Alevis in Turkey – Is reconciliation possible?

The English word Turkey (with a capital ‘T’) comes from the Turkish word ‘Türkiye’ which means land of the Turks. It was not used by the Ottomans to describe their empire – but by Europeans to identify the Ottomans as ‘other’, to demonise, perhaps, and belittle a feared foe. The term really had no validity until 1923 when an indigenous army defeated an invading force from the Greek mainland, liberating the Anatolian heartland and the imperial capital Istanbul from foreign occupation.
Map of Turkey showing areas of
concentrated Alevi populations
The victorious leader, Mustafa Kemal Pasha (later Atatürk), and his team, set about creating a new nation state from the ashes of the defunct Ottoman Empire. Without repeating details covered elsewhere, it is important to understand that the dissolution of that empire had been assisted by military defeats at the hands of foreign neighbours and nationalist liberation movements from within over the previous two centuries or more.
Building a new nation state required a philosophy and identity which citizens could relate to and fight for – the result was Turkish nationalism and the Republic of Turkey, not necessarily in that order. The pillars of that national identity were the Muslim religion, the Turkish language and Turkish ethnicity, meaning a connection to the tribes that had poured out of Central Asia for centuries before the Ottomans hammered the last nail into the Byzantine Graeco-Roman coffin by conquering Constantinople in 1453.
The Muslim character of the new state was confirmed by an obligatory population exchange at the conclusion of the Independence War in 1923. Orthodox Christians, who were believed to have supported the Greek invasion, were dispatched to the Greek mainland, their places taken by Muslims sent in the opposite direction. Armenian Christians had already mostly been seen off in events I have also discussed elsewhere. Right from the very beginning, then, there was an uncomfortable disjunction inherent in the establishment of the new state: secularism was one of Atatürk’s six founding principles, yet religion was a major determinant in the composition of Turkey’s population.
Turkey is not alone in its discomfort, of course. The partition of British India after independence was won in 1947 involved a vast movement of population whereby Hindus from the newly created Pakistan were exchanged for Muslims from the new Union of India. Religion, language and ethnic origin may be powerful forces to be harnessed by ambitious political leaders seeking to foster unity and create a national identity. The melting pot of history, however, has produced a mix of humanity in which purity in any of those factors is, at best, elusive – and so it is in the Republic of Turkey, despite the best efforts of Kemalist law-makers to legislate for ‘Turkishness’.
In spite of the post-independence population exchange, modern India has almost as many followers of Islam as does Pakistan. Only one other country, Indonesia, has more Muslims. Similarly, many Eastern Orthodox and Armenian Christians continued to live in Turkey, especially Istanbul, though admittedly numbers declined as a result of international incidents, particularly involving next-door-neighbour, Greece. Members of the Jewish community have long made their homes in this part of the world, their numbers increased by refugees from the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century. The republican state continued to grant them freedom of religion, language, education, culture and economic life.
So, it is evident that the Muslim pillar of Turkishness was flexible enough to include some Jews and Christians, and this was done openly. More problematic, however, has been the inclusion of other larger groups within the population who, while coming within the broad category of Muslim, have not been able to fit comfortably into the Turkish national identity.
The most obvious group in this context is the Kurdishpeople. I don’t intend to get embroiled in a discussion of this issue here, but suffice it to say that, in spite of their Islamic faith, Kurds in Turkey speak an Indo-European language totally unrelated to Ural-Altaic Turkish, and are ethnically quite distinct. Also among the native Muslim population are small communities of Arabic, Laz, Zaza and Romani speakers, not to mention later refugee groups from the Balkan and Caucasus regions, many of whom retain their own languages and cultural traditions.
These communities undoubtedly have issues with the concept of Turkishness that presupposes ethnic and linguistic homogeneity, and those issues bind them together within their own groups. There is, however, another significant demographic, numbering, depending on whose estimate you take, somewhere between ten and twenty-five million, or fourteen to thirty-three percent of Turkey’s population. These are the people known as Alevi, and the huge disparity between the upper and the lower figure perhaps sounds a warning that something mysterious is, or has been going on.
