Markus Dressler, Writing Religion: The Making of Turkish Alevi Islam. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Markus Dressler (MD): I have been working on Alevism and religion in modern Turkey on and off for more than fifteen years. During this time, I became more and more interested in the way that contemporary discourses on Alevism are informed by modern ideologies, in particular nationalism and secularism. I realized just how deeply most scholarship on Alevism is also indebted to these narratives. My initial goal was thus to write a genealogy of the concept of Alevism that could shed critical light on the history of modern scholarly and popular knowledges about the Alevis of Turkey.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
MD: The book traces the emergence of the modern concept of Alevism from the mid-nineteenth century to the early Republic of Turkey. Those groups that are today labeled Alevis in Turkey were historically referred to as Kızılbaş, “Redhead”. What is important is that the name change came with a new signification. The heterogenous Kızılbaş communities were, until the late Ottoman period, generally considered as heretics who were only, if at all, superficially Muslim, and not yet in any way associated with Turkishness. The concept Alevism homogenized these groups, connected them to Turkish culture, and integrated them into Islam, while at the same time asserting their “heterodoxy.”
This new signification occurred within the context of Turkish nation building. In my book, I set out describing the “discovery” of the Kızılbaş-Alevis by missionaries since the mid-nineteenth centuries. In this first trans-national discourse about the Kızılbaş-Alevis, their religious and cultural difference was explained from within Western (mostly Protestant) perspectives on religion. Many Western observers sympathized with the idea that the Kızılbaş-Alevis were somehow connected to ancient Anatolian cultures and Christianity, rather than to Islam.
Such ideas were perceived as subversive by the late Ottoman state, which began in the 1890s to insist on the Islamic character of the Kızılbaş. For the Ottomans, the need to integrate the Kızılbaş into the Muslim nation increased with the empire`s continuing disintegration. Since the Young Turk period, Turkish nationalists embarked on a new interpretation of Kızılbaş-Alevi difference, which aimed at their integration into Turkish nationhood. It is this integration of the Kızılbaş as Alevis into the fold of a Turkish Muslim nation that constitutes the empirical focus of this study.
The second part of the book is dedicated to the historiography and religiography of the eminent scholar Mehmed Fuad Köprülü (1890-1966), the analysis of which helps me to show how the new knowledge of Alevism was academically rationalized. Analysis of Köprülü`s still very influential body of work helped me to critically rethink the role of religion in the Turkish nation-building process, and the way nationalist and secularist narratives were popularized. Theoretically, I draw here on post-colonial and post-secularist work on religion and nationalism, in particular Talal Asad`s genealogical approach to religion and the secular, as well as Peter van der Veer`s work on religion and nationalism.
Through my analysis of Köprülü`s conceptualization of Alevism, I also raise the issue of the work performed by certain concepts in our discussion of inner-Islamic difference. “Heterodoxy,” “syncretism,” “popular Islam,” and so forth, are, I argue, concepts that carry problematic biases and are often used much too easily, without consideration of the work that they accomplish.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MD: During my work on Writing Religion, I became interested in Ziya Gökalp, an influential Young Turk intellectual and political advisor of the late Young Turk period, who was also a mentor and friend of the young Köprülü. I think that there are interesting aspects of his thought on religion and nationalism that are misunderstood, deserve to be re-read, and might be of significance also for contemporary discussions on the political and public roles of religion in Turkey. I am currently also working on minority discourses, with an empirical focus on Turkey.
J: How might your work help readers better understand the current protests in Turkey and the role of the Alevis therein?
MD: First, one should not make the mistake of perceiving the Alevis as a homogenous group. Also, any assumption about a sectarian dimension of the current conflict would be misleading. The recent protests are carried out by a colorful and contradictory coalition of people: environmentalists, liberals, feminists, socialists, Turkish as well as Kurdish nationalists, secularists, people who might so far have appeared as apolitical, as well as many who do not fit in any of these categories. The protests bring together political parties, professional unions, NGOs, and individuals who share not much beyond their opposition to the governing Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi [AKP], irrespective of their religious backgrounds and persuasions. The protestors are drawn to the streets by an increasingly authoritarian style of politics that appears to be catering primarily to the party`s own clientelistic networks, short-term economic interests, the prime minister`s ego, as well as fear that secular lifestyles are increasingly being curtailed.
Alevis can be found as individuals participating within the protests and within different camps. Although Alevi organizations themselves haven`t played a prominent role in the initial stages of the protests, specific frustrations with the AKP fueled local outbursts of anger against the government in areas densely populated by Alevis, with Alevi community places (cemevis) in some neighborhoods becoming rallying points for protestors.
