Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Alawite versus Sunni: Spillover into Turkey?

Alawite and Christian Iconography
Ayman Oghanna for The New York Times
New York Times

When I lived in Germany, I became friends with a Turkish Kurd named Memo who belonged to the Alawite minority, about 15 to 20 million (sic. see update below) of the Turkish population. I noticed from the start that he was a very liberal Muslim, but I eventually came to see that most Muslims -- or most Sunnis, anyway -- wouldn't consider him Muslim at all. At one point, he confided that the Alawites considered the Christian "Sermon on the Mount" as sacred scripture. Note the above photo, which shows an Alawite combining Christian and Alawite iconography.

Despite their moderate religious character (courtesy of their syncretism), Turkish Alawites are feeling spillover from the conflict in Syria between Alawites and Sunnis, as Jeffrey Gettleman explains in his article "As Syria War Roils, Unrest Among Sects Hits Turkey" (NYT, August 4, 2012):
As Syria's civil war degenerates into a bloody sectarian showdown between the government's Alawite-dominated troops and the Sunni Muslim majority, tensions are increasing across the border between Turkey's Alawite minority and the Sunni Muslim majority here.

Many Turkish Alawites, estimated at 15 million to 20 million strong and one of the biggest minorities in this country, seem to be solidly behind Syria's embattled strongman, Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey's government, and many Sunnis, supports the Syrian rebels.

The Alawites fear the sectarian violence spilling across the border. Already, the sweltering, teeming refugee camps along the frontier are fast becoming caldrons of anti-Alawite feelings.
And the Turkish Alawites worry about their own Sunni government and its increasingly Islamist policies, which could be designated "creeping sharia":
The Turkish government is led by an Islamist-rooted party that is slowly but clearly trying to bring more religion, particularly Sunni Islam, into the public sphere, eschewing decades of purposefully secular rule. Alawites here find it deeply unsettling, and a bit hypocritical, that Turkey has teamed up with Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive countries in the world, and Qatar, a religious monarchy, both Sunni, to bring democracy to Syria.

The Alawites point to the surge of foreign jihadists streaming into Turkey, en route to fight a holy war on Syria's battlefields. Many jihadists are fixated on turning Syria, which under the Assad family's rule has been one of the most secular countries in the Middle East, into a pure Islamist state.
Sunni jihadists would certainly not take kindly to Alawites, either in Syria or Turkey, for orthodox Muslims consider them bad Muslims or not even Muslims at all, making them subject to 'legitimate' attack:
The Alawites here [in Turkey] are worried they could become easy targets. Historically, they have been viewed with suspicion across the Middle East by mainstream Muslims and often scorned as infidels. The Alawite sect was born in the ninth century and braids together religious beliefs, including reincarnation, from different faiths.

Many Alawites do not ever go to a mosque; they tend to worship at home or in Alawite temples that have been denied the same state support in Turkey that Sunni mosques get. Many Alawite women do not veil their faces or even cover their heads. The towns they dominate in eastern Turkey, where young women sport tank tops and tight jeans, feel totally different than religious Sunni towns just a few hours away, where it can be difficult even to find a woman in public.
Refik Eryilmaz,an Alawite member of the Turkish parliament, meets Mr. Gettleman to explain why they are different:
He was sitting in a cafe in Antakya, a border town with a large Alawite population, and digging into a plate of baklava during the bright, sunny hours of the afternoon, when Muslims observing Ramadan usually fast.

"Look at my people," he smiled, spreading his hands wide and encompassing families eating ice cream and one young couple nuzzling on a couch. "My people are free."
He means free from sharia, and he's right . . . for now.

UPDATE: Long-time reader Erdal points out that Mr. Gettleman has conflated Alawites with Alevis, and I was careless enough to neglect fact-checking. The Alevis number 10 to 20 million, mostly in Turkey. The Alawites (or Alawi) number about 2.5 million, mostly in Syria. I knew of the two different groups, but not of the relative numbers.

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At 10:52 AM, Blogger Turtle said...

Does the author referring to Alevi or Alewite?

At 11:12 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You mean Gettelman? He uses the term "Alewite." He doesn't mention the "Alevis," though I realize that they are sometimes conflated.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:31 AM, Anonymous Erdal said...

That an author of the NYT hasn't yet understood that Alevites (the guys that make up 15% of Turks) and Alawites (the guys in Syria) aren't the same thing at all, is totally bizarre and shocking.
It's like mistaking Australians for Austrians, or Scientologists for Christian Scientists.

At 8:38 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Erdal, I think that I misspelled it by influence of "Turtle." Gettleman uses "Alawite," I believe. I would check, but I have to go and will be away from my computer a couple of days.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:40 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Oh, just before clicking off, I saw what you meant. I'll add an update when I return.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:53 AM, Anonymous Erdal said...

Muddy Waters. Here's my attempt at an explanation:

AlEvites: Turkish or Kurdish
AlAvites: Arabs

E: predates Islam (shamanism), plus subsequent christian and 12er shia islamic veneer.
A: a gnostic offspring of Shiite Islam (via the 11.th Imam Hassan al-Askari)

E: mystic contemplation
A: gnostic understanding

E: (God >) "the ghosts of the dead" > Ali=Christ > Mohammed
A: God = Ali = Mohammed = Salman al-Farisi

E: hardly even Muslim, claim to be Shiite to avoid persecution
A: may vaguely be considerd Shiite, but overt rites are basically Sunni

E: no narrow common tribal or ethnic roots
A: one tribe (like e.g. the Druze)

E: origins obscure. renewed by Haci Bektash Veli and others (several subgroups exist)
A: founded by Muhammad Ibn Nusayr al-Namiri

E: exclusively oral traditions, texts secondary but mainstream (Koran), little theology, rite-heavy
A: extensive (secret) gnostic written theology, rites secondary

E: syncretic, exoteric
A: distinct, esotecic

E: community-led, horizontal specialization of knowledge and traditions (think: Guilds)
A: hierarchic, concentric (think: Freemasons)

E: veneration of the ghosts of the dead
A: reincarnation

E: Traditions plus Islam
A: Islam minus islamic traditions

E: quietist; festive Sufism (almost dionysic)
A: superiority; ascetic Sufism

At 10:05 AM, Anonymous Erdal said...

Through Sunni Muslim eyes, the above, of course is meaningless. For them:

Alevites: weird quasi-muslims
Alavites: weird quasi-muslims

therefore: Alevites=Alavites


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