One interesting feature of Alevismis that it is to be found in both Turkish and Kurdish communities – it cuts across ethnic and linguistic boundaries. Perhaps that is not so surprising, because Alevism is a religious faith. However, when it comes to describing the characteristics of that faith, the waters become muddy. A word often associated with Alevism is heterodox (the opposite of orthodox), meaning that its tenets, beliefs and rituals are difficult to pin down. This is probably because it has never been the established religion of any state or empire. Having no central authority to demand conformity, Alevis have a certain freedom to follow their own tastes and inclinations. On the other hand, another word that recurs in discussions of Alevism is endogamous, which means that there is social pressure to marry within the faith. In other words, you and I may have difficulty grasping the concept, but Alevis themselves are quite confident in their own identity.
OK, enough preamble. Let’s make some effort to understand what makes them special. Some sources insist that Alevism is a sub-branch of Shia Islam – a potential problem in Turkey where the majority follow the state-approved Sunni path. Other sources insist, however, that the most important influence is pre-Islamic folk religions such as the shamanism of the original Turkish tribes. It seems, in fact, that both arguments are probably true, which is why some suggest that Alevism is actually the true spirit of Turkish Islam.
If you have been following events in Syria, and making some attempt to understand what’s going on there, you have probably heard that one reason Bashar al-Assad doesn’t have widespread support is, he belongs to the minority Alawi sect. Some sources will tell you that ‘Alevi’ is the Turkish form of the Arabic ‘Alawi’ – but beware! There are apparently crucial differences, and Alevism seems to be a peculiarly Turkish phenomenon – this despite the fact that many Kurds adhere.
Confused? Let’s take a closer look at those elements outlined above. First up, most of us are aware that there are two main sub-divisions of the Islamic faith: Sunni and Shia. As with the big divisions of Christianity (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant), it is easy to see the differences now, in ritual practices and sacred architecture. It is more difficult to understand how the original divergences came about, even for members of the group – and as for explaining to outsiders . . . Try it some time! So it is with the Muslim religion.
When the Prophet, God’s messenger Muhammed, died in 632 CE, he unfortunately did not leave instructions as to who would succeed him in the leadership role. Some of his followers believed that it should stay in the family, and opted for Ali, cousin of the late departed and sufficiently esteemed by him to have married Muhammed’s daughter. Others, however, held that only a democratic election could produce the most capable leader, and they duly followed that procedure, opting for Muawiyah, a gentleman with some reputation for military prowess.
Without going into too much detail, in 680 there was an event known to history as the Battle of Karbala, when descendants of Muawiyah (led by his son Yazid) defeated and killed Ali’s son Hussein and most of his family and supporters. One result was the establishment of the Umayyad (Sunni) dynasty, who went on to build an enormous empire covering most of the Middle East, North Africa and into Spain, thereby earning the right to insist on their particular brand of orthodoxy. The Shia group, on the other hand, were effectively disempowered and dispersed, existing happily enough, perhaps, in their own small isolated endogamous communities, developing their own rituals and traditions – until the emergence of the Safavid dynasty in Iran in 1501, which controlled an empire that included all of modern Iran, Azerbaijan and Armenia, most of Iraq, Georgia, Afghanistan and the Caucasus, as well as parts of Pakistan, Tajikstan, Turkmenistan and Turkey. Safavid Iran was one of the Islamic “gunpowder empires”, along with its neighbours, the Ottoman and Mughal empires.’ The Safavids, in their wisdom, opted for Shia Islam, thereby establishing that sect’s first major power base – and inevitably coming into conflict with their neighbourly brethren in gunpowder, the Ottomans.
Well, we can assume that, as is the nature of state-sponsored religions, Safavid Shi’ism took on characteristics of dogma and orthodoxy. At the same time, as conflict grew between the Iranian Safavids and the Sunni Ottomans, it would be understandable if the Iranians looked for support amongst their Shia brethren within the Ottoman domains. Those brethren, however, as a result of centuries of heterodoxy, had evolved into Alevis. No doubt some of their number would have seen allying themselves with a powerful big brother as a way of escaping orthodox Sunni hegemony. Probably most of them would have been just as happy to get on with their lives without becoming involved in international politics. Unfortunately for the silent majority, the Ottoman Sultan Selim I, known in English as Selim the Grim, on his way to the eastern frontier with an army to fight the Safavids, had his minions draw up a list of Shia Alevis (referred to as Kizilbash) of whom 40,000 are said to have been rounded up and slaughtered.
To sum up the Islamic position, then, Alevis are Muslim but not necessarily Turkish (although they live in modern Turkey); Muslim but definitely not Sunni Muslim; of Shia origin but definitely not orthodox Shi’ites. Some characteristics of the Alevi belief system are as follows:
  • Freedom of belief and worship. Heterodoxy lies at the core of Alevism. They reject the orthodoxy of rituals and practices enforced by state-sponsored religion. In a sense, Alevis are true democrats – but their free spirits have made them, in the eyes of some, dangerous rebels.
