Ali Duran Topuz

Ali Duran Topuz

Who asked you to declare your faith?

Kilicdaroglu’s “Alevi” video struck a nerve. Now, the Erdogan government is looking for someone to fall for the notion that Kilicdaroglu is the one inciting sectarianism in Turkey. If we had no memory of the past, that might have been possible.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not letting up on his war with the biggest obstacle to his third presidency: Kemal Kilicdaroglu and his “Alevi” video.” Most recently, at his Ankara rally, Erdogan said:

“Who asked you to say whether you are an Alevi or not? We respect the Alevis, just as we respect every species. What need was there for you to say this? You can live out your Alevism, but there is no need to tell everyone about it.”

The question beginning with, “Who asked you…” actually points directly at Erdogan. That is, it was none other than Erdogan who asked such a question. During his time as Prime Minister, on August 2, 2014, making a speech before the presidential elections on August 10, Erdogan said:

“Kilicdaroglu, you yourself may be an Alevi. I can respect that. Do not be shy or afraid about this. Say it loud and proud. I am a Sunni, for example, and I say this with ease. There is no need to be reluctant about this.”

The result? Kilicdaroglu is met with Erdogan’s outburst of “why are you staying silent” if he says nothing, and an outburst of “why did you say anything at all” if he speaks up.


In reality, no one had ever asked Erdogan about his Sunni identity either on that day or on any day before that. Besides, his Sunnism is well-known by anyone aware of his existence as an unwavering political Islamist. Then, Erdogan’s motivations lie in Kilicdaroglu’s previous reluctance to talk about his own ethnic and religious background. Erdogan’s discourse is not aimed at solving Kilicdaroglu’s aversion to discussing the matter, or at eliminating the exclusionary and oppressive political, social, and religious phobias that prevent talking openly on Alevism. His intentions are quite the opposite, actually.

Let’s go on a short trip down memory lane, but before we do it’s necessary that we talk some on the word “species” used by Erdogan:

Species is actually a word from the field of biology. The discipline of biology uses the term as a classification of biological, geographic, or morphological species. Humans also constitute a "species," but we do not refer to individuals or groups within the human species as a separate "species." In recent times, the "speciesism" of humans has been an important subject of philosophical and political criticism; a criticism of humans placing themselves at the center of all things and exploiting and destroying all other species, including nature, due to their position as a superior species. The classification and categorization of "species" is also an application of this superiority paradigm. As such “speciesism” is as ideological a paradigm as it is scientific. Erdogan's choice of the word "species" is, of course, a manifestation of such superiority, but at the same time, it is a way to avoid acknowledging Alevism as a belief. In the examples we will see below, Alevism is often referred to as a "culture," and the establishment of an "Alevi-Bektashi Culture Presidency" within the Ministry of Tourism and Culture is the latest "Alevi initiative" and a sign of the refusal to recognize Alevism as a belief and a religious group. This is the legal form of Alevism being conceived as a "cultural/folk element" after the establishment of the Republic.


We can now get on with our trip down memory lane. Erdogan said in Urfa on May 24, 2015 prior to the June 7 elections:

“This is a new fitna.* What did we know before of Alevis? We only knew that they loved our dear Ali. That is why I also used to say, if Alevism is loving our dear Ali, then I am more of an Alevi than all those who claim to be Alevis. Because I also try to live the way Ali lived, but those people do not.”

The calendars marked May 10, 2015. Erdogan, once more:

“Even the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge made them uncomfortable. In Europe, they talk of Alevism without mention of Ali. If Alevism is to love Ali, there is no one more Alevi than I. But if Alevism is a religion, [know that] Tayyip Erdogan is not there.”**

These words are not directly aimed at Kilicdaroglu, but they come from within that familiar culture of discrimination that attempts to redefine Alevism and aims to separate Ali from the Alevi community.


There’s plenty more, of course. On August 2, 2014 then Prime Minister and President-to-be Erdogan spoke ahead of the August 10 elections:

“Kilicdaroglu, you yourself may be an Alevi. I can respect that. Do not be shy or afraid about this. Say it loud and proud. I am a Sunni, for example, and I say this with ease. There is no need to be reluctant about this.”

That’s not all. On July 17, 2013, then-Prime Minister Erdogan spoke:

“Is [the meaning of] Alevism not to love Ali? Is an Alevi not a Muslim? A Sunni is also a Muslim. If Alevism is loving Ali, then I am the epitome of an Alevi. Because I love our dear Ali. How can I not? I try to live how he lived. I have no words for those who go out in public exclaiming that they are an Alevi all the while living a lifestyle completely at odds with Ali’s.”

There’s more. On August 6, 2012:

“There are some who point to me as an enemy of the Alevis. I know Alevism to be the love of Ali. In comparison to everyone who would say they are Alevis today, I am more Alevi than them. None of them live like the respectable Ali did, whereas I do my best to follow his example.”


There are also the number of times Erdogan made Kilicdaroglu into a direct target in the public squares. Before the June 12, 2011 elections during his Malatya rally on May 18, 2011 Erdogan said:

“Mr. Kilicdaroglu. Weren’t you an Alevi? Hadn’t you come from the Alevi culture?”

The people in the squares jeer and boo.

At Erdogan’s Denizli rally on May 13, 2011, he says: “I conveyed the advice of Haci Bektas-i Veli; you know, because [Kilicdaroglu] is from the Alevi culture. He was disturbed by that apparently.”***

The people in the squares jeer and boo.

At the Afyon rally on May 10, 2011: “They say the gentleman supposedly knows the Alevi culture well; they say he is an Alevi.”

The people in the squares jeer and boo.

