Pod people: Learning more about the Alevi

On this week’s Crossroads, host Todd Wilken and I spoke about media coverage of the Chick-Fil-A protests, the misplaced outrage at CNN when the channel was blamed for something an online commenter had written about the shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and the Alawite/Alevi confusion displayed by the New York Times.

I have a mild interest in Turkey, because of a couple former interns who live there as well as a few other friends and colleagues, and have been hearing conflicting reports about whether the Alevis support the Syrian regime.

So I thought I’d pass along a few other items for people interested in the topic. Perhaps the best media criticism I’ve seen of that New York Times piece we looked at is here, “Turkish Alevis are not Syrian Alawites (and why that matters)“. It’s really long and incredibly nuanced, but here’s the conclusion:

Of course, just because [the head of the major opposition Republican People’s Party, Kemal] Kilicdaroglu and [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan have not directly and openly stated that their confessional beliefs motivate their views on the Syrian civil war we cannot categorically deny that such a connection exists. The same holds true for the events that took place in Surgu. The problem with [New York Times reporter Jeffrey] Gettleman’s piece is that he tries to draw a direct line, one could say a bloodline, between Alawite-Sunni violence in Syria and the Surgu incident in Turkey, whereas the facts of the incident prove that there is not enough evidence to support this claim. Yet we can connect flare ups of Alevi-Sunni tension in Turkey to the words and actions of the AKP government, particularly of Prime Minister Erdogan. As [senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Soner] Cagaptay and columnist Amberin Zaman have noted, if Alevis feel they are being discriminated against or oppressed by AKP policies, this could result in their having increasing solidarity with the Alawites in Syria. Unfortunately, the AKP’s policies and Erdogan’s recent rhetoric regarding the Alevi issue have not been helpful in this regard.

This critique may seem to amount to little more than semantics or splitting hairs: if sectarian violence in Syria can ultimately impact Sunni-Alevi relations in Turkey, then, some may argue, the details of how that impact occurs are not important. Yet if we fail to acknowledge the crucial role domestic Turkish politics plays in shaping the impact the Syrian civil war has on Turkey’s different ethnic groups, then we are left with a situation in which it appears only a matter a time before the Syrian Sunni men whom Gettleman describes as “howling in delight” at the thought of killing Alawites become Turkish Sunnis seeking Alevi blood. Fortunately, despite the implications of Gettleman’s argument, this is not the case.

Another interesting piece, with a somewhat different perspective is in The Economist and is about how, in that magazine’s view, Turkey’s prime minister is trying to manipulate the sectarian divide:

Mr Erdogan’s remarks about the Alevis, a historically persecuted sect which is considered an offshoot of Shia Islam, has sparked fresh accusations that he is pandering to the prejudices of Turkey’s predominantly Sunni majority in order to improve his chances of becoming the country’s first elected president in 2014. He declared that the Alevis voted for Mr Kilicdaroglu “because he is Alevi”, that Cemevis, their houses of worship, were “cultural centres” and that Muslims prayed only in mosques. Such assertions fly in the face of the Alevis’ long-running demands that Cemevis be granted the same state subsidies as an estimated 90,000 mosques across Turkey. Worse, they appear to suggest that Alevis are not real Muslims. This is an explosive argument used by Sunnis to excuse successive atrocious massacres of Alevis. The most recent of these killings took place in 1993.

It characterizes the Alevi position on Syria as being less about support for Assad and more about opposing Turkey’s meddling. But I did appreciate the specifics about the religious distinctions:

Much like the Alawites, the Alevis tend to be secretive about their ways. They neither observe Ramadan nor pray in mosques. Men and women worship together, whirling and singing to the accompaniment of a lute. Like Shias, they revere Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law. But unlike the sword-brandishing Ali of Sunni lore, for the Alevis, Ali abjured violence and is the embodiment of God. Because of their liberal ways the Alevis are treasured by secular-minded Turks as the best insurance against radical Islam. For the same reasons hard-core Sunnis paint them as debauched infidels.

With all the interest in Turkey and Syria these days, we’re being exposed to some interesting discussions about how religion affects the news out of the region.

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