In recent years, the relationship between the AKP and the Alevis, which has never been great due to mutual political mistrust and religious prejudices, has been gradually deteriorating. This follows a short period of slight rapprochement in 2009 and 2010, when the government announced an “Alevi Opening,” which led to a series of workshops between representatives of the state and Alevi organizations. This “opening” had been initiated in a liberal phase of AKP rule following its reelection triumph of 2007, when genuine democratization appeared to be one of its major political goals. It was, however, only able to bring some symbolic (and in the end cosmetic) concessions and did not lead to a breakthrough with regard to the questions of Alevi recognition (this is discussed in my Prologue to Writing Religion).
In the course of the last two years, the relations between the AKP and the Alevi community were further strained when the government began to use sectarian language in its explanation of the anti-government uprising in Syria. Leading representatives of the AKP have suggested that there is a certain sympathy to be found among the Alevis of Turkey for the regime of Damascus, pointing to the latter`s Alawi character. In fact, Anatolian Alevis (ethnic Kurds and Turks) have, beyond the name, not much in common with the Nusayri Alawis (ethnic Arabs), knows in Turkey as Arab Alevis. This has, however, not prevented Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan from insinuating that the Alevis of Turkey would, based on religious biases and bigotry, keep silent in response to the cruelties of the Asad regime.
In particular, the Nusayri Alawi community of Turkey, which constitutes the majority of the population in parts of southeastern Turkey bordering Syria, has been negatively impacted by the Syrian conflict. In addition to the sectarian rhetorics in the political arena, the influx of large amounts of refugees in the region has led to ethnic and religious tensions. Most recently, the Alevis received a further blow when the government announced that the third bridge over the Bosphorus, the construction of which is already under way, would be named after Sultan Selim I, or Yavuz, “the Grim”. It was under Selim`s reign that the Ottomans conquered the Hijaz in the early sixteenth century. The Ottoman sultans thus became the protectors of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina and henceforward claimed the title of caliph. It was also under Yavuz Sultan`s rule that the conflict between the Ottomans and the Safavids and their Anatolian Kızılbaş supporters escalated. The Ottomans persecuted and resettled Kızılbaş groups in a series of events remembered by Alevis in a continuity with the Karbala tragedy as large scale massacres ordered by a bloodthirsty and tyrannical Sultan. From the Alevi perspective, the fact that the government insisted on naming the bridge after a sultan whose legacy is so highly divisive was a highly offensive act. During the same days in which the initial Gezi sit-in was launched, Alevi organizations of Istanbul prepared for rallies against the naming of the bridge.
In short, Alevis have been increasingly frustrated with the AKP, and it can easily be assumed that a vast majority of people with Alevi backgrounds are sympathetic to the protests, with many actively participating in them. Still, Alevi organizations themselves, probably due to their more particularistic political agendas, similar to those of the Kurdish nationalists, have not taken leading positions in the initial stages of the unrest.
What the Gezi events and the government`s reactions to it show is that the AKP has remained loyal to the authoritarian Turkish state tradition, which conceives of democracy as the right of the elected to order and control society as it pleases. The Gezi protests, however, point to the limits of this top-down understanding of democracy, possibly—one may hope—carrying the seeds of a strengthening civil society. They might have long-term repercussions that challenge an authoritarian political tradition, which, as I address in my book, has roots in the late Ottoman period, was integrated into the Kemalist project, and continues to inform the political system of Turkey. This authoritarian and paternalistic style of politics also plays out in the AKP`s approach to the “Alevi question.” The AKP continues the assimilationist pattern of the Kemalist tradition, according to which the Alevis can be a legitimate part of Turkish nationhood only if they remain within the fold of Islam.
If civil society in Turkey is indeed on the rise, this might in the foreseeable future open up new spaces for groups such as the Alevis to gain a public and political recognition that allows them to go beyond the nationalist and secularist rhetorics and symbolisms, as well as their anti-theses, that have so far dominated the public face of Alevism in Turkey.
J: Does your work on Alevism and Turkish nationalism provide any new insights into the history of inter-communal violence in the late Ottoman period?
MD: Indeed, I think that the Alevi factor played a so far unrecognized role in the tragic events of inter-communal violence in the late Ottoman period, which culminated in the Armenian Genocide in 1915-16. Close relations between Alevi and Armenian communities, especially in the eastern Anatolian provinces, had already been a thorn in the eyes of the Ottomans since the Hamidian period. With the Balkans gradually escaping Ottoman control, Anatolia became more valuable, and at the same time appeared rather insecure. The eastern provinces, where the Kurds and the Armenians constituted the largest ethnic communities, seemed especially under threat. The Ottomans feared that separatist movements could emerge there, similar to those in the Balkans.
