Turkey's Alevi minority hope for change after presidential elections

Leading opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu is a member of the minority sect

Members of Turkey's Alevi community pray at a cemevi in Istanbul. Reuters
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A win for opposition front-runner Kemal Kilicdaroglu in Turkey's presidential election on Sunday could bring significant change not just to national politics, but also for the country's Alevi minority.

The soft-spoken former civil servant is a far cry from the combative and outspoken incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey for more than two decades.

Mr Kilicdaroglu would also become the first Alevi to hold the presidency, which members of the minority say would give them hope of more equal treatment.

While official statistics are hard to come by, rights groups estimate Alevis are the largest religious minority in Turkey, with an estimated population of 15 million to 20 million.

The Alevi faith incorporates elements of Sufi and Twelver Shia Islam but falls under neither Sunni or Shiite Islam.

Ilhan Sidal, 33, an Alevi living in Istanbul's Gazi area, believes Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) has sidelined his community.

“I want equality. This is what I'm expecting from the government. To treat us all as equal citizens of Turkey. When you walk around Istanbul, you see a Sunni mosque on every corner. I'm also Muslim, but I want equality for everyone,” he said, speaking to The National at a teahouse near the popular Istiklal Avenue.

“There aren't enough Alevi prayer houses for us. There are 200,000 to 300,000 people in my neighbourhood but only two cemevis,” Mr Sidal said, referring to the Alevi houses of worship.

“Some days we have three burials in one day and there isn't enough space to hold the funerals.”

Mr Kilicdaroglu, leader of the secular Republican People's Party (CHP), spoke publicly of his religious identity in a video that has been viewed more than 115 million views since it was posted online last month. In it, he proclaims “I am Alevi” before urging young people to vote.

“The opposition strategy for a long time was to deny, to not touch on any of these identity issues,” researcher Guney Yildiz told The National.

“Kilicdaroglu has taken a step towards accepting diversity within the opposition. They're confronting Erdogan's populism with pluralism, which is innovative.”

A short walk from the teahouse is Okmeydani, a diverse neighbourhood with many Alevi residents. The narrow alleyways are lined with CHP campaign posters; those of the AKP are defaced with black ink.

“If Kilicdaroglu comes, we will all be equal. Politics shouldn't be based on identity but humanity,” said Abbas, 51, a resident sitting at a streetside teahouse.

Like other Alevi residents who spoke to The National, he declined to give his full name.

“We will be freer than today. Our quality of life will be better. You can't talk about anything under Erdogan,” said Jameel, 62, who said the two biggest issues are inflation and censorship under the current government.

In Okmeydani, a cemevi stands out among uneven rows of rundown housing, well-painted and decorated with a large mural of Imam Ali.

Men sipping tea in the cemevi's cafeteria were wary of the prospect of another five years under the AKP.

“There's a lot of fear,” said Ali. “The president only takes care of his supporters. He isn't seeing the other side.”

According to Professor Bulent Bilmiz of Istanbul's Bilgi University, the Alevi community has had to live “almost underground”.

“Alevis in Turkey are known as CHP supporters for a long time, at least since the 1960s. It's a very complicated issue. The republic has never really recognised them and given them cultural and confessional rights, but the Alevis still preferred the CHP to Islamists,” he said.

In October, the government proposed reforms to bring cemevi and Alevi affairs under a government directorate, which was met with opposition from the community.

Mr Yildiz said Mr Erdogan boasted of having knowledge of Alevi issues but failed to demonstrate his awareness of them.

“If you asked Erdogan what's the best chance he had against Kilicdaroglu before the election, he would have said his Alevi identity.

“They tried at the beginning, but it's the least successful area of reform for the AK party under their rule,” he said.

“What is Erdogan's magic, despite the economy and the great mistakes in foreign policy? It's these fault lines, these identity fault lines and regionalism.”

Mr Erdogan was able to “tap into these fault lines and work them to his advantage” against a diverse opposition alliance which has varying political views, Mr Yildiz said.

“Turkey is a polarised society, but the government can decide on where the polarisation will lie. If it's on the economy, foreign policy, the aftermath of the earthquake, then the government will lose the debate," he said.

“But if the polarisation is on identity, the opposition might lose.”

Updated: May 15, 2023, 9:24 PM