Orhan Kemal Cengiz
Why Alevis are so reluctant to embrace the government’s cemevi initiative
There is an ongoing debate in Turkey about whether the government's new proposal of tying cemevis (places of worship for Alevis) to the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, is a step forward for the recognition of the rights of the Alevis, which have been denied since the beginning of the Turkish Republic.
Alevism constitutes a heterodox branch of Islam, and Alevis are a minority within the Muslim community. They see themselves as being distinctly different from the Sunni Interpretation of Islam or even as a separate faith. The problem starts here. The government does not accept their distinction and sees them instead as a "cultural" or folkloric group within Islam.
This debate about whether Alevis are just a branch of Islam, or are a distinct form that needs to be recognized on its own, has been brought before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on two different occasions.
The first case is the Foundation for Republican Education and Culture Center v. Turkey, for which the ECtHR delivered its judgment in 2014. The case dealt with the lack of recognition for cemevis as a worship place and because of this interpretation, their right to free access to electricity, which is a privilege given to all worship places in Turkey has been denied.
When the foundation applied to the court to benefit electricity free of charge, the District Court of Beyoğlu asked the Directorate of Religious Affairs whether Cemevis are "places of worship" or not. The Directorate responded to the court by saying that Alevism is not a religion and that the cemevis are not places of worship. Based on this response the Istanbul Court refused the case.
For the ECtHR, cemevis are places of cem (series of liturgical, ceremonial, and ritual practices) which is part of the exercise for the Alevi religion and therefore they are undoubtedly places of worship. Furthermore, according to the Court, when a State introduces a privileged status for places of worship, all religious groups that ask for such a benefit based on established criteria, need to be able to receive the said benefits a non-discriminatory manner.
The Court's conclusion was a devastating blow to the arbitrary interpretation by Turkey. The ECtHR not only has decided that there was a violation of article 9, which concerns freedom of religion, but it also established that article 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights was violated and these practices constituted discrimination on religious grounds.
The second case on the same topic is Izzettin Dogan and Others v. Turkey on which the ECtHR delivered its decision in 2016. In this case, the Court made further observations on the issue. It concluded that authorities' refusal amounted to a lack of recognition of the religious nature of the Alevi faith and its religious practices (cem); therefore depriving the Alevi community's places of worship (cemevis) and its religious leaders (dedes) from legal protection. In the Court's view, the Alevi faith had “significant characteristics that distinguished it from the understanding of the Muslim religion adopted by the Religious Affairs Department." The conclusion was, once again, that the Alevis’ freedom of religion was violated and this constituted discrimination against the Alevi community.
Without acknowledging these decisions, it is not possible to understand what the government's step of tying cemevis to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism would mean. This is certainly a shrewd maneuver by the government. That is because this step creates a perception that the government now recognizes cemevis. They will now provide free electricity to these places. The government mentions that it will pay Alevi religious leaders a salary. However, with this step, they also deny the very essence of the rights of the Alevis, namely recognizing Alevism as a distinct belief and cemevis as places of worship, all of which were also central to the two judgments of the European Court of Human Rights that were mentioned above. While the government, gives the impression that they are giving everything the Alevis demand, it denies their most fundamental demand by tying the cemevis to the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. By doing this the government still maintains its stance on the issue: “Alevism is not a religion, cemevis are not places of worship;”these are just folkloric things in their essence and they are a part of our "culture" which needs to be supervised by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
In view of this background, it may start to make sense why Alevis are so reluctant to welcome the government’s initiative. That is because they know very well that the hands of the government that embrace them now, will not bring freedom but more enslavement!