During World War I, with increasing Russian influence in the area and the prospect of anti-Ottoman alliances between the non-Muslims and non-Turkish ethnic groups, the Young Turks not only organized the genocide of the Armenians and the Syriac Christians, but also intensified their pressure on the Kurds and the Kızılbaş-Alevis to assimilate into the Muslim nation. Depending on the region, Kızılbaş-Alevi communities, constituting about ten to fifteen percent of the nominal Muslim population of Anatolia overall, were rather strong (with about ninety percent of the population of Dersim). Their close relations with Armenians, and the fact that about one third of them were Kurdish, made them doubly suspect in Ottoman eyes.
In short, the Alevi factor added to the insecurity that the Ottomans felt with regard to the eastern provinces and the threat of Armenian separatism. It also played a role in the Young Turk politics of resettlement and Turkification directed at the Kurds immediately following the genocide. Although my work does not study the genocide itself, I think it adds to an understanding of Ottoman insecurity with regard to their control over Anatolia in the face of looming nationalisms and possible anti-Ottoman alliances. These are crucial factors to be considered if one wants to understand how the Young Turks came to develop their radical politics of demographic engineering and mass violence during World War.
I think that the discussion of the Armenian genocide needs to focus more on the sociology behind it—that is, the reasons that made the Young Turks take such drastic measures. These aspects are also important for an understanding of Turkish nationalism, and the amnesias that foster it. The fact that ethnic and religious difference in Turkey is such a highly sensitive topic for the nationalists until today cannot be understood without a consideration of the chain of wars and violence that marked the late Ottoman period, from which no part of the population was exempt.
Excerpts from Writing Religion: The Making of Turkish Alevi Islam
The major aim of this book is to analyze, contextualize, and explain the history of the modern knowledge about the Alevis. When, why, and how did the terms Alevi and Alevilik acquire the particular sets of meaning that they carry today? Which politics were involved in the renaming and re-signification of the Kızılbaş as Alevi?...A major thrust of this book is therefore genealogical, geared toward a contextualized historical analysis of the politics of nation-building in which the writing of modern Alevism was situated. Although a contextualization of Alevism exclusively within Turkish-Islamic culture lacks evidence on historical, cultural, and even linguistic grounds, such contextualization has been paradigmatically established in Turkish discourses (Alevi discourses included). Even most of contemporary scholarship on Alevism still follows a historically rather naïve longue durée outline of the Alevi tradition remaining largely within Turkish-Islamic parameters. It assumes a continuity that genealogically and teleologically connects the medieval Babai, Bedreddin, and early modern Kızılbaş and Bektashi movements with the modern Alevis. While I do not deny the existence of historical and sociological connections between these groups, I would caution against making this continuity assumption the dominant or even exclusive framework for the historicization and characterization of Alevism.
The nationalist authors involved in the historiographic, ethnographic, and religiographic practices of re-writing and thus re-signifying Kızılbaş-Alevism were working with the modern concepts of religion and Islam that were available to them in their time. As I will show, their concept of religion was rather essentialist and functionalist, strongly influenced by French positivism and sociology. Parallel to this, they subscribed to an understanding of Islam that accepted legalist Sunnism as its self-evident historical and theological core. Within this framework the place attributed to Alevism was that of the “heterodox” and “syncretistic” other in relation to a proposed Sunni “orthodoxy.” While this conceptualization is not surprising within the context of early twentieth-century discourses on religion and Islam, what is surprising is that this kind of reading of Alevism is still hardly questioned.
In the study of the religious history of the Turks and Anatolia, terms such as syncretism, heresy, minority, orthodoxy, and heterodoxy are often employed without reflection on their normative underpinnings, which are rooted in and mirror particular religio-political discourses that contribute to the formation and legitimization of religious, political, and historical truths. In other words, these terms take part in the complex dynamics that have created the particular religiopolitical hegemonies characteristic of the region. As such they are highly political. In Turkey, practices of religious othering are part of the daily negotiation and confirmation of we-group identities in the public and are shaped by unequal power relations. In this discourse, unbelievers, non-Muslims, Shiites, and Alevis are juxtaposed to the believers, Muslims, and Sunnis, respectively. The practices of othering that these juxtapositions are part of in Turkish religion politics are subtly reinforced by academic discourses. In the case of Alevism, this shows itself when Alevis are evaluated in public debate by means of academic concepts such as heterodoxy and syncretism and are in this way juxtaposed to “orthodox” Sunni Islam. It is important to understand that not only the notion of Alevism is impacted by this process of othering. Rather, the modern othering of the Alevis is dialectically related to the normalization of a Sunni-Muslim identity, just as in the 16th century the Kızılbaş question played an important role in the consolidation of Sunni Ottoman and Shiite Safavid doctrines, respectively.
