The question of Alevi minority in Türkiye and its religious identity
by Vladislav B Sotirovic on 15 Mar 2024 0 Comment



The possibility to organize a national referendum on Turkish membership to the European Union (EU) has opened many questions. A current European political concern is whether or not to accept Türkiye as a full member state (being a candidate state since 1999). Türkiye is governed as a secular democracy by moderate Islamic political leaders seeking to bridge the Middle East and Europe. However, Türkiye is an almost 100 per cent Muslim country with a rising tide of Islamic radicalism (especially since the 2023 Israeli ethnic cleansing of Gazan Palestinians), surrounded by neighbours with a similar problem.


There are two fundamental arguments by those opposing Turkish admission to the EU: 1) Muslim Turkish citizens (70 million) will never be properly integrated into the predominantly Christian European environment; and 2) In the event of Turkish accession, historical clashes between (Ottoman) Turks and European Christians will be revived.


Here we will refer only to one statement against Turkish accession: it “would mean the end of Europe” (former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing), a statement that reflects the opinion of 80 per cent of Europeans polled in 2009. Moreover, only 32 per cent of Turkish citizens have a good opinion of the EU; hence the admission process, for which formal and strict negotiations began in 2005, is likely to be abortive.


Islamic fundamentalism and Türkiye’s admission to the EU


Most Europeans view Turkish admission to the EU through the prism of Islamic fundamentalism, posing a serious challenge to European stability and identity based on Christian values and traditions. Islamic fundamentalism is understood as an attempt to undermine existing State practices as militants (ISIS /ISIL /DAESH) fight to re-establish the medieval Islamic Caliphate and theocratic authority over the global Islamic community (Umma).


Religious fundamentalism first came to the attention of the West in 1979 when a pro-American absolute monarchy made way for a Shia Muslim anti-American semi-theocracy in Iran. The Iranian Shia clerics, spiritual leaders of the Iranians, became political leaders too. Iran’s Islamic revolution prompted similar uprisings in other Muslim societies, followed by State action against them.  


Europe feared that failure of talks could lead to Türkiye’s possible turn towards fundamentalism. After the 9/11 terror attacks (on Washington and New York), having an (Islamic) Türkiye inside the EU was better rather it joining an anti-Western bloc of Muslim states.


For Western governments, especially the US and Israel, after the 1979 Iranian revolution, Shia Muslims came to be seen as potential Islamic fundamentalists. They ignored the oppression of Shia minorities by Sunni majorities in several Muslim countries. The case of Alevi people in Türkiye is one of the best examples of such a policy.


However, the EU paid full attention to the Kurdish question in Türkiye, even calling for Türkiye to recognize Kurds as an ethnocultural minority. Why did the EU discriminate against the Alevi? The answer is that Kurds are Sunni Muslims while Alevis are considered a Turkish faction of (militant) Shia.


What is Alevism?


The Alevi (“followers of Ali”) number between 10-15 million in Türkiye. Some experts in Islamic studies claim that Alevism is a branch of Shi’ism (Shia Islam), though the Alevi Umma is not homogeneous and Alevism cannot be understood without another Islamic sect – Bektashism.


Alevism is a way of Islamic mysticism or Sufism, believing in one God by accepting Muhammad as a Prophet, and the Holy Qur’an. The Alevi love Ehlibeyt (family of Prophet Muhammad), the unifying prayer and supplication, prayer in their language, and prefer the free person instead of Umma (Muslim community), love God instead of fearing God, and prefer to overcome Sharia and believe in the text of the Holy Qur’an without interpretations.


Alevis found refuge in human love; they believe people are immortal because a person is manifested by God. Women and men pray together, in their language, with their music (played via baglama, with semah.) Alevism is an entirety of beliefs that depends on Islam’s rules based on the Holy Qur’an; they interpret Islam with a universal dimension. The Alevi belief system is a triplet composed of Allah, Muhammad, and Ali.


The Shia branch of Islam recognizes Ali’s claim to succeed his cousin and father-in-law, Prophet Muhammad, as the spiritual leader of Islam during the first civil war in the Islamic world (656-661). In most Islamic countries, Sunnis are in majority, but Shi’ites comprise some 80 million believers, around 13 per cent of Muslims worldwide. The Shi’ites are dominant in Iran, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates.


Alevism is not identical to Sufism, the mystical aspect of Islam which arose as a reaction to strict religious orthodoxy. Sufis seek personal union with God and their Christian Orthodox counterparts in the Middle Ages were the Bogumils.   Alevism has many differences in its practice of Islam, but some Western literature portrays it as a branch of Shi’ism, or as an Ottoman way of Shi’ism. 


