It’s Sunday and prayer leader Bektas Akkaya is twanging a Turkish version of the electric banjo, working about 200 members of this country’s largest re- ligious minority into a trance.
Women in kerchiefs slap their knees, sway to the music and wipe tears from their eyes. A young man swings his arms wildly and beats his chest, his head gyrating until he collapses. Here, there is no imam, minaret or call to prayer, but for an estimated 20 percent of Turkey’s 71 million people, this is Islam.
The worshippers are Alevis — followers of a tradition rooted in the beliefs of the Shi’ite branch of Islam, but which diverges from Shi’ite majorities in neighboring Iran and Iraq. The Alevis incorporate shamanistic rites such as singing, ritual chanting and dance, and shun many customary Islamic practices, including the separation of men and women in prayer and the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
“Without women, without dancing and without a song, you can’t have an Alevi ceremony,” said Cemal Sener, a spokesman for the Alevi community in Istanbul. He likened the followers to “Islamic Protestants” because of their focus on the message and intensity of Islam, rather than its rituals.
Muslim traditionalists have other names for the Alevis, calling them heretics and outcasts, and have made them a target of discrimination in Turkey.
The strains are drawing the attention of the European Union, which has made religious liberties a condition for Turkey’s troubled bid for membership. The latest EU progress report on Turkey, issued in November, cited “no developments” in addressing Alevi claims, including difficulties opening their houses of worship and obtaining state funds for religious facilities.
The plight of the Alevis was not mentioned in Pope Benedict XVI’s pleas to improve the lot of religious minorities during his Nov. 28 to Dec. 1 visit. But their fate is a good barometer of Turkey’s willingness to tolerate free religious practice at a time when hard-line Islamic sentiments are on the rise.
“They want to act like Alevis don’t exist,” said Mr. Sener, an author of more than 20 books on Alevism. “They see us as perverts, heretics.”
Sonmez Kutlu, a professor of divinity at Ankara University, said that much of the antagonism against Alevis originated in the centuries-old rivalries among Islamic groups — a fact still relevant across much of the strife-torn modern Muslim world.
He said, however, that the general feeling is that the Alevis are wrong. Traditionalists see this as a threat to their way of life and an obstacle to their ideal of creating a pious society built around the Koran.
“From the standpoint of practices, like regular prayers, fasting and the hajj, Sunnis see the Alevis’ religious level as being lower,” Mr. Kutlu said.
Adherents of Alevism, which is confined mostly to Turkey, complain of discrimination in business and education, barriers to getting government jobs, and forced assimilation through mandatory courses on Sunni Islam — the overwhelming majority faith in Turkey and one that accounts for about 85 percent the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims.
Alevis are denied funding from the powerful religious affairs directorate, or Diyanet, which uses state funds for nearly 80,000 mosques. The “cem houses,” where Alevi ceremonies are held, are seen as illegitimate and un-Islamic.
“A Muslim prays in a mosque,” the Diyanet president, Ali Bardakoglu, said in an interview aired this month. He said Turkey’s problems with religious minorities are being hyped as groups tried to exploit the EU spotlight for their own political or material gain.
“To say there’s no religious freedom in Turkey by exaggerating some isolated problems that need to be solved with debate is unfair,” he said.
This year, he said, the state does not have funds for “supporting mystical worship.”
This also would seem to include not only Alevis, but Sufis and other mystic groups that were banned after the founding of the secular Turkish republic in the 1920s. But Sufis — with their close ties to Sunni Islam — are embraced more warmly by the current government, which speaks lovingly of Mevlana, or Rumi, the well-known Sufi mystic poet who lived in Turkey.
Estimates of the number of Alevis vary, but by any measure they are significant. Alevis themselves claim to represent nearly a third of Turkey’s Muslims — more than 20 million people. The U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for Turkey estimates that Alevis number at least 15 million people, or about 20 percent of the population.
They have been the victims of brutal attacks.
The worst in modern history was in 1978, when a weeklong rampage of killing, raping and looting against Alevis left 111 persons dead and several thousand injured, and turned hundreds of buildings in the southeastern town of Kahramanmaras into rubble.
In 1993, a group of Islamic fundamentalists emerging from Friday prayers burned down a hotel in Sivas, killing 37 mostly Alevi intellectuals gathered to commemorate a 16th-century poet hanged for his defiance of Ottoman oppression.
Soon afterward, Recep Tayyip Erdogan — then the mayor of Istanbul and now Turkey’s prime minister — gave orders for the pre-dawn destruction of an Alevi cem house, calling it “unlicensed construction.”
Hundreds of Alevis helped to rebuild the house of worship, though the status of the reconstructed and enlarged building remains in limbo.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” said Ali Altunay, a board member of the Karacaahmet Sultan Foundation, an Alevi group in Istanbul.