Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Assimilation with a Sunni Islamist Taint

The Alevi community has long been skeptical of AKP as a Sunni Islamist party desirous to expand the role of Sunni Islam in public and private life. However, this January, some hope was presented when AKP deputy Reha Çamuroğlu was appointed by Erdoğan to lead an initiative to resolve conflicts between AKP and the Alevi community. While most Alevis were highly skeptical, the mood in the moderate Islamist press was quite positive. However, any goodwill has since vanished with Çamuroğlu's resignation.

Principal among the Alevis' concerns are that Alevi children not be subject to Sunni-Islam based religious classes, which are compulsory for all Turkish students. Director of Education Hüseyin Çelik has been anything but accommodating and this despite a decision by the European Court of Human Rights that held mandatory religious education to be in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The ruling in Hasan and Eylem Zengin v. Turkey urged that Turkey come into conformity with Article 2 of Protocol No. 1, which covers the right to education. The protocol reads:
In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.
In response, the AKP government said it would change its policy so as to offer an optional course teaching "universal religious knowledge" and said at the time that it would change its standard curriculum to come into compliance with the ECHR decision. Since then Çelik has affirmed that no number of court decisions will influence the state to end compulsory religious education, mandatory under the current constitution. Çelik's statement came after the Council of State, an appeals body charged with administrative law, decided that compulsory education as it was carried out by the Directorate of Education's current curriculum is illegal. At the time, AKP reacted strongly against the ruling and accused the Council of State of acting outside its bounds. Directorate of Religious Affairs head Ali Bardakoğlu said that religion was essential to the education of all children, going so far as to conclude that Alevism cannot be included as a religion outside of Islam and is therefore most respected by including its teachings in the state's curriculum. Most disturbing is that despite EU calls to do so, AKP refuses to lift the requirement in its draft of the new constitution. According to Ali Balkız, president of the Alevi Bektasi Organization that brought the Zengin case to the ECHR, “The AKP is an Islam-based Party that has two sensitive spots, Alevis and women. These two are the last not on the democratization list for AKP."

Alevis are further discriminated against insomuch as their religious institutions, cemevis, are not afforded the same legal protections as mosques and churches. Bardakoğlu has continued to withold government funding from the support of cemevis on the grounds that they are not alternatives to mosques, and despite the director's repeated utterances that a majority of Alevis worship in mosques, the truth of the matter is that the cemevi—where women and men pray together—is the center of Alevi religious communities. Further, the government continues to post Sunni imams to Alevi villages over the petitions of residents. From the Turkish Daily News:
Tahir Aslandaş, president of the Sivas Ali Baba Association, said the group gave a petition to the Sivas governor in January to demand withdrawal of an imam sent to the Beykonağı village populated by Alevis. “The petition was never heeded,” he said. “This is a general phenomenon in Sivas. It is an attempt for an assimilation policy. No one goes praying, but the Imam reads the call to prayer nevertheless.” He added that the Beykonağı village also suffers from poverty and a lack of medical care, with eight households and elderly people in need of medical attention and only a small clinic that has no doctors or nurses.

An expert on the Alevis from Middle East Technical University, Assistant Professor Aykan Erdemir, noted that the AKP top administration is made up of people raised with prejudices against the country's 15 million Alevis, prejudices that also create material divides in the society. “From promotions to bids and contracts, from employment to nomination to key state posts, being a Sunni conservative is a great advantage over being an Alevi,” he underlined.

President of the Pir Sultan Abdal Cultural Association Fevzi Gümüş noted that mosque construction in Alevi villages has resumed with greater speed. “Discrimination against Alevi students increased to unprecedented levels. Our demands about Cemevis merely served as a government show who wanted to appease the European Union. It is clear that the AKP only cares about freedom of religious beliefs when it concerns headscarf wearing,” he underlined.
Alevis are very much exceptional to the Turkish mainstream and have long discriminated against for their heterodox Shi'a beliefs. They are also frequently the targets of Sunni Islamist extremists and right-wing paramilitarists (see April 13 post).

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