At the Maras rally May 8 on 2011: “He probably knows this well, seeing as he is an Alevi.”

The people in the squares jeer and boo.

At the Amasya rally on May 5, 2011: “Seeing as he is from the Alevi culture, and is an Alevi…”

The people in the squares jeer and boo.

At the Kastamonu rally on May 4, 2011: “You know how he comes from the Alevi culture, how he is supposedly an Alevi.”

The people in the squares jeer and boo.

At the Mus rally on April 30, 2011: “We know that Mr. Kilicdaroglu was raised in the Alevi culture, that he is an Alevi.”

The people in the squares jeer and boo.

“On April 29, 2011: “As you all know, though Kilicdaroglu is a member of the Alevi culture, he apparently hasn’t understood or learnt Haci Bektas-i Veli’s teachings very well. If he is an Alevi, he must first really understand his teachings. I believe it is important to remind him of Haci Bektas-i Veli’s beautiful words—though I love Haci Bektas-i Veli so much more than he does that it is incomparable, and I believe in his opinions and beliefs more than [Kilicdaroglu]. What does Haci Bektas-i Veli say? ‘Control your hand, your tongue, and your waist.’ Excuse my language, but we’ve seen the people who are unable to control their waists, and yet they have become the party leader by virtue of a single tape.”****

These are words spoken from the rally grounds, and almost every time, the crowd gathered in the squares after these speeches jeer. Neither Erdogan nor anyone else says "Don't do this, nobody should be mocked because of their beliefs" or anything of the sort.


There are also the series of events before the referendum on September 12, 2010. Erdogan said on August 19:

"We have difficulty understanding why you cannot proudly say 'I am from Dersim’? Why are you reluctant to say this?"

These words were specifically intended to target Mr. Kemal's being from Dersim. In that referendum, Erdogan blames the 1937-38 genocide in the Dersim region on the Republican People’s Party (CHP) of the era as well as the modern-day CHP, saying, "If the literature [backs up the claims about] Dersim, then, if necessary, we will apologize for Dersim.” Following these words, Erdogan should have opened the archives and issued an apology based on the principle of “continuity is essential for the state.” But he didn’t because his goal was to attack Kilicdaroglu, not to recognize the genocide.

On August 29, 2010, Erdogan spoke in Sincan:

"The era of appointing judges by getting instructions from the 'Alevi dedes' in the judiciary will soon be over."

Were there "Alevi dedes" (A dede is a socio-religious leader in the Alevi community) instructing the judiciary? Speaking as if there is an Alevi dominance in the judicial bureaucracy to convince the public of a referendum that allowed him to achieve his goal of overtaking the judiciary and establishing the present-day system apparently falls under "respect for Alevis" in Erdogan’s book. Despite the determined and disciplined exclusion in the state bureaucracy, there is clearly a discomfort with the presence of Alevis in various positions, though their number is vastly below their demographic proportion,

On September 5, at the Kazlicesme rally, Erdogan said:

"Now the judiciary will not be ideologically motivated. Though they were [motivated by an ideology] against me. I personally paid the price for this. Unfortunately, in the Court of Cassation, a certain sectarian group approached this issue in this way.”


I compiled the statements of only Erdogan, but there is no one in the ruling government, from Huseyin Celik to Yasin Aktay, who have not harped on about Kilicdaroglu’s Alevism, even going so far as to make connections between his religious identity and Bashar al-Assad.

Erdogan's words on the "judiciary" issue are based on the idea that there is an Alevi clique in the bureaucracy that is particularly hostile to him. This attribution of any injustice to a particular minority group as a whole and convincing the public of this is one of the most dangerous discriminatory discourses.


Let's conclude the issue not with past words, but with an "operation": The Presidency published a decree today regarding natural gas usage fees, Decree No. 114. Here, a step forward and a step backward in the Alevi matter are seen together.

The decree aims to prevent cemevis, which are Alevi houses of worship, from paying the natural gas fee, but the sentence outlining this begins as follows: "Housing, place of worship, and cemevi subscriptions..."

What does this mean? Evidently, the cemevi is not a form of housing, but neither does it qualify as a place of worship. The step forward is that the Ministry of Energy will cover the consumption fee, while the step backwards is the decision to not classify cemevis as places of worship.

In short, when it comes to the topic of Alevism, not much really changes in the ruling party, and there’s no surprise there. However, what has changed is that Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s “Alevi” video caused serious damage to the implicit discriminatory codes that the statements quoted above relied on. This has angered the ruling party, who are now trying to turn the situation in their favor by constructing sentences as though there is no past, or no memory of the past. But it is not working. To put it in Bulent Arinc’s words: "God, who gave without limit, is now taking without limit.” This is why the squares are no longer overflowing with people and why the ruling party has turned to targeting the Kurds, their lawyers, their artists, and their journalists.

* The word “fitna” is an Arabic word used in religious contexts for Muslims. It denotes trials and causes of conflict for the Muslims. Ali is a revered figure in Islam generally, but he is held in particularly high regard by the Alevi community.

** Sultan Selim, or Selim the Resolute (“Yavuz”) in Turkish, was the Ottoman ruler responsible for the persecution and massacre of Alevis. His name was given to the third bridge over the Bosphorus in Istanbul.

*** Haci Bektas-i Veli was a 13th century mystic and philosopher in Anatolia who is revered by the Alevi community.

**** Erdogan is alluding to the controversy surrounding Kilicdaroglu's predecessor as CHP leader, Deniz Baykal. Baykal was forced to resign after the circulation of a sex tape allegedly featuring him and a female politician in 2010. Erdogan is suggesting that Kilicdaroglu was able to become the party leader because of this scandal, rather than because of his qualifications or merits.

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