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The little-known Alevi

They do not pray in mosques, and align themselves with secular society: meet the Alevi Turks.

Members of Turkey's Alevi community attend a rally in Ankara Nov. 9, 2008. Thousands of Turkish Alevis were marching in their first massive demonstration to call for an end to discrimination by the government and compulsory religious classes. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

ISTANBUL — There is a joke in Turkey about an Alevi man who, giving in to pressure from his friends, agreed to go with them to mosque one Friday. During the sermon, the imam was lecturing on the many reasons why drinking alcohol is wrong.

As an illustration, the imam said, “If you put a bucket of water and a bucket of wine in front of a donkey, which one will it drink? (Pause.) The water, of course. Now, why would a donkey choose to drink the water and not the wine?”

Unable to control himself, the Alevi shouted out, “Because it’s an ass, that’s why!”

Crass, perhaps. But the joke is indicative of a larger division between the two communities that goes back centuries.

A sect of Islam that advocates equality between men and women and renounces prayer in mosques in favor of communal worship in cemevis, Alevism has existed in what is now Turkey since the Middle Ages.

Although most Alevi Turks consider themselves Muslim, they don’t participate in many of the rituals traditionally associated with Islam. While some of them do pay reverence to the Koran, they interpret it allegorically and have a rich oral and written literature of their own.

Persecuted under the Ottomans, the majority of these people enthusiastically aligned themselves with the secular republic founded by Kemal Mustafa Ataturk in 1923. Over time, though, they have become increasingly disillusioned with the Turkish state’s relationship with Sunni Islam.

Estimates generally place the number of Alevi Turks at between 10 and 25 million. The community is diverse, split by ethnicity and language, and in disagreement over matters both spiritual and practical. If you ask 10 Alevi Turks for a description of god, you will probably get 10 different answers. But ask them how they feel they have been treated by the Turkish state the response would be pretty unanimous: badly. 

“The root of the problem lies in the fact that (Alevi Turks) have been oppressed by groups who have enjoyed official support for many centuries, and who assume that they have the monopoly on Islam,” said Ali Yaman, a professor at Abant Izzet Baysal University in Turkey.

This prejudice is one reason why it was not until the 1990s that large numbers of Alevi Turks began publicly identifying with their faith and culture, a marked shift from whispered conversations in tea houses to a plethora of new publications and organizations opening up to give a voice to the Alevi community.