ISTANBUL — There is a joke in Turkey about an Alevi man who, giving in to pressure from his friends, agreed to go with them to mosque one Friday. During the sermon, the imam was lecturing on the many reasons why drinking alcohol is wrong.

As an illustration, the imam said, “If you put a bucket of water and a bucket of wine in front of a donkey, which one will it drink? (Pause.) The water, of course. Now, why would a donkey choose to drink the water and not the wine?”

Unable to control himself, the Alevi shouted out, “Because it’s an ass, that’s why!”

Crass, perhaps. But the joke is indicative of a larger division between the two communities that goes back centuries.

A sect of Islam that advocates equality between men and women and renounces prayer in mosques in favor of communal worship in cemevis, Alevism has existed in what is now Turkey since the Middle Ages.

Although most Alevi Turks consider themselves Muslim, they don’t participate in many of the rituals traditionally associated with Islam. While some of them do pay reverence to the Koran, they interpret it allegorically and have a rich oral and written literature of their own.

Persecuted under the Ottomans, the majority of these people enthusiastically aligned themselves with the secular republic founded by Kemal Mustafa Ataturk in 1923. Over time, though, they have become increasingly disillusioned with the Turkish state’s relationship with Sunni Islam.

Estimates generally place the number of Alevi Turks at between 10 and 25 million. The community is diverse, split by ethnicity and language, and in disagreement over matters both spiritual and practical. If you ask 10 Alevi Turks for a description of god, you will probably get 10 different answers. But ask them how they feel they have been treated by the Turkish state the response would be pretty unanimous: badly. 

“The root of the problem lies in the fact that (Alevi Turks) have been oppressed by groups who have enjoyed official support for many centuries, and who assume that they have the monopoly on Islam,” said Ali Yaman, a professor at Abant Izzet Baysal University in Turkey.

This prejudice is one reason why it was not until the 1990s that large numbers of Alevi Turks began publicly identifying with their faith and culture, a marked shift from whispered conversations in tea houses to a plethora of new publications and organizations opening up to give a voice to the Alevi community.

Tensions between the state and the Alevi community remain, however, and in many ways have been further frayed under the ruling AKP government. Out of the 360-odd AKP members of parliament between 2002 and 2007, not one was Alevi. That has been amended, but it has not changed the perception that the AKP is a staunchly Sunni party.

“Alevis identify very much with Kemalism because it meant that Turkey was no longer a Sunni state, it was a secular state,” said Sener Akturk, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkley. “They are very sensitive and for psychological reasons they just don’t have the trust that the AKP is genuinely committed to a secular republic.”

This came to head November of last year when about 100,000 people from Alevi communities from across the country converged in Ankara for a protest demanding official recognition of Alevi rights. This was the first time in the history of Turkey that a demonstration has been based exclusively on an Alevi agenda.

While Alevi demands are numerous, several issues tend to take center stage. Under the Directorate of Religious Affairs, the state pays the salaries of 80,000 Sunni imams and the upkeep of the mosques. The Alevi cemevis, meanwhile, are not recognized as places of worship by the state.

"The Directorate of Religious Affairs fulfills the duty of protecting and nurturing Sunni Islam, which has attained the de facto status of 'Official Islam,'" Yaman said.

The widely publicized six-year struggle of Hasan Zenin, a Turkish Alevi, to have his daughter removed from compulsory religious education classes highlighted another of the Alevis' primary demands.

“Alevi children are puzzled between the information provided by their families and the information provided in schools,” Yaman explained, arguing that the state needs to find a solution to this problem.

The European Court of Human rights eventually ruled in favor of Zenin, describing the syllabus as so slanted towards Sunni Islam that it “cannot be considered to meet the criteria of objectivity and pluralism.”

In a similar case this February, a Turkish court ruled in favor of an Alevi family, one of several recent trials that have helped set a precedent for future exemption from compulsory religious education for those who seek it. Officially, however, Turkish authorities still claim that such exemptions apply only to Christian and Jewish students.

Over the past year the AKP has made several efforts at rapprochement with the Alevi community, announcing that Dedes, or Alevi religious leaders, will receive a fixed salary from the state, while cemevis will be excluded from the obligation of paying water and electricity bills. In addition, the government has promised to change the syllabus in Turkish high schools to include sections on the Alevis.

Many in the Alevi community, however, remain unsatisfied. Reha Camuroglu, a prominent Alevi parliamentarian, resigned from his role as adviser to the prime minister in June, citing the AKP’s passivity in the face of discrimination against Alevis.

Even among themselves the Alevi community is divided. A concern of at least some Alevi communities is the emergence of a “state Alevism,” if the Dedes were to receive paychecks from the state.

“Alevi leadership, if we can even talk about such a thing, think that by employing Dedes, the state will then be domesticating them,” Akturk said. “For some there is even a fear of the ‘Sunnization’ of Alevis into the larger religious group.”

“The basic problem,” argued Tord Olsson, a professor of history and anthropology of religion at Lund University, Sweden, “concerns the strain the Alevis place on the official picture of Turkish society as culturally, linguistically and religiously homogeneous.”

For a state founded on the idea of secularism, it seems that there is still a long road ahead.

But in the meantime, did you hear the one about the Alevi who crossed the road?

More dispatches on religious anomalies:

Monks venture into bars, and rap

The wandering Rohingya

More on Turkish society:

Young Turks: a question of identity

Istanbul revelers revive a Greek bacchanalia

A modern wandering on the Silk Road

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