Religion in Turkey

The Turkish government has recently announced an official opening of discussions on the subject of Alevism, the second-largest religious group in the country after the majority Sunni Muslims. This ‘açılım’ in Turkish, represents a significant step forward for Alevis, who have experienced repression and even persecution, not only in the Republican period, but earlier, under the Ottoman regime.

I’m happy about this new spirit of openness that seems to be pervading Turkey’s political scene these days. There may be bumps in the road to begin with, but in the end, good will come of it. I’ve been doing a little research into the Alevi sect, and various sources confirmed what I had previously heard: that there are 10 to 20 million of these people living in the Republic. Well, even if you take the lower figure, that’s a significant group in a population of around 70 million.

Still, you’d have to wonder why the figures couldn’t be a little more precise, especially in a country which takes regular censuses, and likes to see a citizen’s religious affiliation on all forms of personal ID. I was also intrigued to note that the origins of the Alevi faith are controversial, and apparently it is even hard to define precisely what they believe.

It is generally accepted that Alevism is closer to Shi’i Islam than to the Sunni variety (the majority in Turkey); and that it has close ties to the mystical Sufism of the 13th century saint, Hadji Bektash Veli. Some sources, however, suggest that it predates Islam, and has its roots in an earlier folk religion, perhaps Persian; and that it was influenced by close contact with the various strands of Christianity which were developing and separating in the early days of the Roman/Byzantine Empire.

It’s not my intention here to examine, in any detail, the tenets of faith of the Alevis, even if they had been clearly codified; but some general concepts have a certain appeal:

  • Love and respect for all people (The important thing is not religion, but being a human being)
  • Tolerance towards other religions and ethnic groups (If you hurt another person, the ritual prayers you have done are counted as worthless)
  • Respect for working people (The greatest act of worship is to work)
  • Equality of men and women, who pray side by side. Monogamy is practiced.
  • They even, it is said, enjoy a drink now and again, and apparently consider their stricter Sunni brethren as unnecessarily rigid in their code of Islamic conduct.

Well, you may feel inclined to wonder why people holding such apparently innocuous (perhaps even laudable) beliefs would need to be suppressed or persecuted. As usual, the more you dig in this remarkable country, whether literally or metaphorically, the more details you unearth, and the more complicated the story seems to become. However, if you are a follower of this blog, or even an occasional visitor, you will likely have observed that my aim is to seek the overview, the big picture, rather than to lose my thread in scholarly minutiae.

So, I’m going to jump to an issue which generates a great deal of heat (even parliamentary fisticuffs) in contemporary Turkey – the question of whether the ruling AK Party has a hidden agenda aimed at dismantling the secular state and substituting Islamic Shariah law. ‘What’s the connection?’ you may ask, and of course, I’m going to tell you. Once again, I have no intention of plunging into the mire of Turkish politics, and examining the rights and wrongs of women wearing headscarves, or defending the record of a government which slew the dragon of hyperinflation, and kept Turkey out of the Iraq invasion without unduly damaging its friendship with America. Party affiliates are quite capable of dealing with these issues. Rather, I want to examine the deeper-seated reason why I believe Turkey will never descend into Islamic fundamentalism.

The reason is, in my opinion, the incredibly broad-based, eclectic nature of religion in this part of the world variously referred to as Asia Minor, Anatolia and the Republic of Turkey. The Alevi religion, so briefly outlined above, seems to me a microcosm of the processes that have shaped the beliefs of the people who now inhabit this ancient land, and resist all attempts to box and categorise them.

A short anecdote to illustrate my point, found in a Turkish newspaper (‘Hürriyet’): 
Hadji Burhanettin lives in the east Anatolian town of Doğubeyazit. The word Hadji before his name tells us that he has made the pilgrimage to Mecca, which gives him a certain lay authority in matters of religion. His two sons came to Istanbul to start a business, and decided that manufacturing denim jeans was the way to go. Of course, it’s a competitive market, and you need to position your product carefully. According to the story, the lads decided to produce the world’s sexiest jeans, and named their brand ‘G-Point’ (I think they meant to say ‘G-Spot’ but both words have the same meaning in Turkish), with a stylized male arrow symbol as their logo. At first, their father was furious. How would he maintain the gravitas of his Hadji status when local friends and neighbours found out what his sons were up to in the sin capital of Turkey? Apparently, however, as money from sales of the sexy apparel began to flow, the patriarch found it in his heart to overcome his initial scruples and accept the obvious sign of divine approval.

There is an admirable pragmatism there, wouldn’t you agree? Even if the logic may be a little doctrinally unorthodox. Clearly, if it wasn’t ok with God, He wouldn’t let the guy’s sons make a profit. But I don’t want to make light of religion in Turkey. Rather, I want to look briefly at the forces that have molded it, and thereby come at an explanation of why things are as they are.