Turkish nationalist intellectuals of the first decades of the republic such as [Mehmed Fuad] Köprülü were engaged in a civilizing project that aimed at providing the new Turkey with an identity that was rooted in ancient history while at the same time thoroughly modern. In light of the conservative religious (Islamic) and ethnic (mainly Kurdish) centrifugal forces from within, which challenged the new state’s legitimacy, the state aimed at an integration of the Alevis in the nationalist project qua their subordination under the state’s ethno-religious paradigm of a secular Muslim-Turkish nation. This work of integration was extremely complex since roughly twenty to thirty percent of the Alevis are Kurdish and therefore the Alevi question represented both an ethnic and a religious challenge for a state with strong centralizing and homogenizing aspirations.
Köprülü’s work displays both religionist and secularist biases. This shows itself in the way he conceives of religion as a historical reality and as an analytical concept clearly distinguishable from other spheres of life. His distinction between culture and religion is the best example. It is only their confusion that leads to “heterodoxy” and creates a religio-political as well as an analytical problem. The religio-political problem is one of ambivalence. While aspects of Turkish culture within Islamic religion are interpreted as a pollution of Islam by non-Islamic elements, this “polluted” (in other words, “syncretistic” or “heterodox”) religion at the same time carries remnants of ancient Turkish religion and culture and therefore constitutes an essential source for the (re-)construction of the national consciousness. For Köprülü the analytical problem is about how to dissect secondary cultural, and foreign (non-Islamic), religious elements from the essentially Islamic. To this end Köprülü began, from the mid-1920s onwards, to use the term “heterodox” (hétérodoxe, or heterodoks) to characterize forms of Islam that he had previously labeled, in line with the scholarly Islamic tradition, as “heretical and schismatic” (rafz ve itizal). While he had previously used traditional terms such as “People of the Sunna” (ehl-i sünnet), or legalistic terms such as müteşerri (meaning as much as “in line with the sharia”) to mark the normative center of Islam, he now began to refer to Sunni Islam as “orthodoxy” against which deviation could be measured.
Within the discourse of early Turkish nationalism, the making of Alevism was directed against two polemics: first, against the standard Ottoman anti-Kızılbaş rhetoric that marked the Alevis as heretics and justified their exclusion from the centers of Ottoman life, as well as occasionally also their persecution; and second, against a Western discourse that depicted Alevism as being strongly influenced by Christianity. Against these two sets of knowledge, Turkish nationalist writers underlined the Alevis’ Turkishness and Islamic orientation, which they saw as a precondition for their integration into the Turkish nation. They did that by demonstrating a continuity that stretched from pre-Islamic Turkish religious culture to the Kızılbaş-Alevis of Anatolia. This continuity was part and exemplification of the more general narrative of continuity of Turkish history and culture from ancient Central Asia to contemporary Turkey. Some of the writers who played pioneering roles in establishing this narrative of Alevi/Turkish continuity (Baha Said Bey, for example) based their argumentation on more or less explicit theories of racial pedigree; others (such as Köprülü) preferred more culturalist interpretations that cast the “Turkish spirit and taste”, rather than the “Turkish people” as the historical subject and carrier of the national tradition. Either variety presented itself as scientific and nationalist in spirit. The aim was twofold: first, the theory of the Turkish and (“heterodox”) Islamic character of the Kızılbaş-Alevis refuted ideas of Western/Orientalist authors, who saw in the religious and ethnic features of the former elements derived from Christian and ancient Anatolian religions, and created a discourse according to which the Kızılbaş-Alevis were at least in part descendants from Armenians and ancient Anatolian civilizations. In opposition to this narrative, the Turkish nationalist discovery of the Alevis portrayed them as heirs of an idealized Central Asian Turkish culture, religion, and nation. Depicting the Alevis as carriers of ancient Turkish traditions that over time underwent a symbiosis with Islam located them firmly within a Turkish-Islamic context. In political practice this discursive integration meant institutional (and thus material) discrimination and assimilation into the new national public.
Second, the theory of the Kızılbaş-Alevis’ Turkishness and Islamic “heterodoxy” functioned as an important brick in the formation of the narrative of the Turkish nation. The theory of the continuity of Turkish culture throughout the ages was proven by the argument that Alevi culture would still carry remnants of ancient Turkish culture. The Turks in this way became graspable as a historical subject.
[Excerpted from Writing Religion: The Making of Turkish Alevi Islam, by Markus Dressler, by permission of the author and Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2013 by Oxford University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]