The Quiet Opposition

Though over 99 per cent of Turkey’s population is of Muslim background, it is much less religiously monolithic than foreigners tend to assume. At least nine or ten million people, 15 per cent of the national population, are Alevis, and the total may possibly be even higher. Alevism is a creed which, broadly speaking, descends from the Shi’a branch of Islam, but in Anatolia it has developed characteristics which are entirely its own.

Alevis do not go to mosques; indeed, according to David Shankland, they rather dislike the whole idea of mosques and conventional Ottoman-style mosque architecture. Some even agree with those Sunni critics who describe Alevis as ‘half Christian’. More probably they have grown out of, or around, the Bektashi religious brotherhood, to which the Janissaries and other frontline early Ottomans belonged.

The Alevis meet in private prayer halls of their own, called cemevleri, where secret ceremonies are conducted, but from what is known of them they sound not unlike Quaker meetings. Alevis have a rich heritage of Turkish folklore and music, but they tend to inhabit relatively poor villages in central Anatolia, and in the large cities they show signs of becoming an underclass. In Alevi villages male control over women is much less overt than it is elsewhere in the Turkish countryside.

When the Republic was declared, many Alevis enthusiastically embraced the idea of a secular state and the leadership of Atatürk. But their relationship with government has always been uneasy. They rose in support of the Safavid Persian invaders of Turkey in the early sixteenth century and some of them still harbour deeply oppositional sentiments. Alevis in towns tend to side with the left.

Since the 1980s, when Alevism’s fortunes were at a low ebb, there has been a cultural revival, partly fostered by the mass media, in the large cities. The renovated version of Alevi culture is surprisingly secular, regarding religion as essentially a personal matter. At a time when Islam is becoming more standardised and puritanical across the world, many Alevis seem to be moving in the opposite direction.

David Shankland’s study is based on anthropological fieldwork done in central Anatolia in the 1980s. He contrasts clearly the Sunni villages, which are burgeoning into little towns, and the more quietist attitudes of the Alevis, who seem prone to emigrate.

Originally a doctoral thesis, this book rewards the reader at two levels. Those who know only metropolitan Turkey should read it to learn about how rural communities work and pray. It also provides some of the most sophisticated discussion anywhere of the complex and rapidly evolving relationship in Turkey between religion, state and society.

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 29
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Issue 29, 2003 Ottoman Gardens
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