The people call their country ‘Türkiye’, the land of Turks – and while, prior to the First World War they were happy enough to consider themselves subjects of a diverse Ottoman Empire, they have spent the last 87 years working to persuade themselves that ‘Turks’ is what they are. We ‘Europeans’ know that ‘Turks’ were part of the heathen horde that swarmed out of the Central Asian steppes wreaking mayhem and terror on Christendom and Western civilization until they were finally turned back from the gates of Vienna in 1683. Well, we may not have known the exact date, but you know what I mean, right?

Turks themselves seem, for the most part, relatively content these days to accept a variation of the same theme, with a few details added, and warrior heroism substituted for brutish barbarianism. Back in Central Asia, of course, the religion was shamanism, but on the way westwards they became Muslim, defeated the Roman/Byzantine Empire, set up their own Ottoman Empire and eventually mutated into the present Republic of Turkey. Of course, as gross over-simplifications go, that one is staggering in its presumptuousness. Nevertheless, while it may omit one or two details, I submit that the overall picture would not be unacceptable.

Most Turks would be surprised to learn, then, that their Turkic ancestors, in their advance along the Silk Route, became Buddhist for a time, and were undoubtedly influenced by other religions moving in the opposite direction, Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity and Manichaeism to name but three, before settling on Islam after prolonged contact with Arab armies and culture moving east. It has been suggested that the adoption of Buddhism first, and later Islam by Turkic leaders may be attributable more to the desire for a unifying religion to solidify their growing temporal power, than to higher spiritual motives. And then there was the influence exerted on slave warriors in the service of Arab and Persian armies. At the same time, conversion to the new religion was made easier by aspects of theological concurrence with the old one, a point I want to return to later.

Anyway, from here (Bactria, Sogdia and other little remembered Central Asian states) it is a mere hop step and a jump to the eastern border of the Byzantine Empire, where the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan met and defeated in battle the heirs of the Roman Empire, who had ruled the eastern lands for 600 years after the fall of Rome. The year was 1071, and it marks the beginning of the Turkish conquest of Anatolia, and the beginning of the end of the eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire.

We can say that what followed was a gradual process whereby a predominantly Muslim Turkish-speaking Anatolia replaced the earlier Christian Greek-speaking one. However, already we have mentioned some of the influences that influenced the development of the Turkish brand of İslam that entered Anatolia at this time. Also, it is likely that, not only had these Turks lost their central Asian racial purity from centuries of miscegenation by the time they invaded Anatolia, but that the process continued after their arrival, and continues to this day.

Leaving aside the mixing of races and cultures that undoubtedly followed the invasion of Anatolia, let us look briefly at some of the religious interactions that took place.

We have already mentioned Zoroastrianism in passing. This was the predominant religion of the Iranian/Persian peoples, and its origins trace back to the prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra) at least a thousand years before the Christian Era. It is sometimes claimed that Zoroastrianism was the world’s first monotheistic religion, and that many fundamental beliefs of Judaism, Islam and Christianity are derived from it. Unlike its successors, however, Zoroastrianism was apparently not ‘monolithic’ – i.e. there was some scope for divergence of opinion among believers without the need for excommunication or other forms of compulsion.

It is likely that the religion known as Gnosticism also sprang from this root. It seems to have been a more elitist set of beliefs, again, lacking a single strict dogma. While Gnosticism absorbed aspects of Christianity, it apparently placed more emphasis on the teachings of Jesus rather than his death and resurrection. Its growth as a religion kept pace with that of Christianity in the early centuries, but, lacking a central organization, it fell prey to oppression and persecution once its rival became the official state religion – a sad but typical illustration of how the oppressed are only too happy to assume the role of the oppressor as soon as the opportunity presents itself.