Split within Muslims


Islamic expansion in the 7th and 8th centuries was accompanied by political conflicts following the death of Prophet Muhammad, on the question of who was entitled to succeed him as caliph to rule all Muslims. As the caliph lacked prophetic authority, he enjoyed secular power but was not an authority on religious doctrine. The first caliph, Abu Bakr, and his three successors are considered as “rightly guided” (orthodox) caliphs. They ruled according to the Quran and the practices of the Prophet, but, thereafter, Islam split into two antagonistic branches: Sunni and Shia.


The Sunni-Shia division started when Ali ibn Abi Talib (599-661), Muhammad’s son-in-law, assumed the Caliphate after the murder of Uthman (574-656). The civil war ended with the defeat of Ali and the victory of Uthman’s cousin and governor of Damascus, Mu’awiya Ummayad (602-680) after the Battle of Suffin.


However, some like the Alevi claimed that Ali was the rightful and last legitimate caliph and that the Caliphate should pass only to direct descendants of Prophet Muhammad through his daughter, Fatima, and Ali, her husband. Ali’s son, Hussein (626-680), claimed the Caliphate, but the Ummayads killed him along with his followers at the Battle of Karbala in 680. Though the Prophet’s family line ended in 873, Shia Muslims believe that the last descendant did not die as he is “hidden” and will return. As a consequence of this split, religious and political power in Islam was never again united in a political community.




The Alevi believe in one God, Allah, hence, Alevism, as a form of Islam, is a monotheistic religion. Some Alevi believe in good and bad spirits and often practice superstition to benefit from good ones and avoid harm from bad ones. Many Muslims see Alevism as a form of paganism imbued with Christianity. However, the majority of Alevis do not believe in supernatural beings and consider this an expression of Satanism.


The essence of Alevism is that according to the original text of the Quran, Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, was to be the Prophet’s successor as God’s vice-regent on earth (caliph). The Alevi claim that the parts related to Ali were taken out by his rivals. They believe that the Quran should be interpreted esoterically for there are deeper spiritual truths there than the strict rules and regulations that appear on the surface.


Most Alevi writers quote individual Quranic verses for authority to support their view on a given topic or justify a certain Alevi religious tradition. The Alevi generally promote reading of the Quran in the Turkish language rather than in Arabic, stressing that it is of fundamental importance for a person to understand what he or she is reading, which is not possible if the Quran is read in Arabic. Many Alevis do not read the Quran or other holy books, nor base their daily beliefs and practices on them as they consider these ancient books to be irrelevant today.


Alevis read three different books. They believe that the Sunnis corrupted the authentic words of Muhammad and the Prophet’s original messages can be deduced by alternative readings. Therefore, Alevi believers look to (1) the Nahjul Balagha, the traditions and sayings of Ali; (2) the Buyruks, the collections of doctrine and practices of several of the 12 imams, especially Cafer; and (3) the Vilayetnameler or the Menakibnameler, books that describe events in the lives of great Alevis such as Haji Bektash. Besides, there are some special sources in Alevi theology like poet-musicians Yunus Emre (13-14th century), Kaygusuz Abdal (15th century), and Pir Sultan Abdal (16th century).


Alevism is founded on the love of the Prophet and Ehlibeyt and the Twelve Imams. Waiting for the last Imam’s reappearance, Shia Muslims established a special council of 12 religious scholars (Ulema) that elect a supreme Imam. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900-1989) enjoyed that status in Iran. Most Alevi believe that the 12th Imam, Muhammed Mehdi, grew up in secret to be saved from those who wanted to exterminate the family of Ali. Many believe Mehdi is still alive and will come back to earth one day.


The Alevi claim that Ali was Muhammed’s intended successor, and therefore the first caliph, but competitors stole this right from him. Muhammed intended for the leadership of all Muslims to perpetually stem from his family line (Ehli Beyt), beginning with Ali, Fatima, and their two sons, Hasan and Hüseyin. Ali, Hasan, and Hüseyin are considered the first three Imams, and the other nine of the 12 Imams came from Hüseyin’s line. They include: Imam Ali (599-661); Imam Hasan (624-670); Imam Hüseyin (625-680); Imam Zeynel Abidin (659-713); Imam Muhammed Bakir (676-734); Imam Cafer-i Sadik (699-766); Imam Musa Kâzim (745-799); Imam Ali Riza (765-818); Imam Muhammed Taki (810-835); Imam Ali Naki (827-868); Imam Hasan Askeri (846-874); and Imam Muhammed Mehdi (869-941).