  • Following logically from the previous point, Alevis do not accept the requirement to pray five times daily, and do not involve themselves in the culture of the mosque. Grand architecture is not required (cf. Methodism) for the communal service of worship known as cem(jem) or cemevi. Unlike orthodox Islam, services involve music, ritual dance and discussion.
  • An eclectic philosophy and system of worship which seem to include elements of folk religion, and even, perhaps, Christianity, Gnosticism and Zoroastrianism. The use of fire, for example, in some rituals, seems evocative of the ancient Persian religion.
  • The concept of a spiritual path to be followed, requiring the guidance of a dede (teacher or mentor). The path has a sequence of four ‘gates’ to be passed through, of which the lowest is religious law. In this, Alevism bears the mark of Sufism, ‘an inner, mystical dimension of Islam’ which emerged in the 9th and 10th centuries, and was extremely influential in creating the so-called Islamic Golden Age from the 13th to the 16thcenturies. In the West we know of Sufism particularly through the writings of the 13th century mystic, Mevlana Jalaladdin Rumi. Alevis tend to follow the path of a contemporary, Haji Bektash Veli. There were numerous Sufi sects in Anatolia, but these came under pressure in the later years of the Ottoman Empire, and were finally banned altogether by the Turkish Republic under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Well, I hope I have covered some of the most important aspects here. If you want a detailed explanation of Alevi beliefs and practices, you will need to look elsewhere. My reason for putting finger to keyboard on this particular subject is the appearance of a democratisation package of proposed law reform prepared by the Turkish government. The package apparently contains provisions such as: cemevis will be given the status of “beliefs and cultural center,” and in addition, the expenses of cemevis such as electricity and water bills will be covered by the state, while dedes (Alevi religious leaders) will be paid a salary by the state.’ The move is part of a wider programme initiated by Turkey’s AK Party government aimed at broadening the scope of democracy in Turkey to include groups such as Kurds and Alevis who have hitherto felt marginalized by the state’s insistence on the concept of Turkishness discussed earlier.
Undoubtedly, it is time for Turkey to move on from the rigid nationalism that characterized the formative years of the Republic. There are good signs. There is now a more natural acceptance of the place of the Ottoman Empire in Turkish history. It is now possible to utter the words Kurdishand Alevi in polite conversation without warning fingers being raised to lips and fearful glances directed around the room. The civilian government is in the process of assigning a more conventional role to the nation’s armed forces where, one hopes, they will be less likely to stage military takeovers.
Nevertheless, the burden of history and misunderstanding is great. Hardline Kemalists find it difficult to imagine a world where headscarves and other symbols of religion are seen outside the mosque, and the army does not step in when the ballot box seems not to have produced a desirable government. Alevis, even more so, have centuries of oppression to exorcise from their minds before they can truly believe that reconciliation means more than enforced assimilation. The 7thcentury Battle of Karbala still figures in their worldview, as does the 1514 massacre by Selim the Grim – which is why there was such an angry reaction to the proposed name for the new Bosporus Bridge. The recent Ergenekon and Balyoz trials have suggested that conspirators in the so-called ‘deep state’ have planned and even carried out violent attacks on prominent Alevi citizens in order to fan the flames of sectarian hatred. Whether or not that is true, there are certainly more recent events, such as the 1993 Sivas hotel fire which contribute to a siege mentality among Alevis. Adding to the mix, the AK Party government of Mr Tayyip Erdoğan is portrayed as representing conservative Sunni İslam – and they themselves undoubtedly contribute to this perception.
Clearly, there is work to be done. Nationalist and sectarian hatred are the enemies of democracy and freedom. Ignorance and fear fuel the fire and unscrupulous seekers of power and wealth fan the flames. The spiritual path of Alevism leads towards the perfect human being, ‘defined in practical terms, as one who is in full moral control of his or her hands, tongue and loins (eline diline beline sahip); treats all kinds of people equally (yetmiş iki millete aynı gözle bakar); and serves the interests of others. One who has achieved this kind of enlightenment is also called eren or munavver.’[1]
Not easy to do, but it sounds like a worthy goal.

With thanks to Zeynep and Ender for sharing their knowledge. Any errors, however, are my responsibility.

[1]  Wikipedia – the bold words are Turkish


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.