One thing that is very clear is that there has been, for millennia, a struggle, in this part of the world, between what one might consider the true nature of religion (the essentially personal search which attempts to give meaning to an apparently chaotic universe through an understanding of the material and spiritual natures of humanity), and the desire of succeeding rulers to impose a unified doctrine and system of religious observance which would give cohesion (not to say malleability) to their subject peoples.
One of the early great heretics of the Christian church was a gentleman by the name of Marcion, a 2nd century theologian who lived in the Black Sea city of Sinope. The essence of his teachings was that the Hebrew God of the Old Testament and the Heavenly Father of the New Testament were separate – the latter being the superior deity, while the capricious, vengeful Yahweh was a lesser force – the demiurge that created the material world. What happened to Marcion? He was excommunicated by the mainstream church and his teachings suppressed.
Another sect of Gnosticism that acquired a following for a time was Manichaeism, inspired by its prophet Mani, who lived in the 3rd century CE. Again it was perceived as a serious threat by orthodox Christians, but perhaps contained within it the seeds of its own downfall, encouraging, as it apparently did, strict ascetic practices and even celibacy. Women, it seems ‘were considered forces of darkness, binding men to the flesh’, which also seems unlikely to prove successful in the long-term from an evolutionary point-of-view, but may have spawned beliefs that seem to persist among some Muslim believers.
In our wanderings through Central Asia earlier, we came across a sect of Christians known as Nestorians. These were followers of an other reject from mainstream Christianity, Archbishop Nestor of Constantinople, who fell foul of his brethren for advancing the dangerous heresy that it might not be 100% accurate to call Mary the ‘Mother of God’. I have to admit I have wondered about that myself from time to time. In my travels in Turkey, I couldn’t help noticing that the area of Aegean Turkey where Mary is reputed to have spent her last years, was also important in the worship of Artemis and her divine predecessor, Cybele. Artemis was a complex creature, noted for her virginity as well as celebrated as a mother goddess – and known locally as the Lady of Ephesus.  Cybele was an earlier Phrygian earth mother deity associated with fertility, sometimes referred to as the Mother of the Mountain. Given that it is generally easier to convert people to a new religion if you can show major correspondences with their own, you could be forgiven for thinking that the process may have been at work around here. ‘Hey, that’s a coincidence. We’ve got her in our religion too – only we call her Mary!’
But to return to the Nestorians and their heretical brethren: one thing that these various sects, cults and religious deviants did achieve – it is generally accepted that the creeds formulated by Ecumenical Councils of the early institutionalised Christian church at such places as Chalcedon (Kadıköy), Ephesus and Nicaea (İznik) were a direct response to the threats they posed. So, the strange, surreal, somewhat over-the-top articles of faith that one is expected to ascribe to as a Christian reciting the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed can be understood as a kind of legalese trickery to weed out heretics and deviants who might threaten the unity of the new state-sponsored religion.
Anyway, the result was a host of breakaway groups establishing their own forms of ‘orthodoxy’ – Syriacs, Copts, Armenians and so on – not forgetting the Roman Catholics themselves, who made their final split in 1054. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. What about the Muslims, I hear you asking. Weren’t you, in fact, writing about them? And of course you are right. But it is important to recognise that these two religions, Christian and Muslim, lived side by side in Anatolia for more than eight hundred years, and for sure, their beliefs and practices rubbed off on each other. Islam, for example, is notoriously unsympathetic to anything smacking of idolatry – statues or pictures of divinities or any human beings for that matter. Undoubtedly it was a reaction to the growing popularity and power of the new religion that produced the iconoclastic movement and led to the destruction of statues, images, icons, frescos and so on in the Byzantine Christian Church in the 8th century CE.
On the other hand, Muslims in Turkey have a rather more tolerant approach to the consumption of alcohol than their co-religionists elsewhere. Religious authorities in Turkey clearly feel the need to remind visitors to certain tombs that prayers should be addressed to God rather than to a (dead) human, and that the tying of pieces of cloth to nearby trees is discouraged. Nevertheless, these and other practices persist, and suggest a survival of belief in the intercession of saints, and probably more ancient folk customs.
The 13th and 14th centuries in Anatolia are notable for the rise of a mystical offshoot of mainstream Islam, Sufism. Hadji Bektash Veli and the poet Yunus Emre, for example, proposed that a person could draw nearer to the divine during his/her mortal life by following a certain path under the guidance of a spiritual master or ‘father’. Undoubtedly, the belief that enlightenment is more readily found as a result of a personal search than by following state-defined practices is strongly embedded in Turkish culture. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish Republic, banned, however, in 1925, all Sufi orders, and shut down their lodges. There is an irony here, in that the followers of these orders, like the Alevis, tend to support the secular republic, on the grounds that it is more likely to extend tolerance than a monolithic Sunni establishment. Perhaps their faith and persistence are about to be rewarded.
Whatever the outcome for the Alevis themselves, I see the new spirit of openness in debate on this and other issues long swept under the carpet, as perhaps heralding a new maturity in the development of democracy in this controversial and ambiguous meeting place of Europe and Asia. It is also interesting that the opening of such issues to discussion has been instigated by a government often accused by secular Turks of supporting a conspiracy to reintroduce Shariah law. In the end, I have confidence in Turkish people themselves. Hadji Burhanettin back east in Doğubeyazit is not likely to let religious beliefs be imposed on him by outsiders who think they know better.
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2 thoughts on “Religion in Turkey

  1. Thank you Alan — we made this our guest post at A Time for Bi'dah. I just had one comment your suggestion that zoroastrianism was not monolithic “unlike its successors”; I think we can hardly classify Judaism, Christianity, or Islam as having ever been monolithic, despite attempts at institutionalization.

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