The Alevi first fasting is not in Ramadan, but in Muharram, for 12 days. Their second fasting is after the Feast of Sacrifice for 20 days and another is the Hizir fast. Islam rules that if a person has enough money, he/she should give to a poor person a specific amount, but the Alevi prefer to donate to Alevi organizations, not to individuals. They don’t go to Mecca for Hajj, but visit mausoleums, like that of Haji Bektas, (in Kirsehir), Abdal Musa (in Tekke Village, Elmali, Antalya), Sahkulu Sultan (in Merdivenköy, Istanbul), Karacaahmet Sultan (in Üsküdar, Istanbul) or Seyit Gazi (in Eskisehir). 




Haji Bektash (Bektas) Wali was a Turkmen born in Iran. After graduation, he moved to Anatolia. He educated many students and he and his students gave many religious, economic, social, and martial services in Ahi Teskilati. Haji Bektash became popular among the Ottoman elite military detachment, the Janissaries. He adopted the rules of Alevism in his personal life. Bektashism, the sect founded in his name, was based on the love of Ali and the twelve imams. Bektashism was popular in Anatolia and the Balkans (especially Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania) where it still thrives.


Over time, Bektashism absorbed some features of old beliefs of Anatolia and Turkish culture. Many rules of Bektashism are incorporated in Alevism, and the mausoleum of Haji Bektash Wali in Nevsehir in Anatolia is an important pilgrimage. In Türkiye, Bektashism and Alevism cannot be treated as different concepts of Islamic theology.


Problems of Alevis in Ottoman history and Türkiye


When the Ottoman state was established at the end of the 13th-early 14th century, it did not have sectarian frictions within Islam. The Alevi occupied many chairs in state institutions. The Janissaries (originally Sultan’s bodyguard) were members of Bektashism that even the Sultan tolerated. However, as the Ottoman state was involved in imperialistic transformation by annexing surrounding provinces and states, Sunnism gained importance and Sunni Muslims became the majority of the Ottoman Sultanate and Sunnism was more useful for the state administration.


The Ottoman state became involved in conflicts with the Safavid Empire (Persia, 1502-1722) – a Shi’a country similar to Alevism. The Alevi began sympathizing with Safavid Shah Ismail I (1501-1524). The animosity between the Ottoman Alevis and Ottoman authorities became explicit in 1514 when Ottoman Sultan Selim I (1512-1520) executed some 40,000 Alevis together with the Kurds while going for the decisive Battle of Chaldiran (August 23rd) with Persia against Shah Ismail I. Till the Ottoman Sultanate ended in 1923, Alevis were oppressed for not conforming to the official Sunni theology.


Alevis were content in the new Republic of Türkiye, 1923, which proclaimed segregation of religion from the State (no official State religion). The Alevi population of Türkiye supported most reforms with the hope that their social status would be improved. But after a few years, they began to experience some difficulties as a de facto religious minority.


The 1960s were important for Turkish society for three reasons: (1) Immigration from rural areas to urban areas following a new process of industrialization; (2) Immigration abroad, mostly to West Germany, according to the German-Turkish Gastarbeiter Agreement; and (3) Further democratization of political life.


As a consequence, in 1966, Alevis established a political party – Birlik Partisi (Unity Party). In 1969, Alevis as a minority group sent eight members to Parliament, but in 1973, the party sent just one member to Parliament, and finally, in 1977, the party lost its efficacy. In 1978, in Maras, and in 1980, in Çorum, hundreds of Alevis were killed in conflict with the majority Sunni population. The most notorious Alevi massacre happened in Sivas on July 2, 1993, when 35 Alevi intellectuals were killed in Madimak Hotel by a group of religious fundamentalists.


Alevi believers still face many problems in Türkiye regarding freedom of religious expression and recognition as a separate cultural group. For example, the religious curriculum does not have any information about Alevism but only on Sunnism. Alevism is ignored by Türkiye’s administration. The Presidency of Religious Affairs (est. 1924) deals with religious questions and problems, but works according to the rules of Sunni Islam.


There have been some improvements in Alevi cultural life as many foundations and other civic public intuitions support it. However, Alevis, like Kurds, are not recognized as a separate ethnocultural or religious group due to the Turkish understanding of a nation (millet) inherited from the Ottoman Sultanate according to which all Muslims in Türkiye are treated as ethnolinguistic Turks. The situation can be changed as Türkiye seeks European Union membership and would have to accept certain EU requirements, such as granting minority rights for Alevis and Kurds.


Dr. Vladislav B. Sotirovic is a Research Fellow at Centre for Geostrategic Studies, Belgrade, Serbia. The views expressed are personal.

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