Tuesday, May 23, 2006


emote and poor, Tunceli has all the ingredients of a typical rural town in eastern Turkey, except that Tunceli is anything but typical.

Women here do not wear kerchiefs. The central mosque remains empty even on Fridays. Local politics has a Cold War feel about it, dominated by a medley of communists and socialists — political groups that are marginal elsewhere in Turkey.

The key to Tunceli’s oddness lies in the identity of its people. Like perhaps 20 percent of Turks, they are not Sunni Muslims, but Alevi — members of a sect distantly related to Shi’ites.

Not that their place of worship on the town’s outskirts in any way resembles the mosques of neighboring Shi’ite Iran.

Men, women and children attend the Thursday meeting at the “cemevi,” an Alevi place of worship that is not considered a mosque.

There is music and stylized circular dancing. The ceremony ends with the religious leader, in tears, describing the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, at the hands of a Sunni caliph.

Onlookers sob, and a woman hands out handkerchiefs.

Persecuted under the Ottoman Empire, most Alevis remain loyal to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secularist revolution of the 1920s. But they have long had doubts about the nature of Turkey’s secularism, and those doubts are beginning to be converted into action.

Tunceli journalist Haydar Toprakci ascribes Alevi activism to the 2002 election victory of the Justice and Development Party (or AKP, in its Turkish initials), a party of religious Sunnis.

“Every one of the AKP’s 360-odd members of parliament is a Sunni,” he observed, adding: “It’s the Alevis, not the Kurds, who are Turkey’s true second-class citizens.”

The same attitude spurred Izzettin Dogan, head of Turkey’s most influential Alevi group, to take the Education Ministry to court in December over obligatory religious classes in school, which he says teach only Sunni Islam.

“We had no choice,” he said. “At least we could talk to previous governments. With the present government, all contact has been lost.”

Individual Alevis have taken their complaints further. The European Court of Human Rights is scheduled to rule on a case brought by parents demanding that their children be excused from religious education. In a landmark decision last month, a Turkish court ruled in favor of parents with a similar demand.

“The thought of going to court didn’t occur to me until one Ramadan, when the religious teacher began insisting all Muslims should fast,” Hatice Kose told the Turkish daily Radikal. “My son said that because everybody else in the class was fasting, he would, too.”

Unlike Shi’ites and Sunnis, Alevis fast at observances other than Ramadan.

In an apparent effort to stave off further legal challenges, Education Minister Huseyin Celik announced in February that the curriculum had been changed to include a discussion of Alevi beliefs.

The move leaves Alevis, who say they were not consulted, unconvinced. In any case, their main grievance lies elsewhere, with the Diyanet, the powerful state foundation of religious affairs.

“Every belief group is our partner,” said Diyanet leader Ali Bardakoglu, who is responsible for maintaining Turkey’s 80,000 mosques and monitoring their state-employed preachers.

But then he argues that Alevis are actually Sunni. “It’s not that we are opposed to cemevis,” he said, “but they are not an alternative to mosques. Alevis can have their semah [ritual dances], but they should fast, too.”

It’s an attitude that inspires bitter irony in Tunceli schoolteacher Nuriye Bagriyanik.

Alevis are particularly irked that the state denies them the right to describe their cemevis as places of worship. The few cemevis there owe their existence to private donations. Sunni mosques and preachers, meanwhile, are funded by the state.

“Why should the taxes I pay be used to build buildings I’ll never use,” asked Tunceli shopkeeper Murat Polat.

Like the European Union’s representative for Turkey, Hansjoerg Kretschmer, who argued in January that the Diyanet “has no place in a secular country,” Mr. Polat wants to see the agency abolished.

Arif Kuyumcu, a frequent worshipper at Karacaahmet Sultan, an Istanbul cemevi, said, “Funding yourself guarantees independence. If Turkey stopped using public money to pay for mosques, I swear the number [of mosques] would drop.”

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