Muhammad ibn Nusayr in Aleppo around 969, while the Turkish Alevis have roots in the Qizilbas movement of northwestern Iran of the 14th and 15th century and went underground after the victory of the Sunni Ottomans over the Shiite Safavid dynasty in eastern Anatolia in the early 16th century. These historical differences are paralleled by significant differences in belief and doctrine. Though both assimilate belief in the divinity of ‘Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad with aspects of Christianity, and in the case of the Alevis, elements of Sufiim, there are multiple tendencies both within the two movements as well as distinctions between them.

I also think the article errs by claiming Alawite support of Assad without any actual evidence. To wit:

Many Turkish Alawites, estimated at 15 million to 20 million strong and one of the biggest minorities in this country, seem to be solidly behind Syria’s embattled strongman, Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey’s government, and many Sunnis, supports the Syrian rebels.

It’s impossible to critique the basis for the claim because all we’re told is that the Alawites “seem to” be behind Assad. We need more than that.

I know it’s Wikipedia, but if you want to learn more about the belief differences — which I wouldn’t attempt to summarize here without further study — here’s the page for Alawites and here’s the page for the Alevi.

Photo of Alevi protest in Turkey this year via fulili/

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  • NB

    *** I also think the article errs by claiming Alawite support of Assad without any actual evidence. ***

    No. It’s well known that Alevis in Turkey sympathize with Alawites in Syria. In fact, the confusion exists on the Alevi side as well as many Turkish Alevis assume that Alawites are an Arabic speaking version of Alevism. Both Alevis and Alawites share a difficult history of co-existence with Sunnis. And this is what unites them. In fact, Alevis and Alawites in Turkey are running a joint federation which is called Alawite federation/union or something. This is why so many reporters are confused.

  • Mollie

    Any links to support the claim? I just spoke with someone who is something of a guide in these matters this morning — they told me that while there is a consideration of the two groups as cousins, they don’t share the same geopolitical concerns.
    But I’m certainly not an expert in these things — it’s just that this was the second person to say as much and they don’t seem particularly partisan or anything.
    Any links would be most helpful.

  • Jerry

    I think I’m decently knowledgeable about Islam but I learned something new from this topic and I’m happy about that. The more I learn, the more I realize how very complex the Islamic world is. The vast majority of reporters are sadly even more ignorant and thus mangle the news from the region.

  • Mollie


    That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking about this. It’s one of those stories that reveals how little many of us know about Islam.

  • Ira Rifkin

    “It’s one of those stories that reveals how little many of us know about Islam.”–Mollie

    Yes, but how many reporters are able to parse the differences between the myriad Protestant denominations, not to mention the untold number of Hindu sects?

    My point is, what can we realistically expected a reporter to know in this age of global media competition, increasing story complexity and the need to file instantaneously? Politics, religion, economics, history – all provide context to breaking stories.

    And that’s why journalism was so much fun for me. What an education! But even the best of us know just a piece of the whole. All of us falter sometime – but journalists do in the public eye.

    It’s not an excuse. Just underscoring how difficult journalism can be.