People on Our Side: Germany's Turkish and Kurdish Alevis
by Ali Sirin
Although Islamist radicals aim to erase it, and few Westerners understand it, the global community of Islam is diverse and heterodox. Alevism is an independent faith community of millions of Muslims, loyal to modern, secular governance, and accepting the responsibilities of citizenship in a Europe without a Muslim majority. Alevis are characterized by syncretism, or the fusion of many spiritual influences. They number up to 20 million in Turkey itself, or a quarter of the population, and make up some 600,000 out of the 3-4 million Muslims in Germany. They feel at home in Western Europe and seek no privileges aside from the equal rights granted all citizens.
Alevis do not have imams, do not obey a call to prayer, and do not accept religious interference with public law. The Alevi tradition emphasizes freedom of conscience and the right of dissent, and their religious life is inspired by principles of love, tolerance and humanism, drawing on all the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam. For the Alevis, the human personality is at the forefront of spiritual devotion, and there is little concern for religious dogmas. Alevis promote rational thought while also preserving ancient Turkish cultural traditions.
One source of the Alevis' humanistic attitude is their perception of the world. For them the divine presence is universal and resides in the hearts of all humans. Love for God comes first. Alevi openness and inclusion permits no discrimination against anybody, especially women. In the Alevi community, women do not accept so-called Islamic covering in the form of veils, headscarves, or long garments, and polygamy is banned. Alevi men and women share an exalted moral goal, and are not segregated in the development of their personalities. Individual responsibility and autonomy are major principles, and the equality of men and women is protected.
In the Alevi religious ceremony, held in a meeting house, or Cem (pronounced jem), women and men take part together, freely and equally, because all are part of God. This concept is unusual in Islam, which has long maintained a strict division between men and women. But in the teachings of the great 13th century inspirer of the Alevis, Hadji Bektash Veli, all of God's creation is equally perfect. Hadji Bektash Veli is an ideal for the most progressive among the spiritual Muslims, or Sufis, throughout the former Ottoman and Central Asian lands.
The epic of the Alevis through history centers on protest against injustices imposed on Muslims by their own rulers. They honor the caliph Ali, a just and beloved successor to Muhammad as leader of the Muslims, who was assassinated. They mourn the death of Hussein, the grandson of Muhammad, who was killed while protesting against corruption. They celebrate the life of the Sufi martyr Mansur Hallaj, who was accused by Sunni clerical bigots of heresy and executed in the 10th century. They also commemorate popular revolts against abusive rulers in 1240 and 1511, and the memory of religious poets, musicians, and other artists who brought enlightenment to the mass of people.
"Semah", meaning the heavens or firmament, assumes a major significance in Alevism. In Alevi observance, the saz or Anatolian lute is played and mystic hymns are intoned, while women and men join in a round dance, which parallels the circular path of the planets, moon, and sun. Semah is an act of prayer in the Cem religious celebration. Alevi men and women alike love to play the saz. They use this instrument not only for religious songs, but also to express their personal sadness through art, and to chorus their love for the community. The combination of painful emotions reflects the typical outlook of Alevis about their history.
The greatest responsibility for both men and women Alevis is to show tolerance, moderation, and respect for others. Alevi parents provide daughters with the same opportunities for education as sons. Based on their humanistic philosophy and open-minded attitudes, Alevis living in non-Muslim countries like Germany and Britain present no barriers to integration into the communities where they live. In Turkey, however, they are still fighting for recognition and acceptance of their specific identity.
Of course, even for the Alevis, there are important gaps between ideals and reality. Theoretical or abstract beliefs may not be fully-applied, and Alevi women must still fight for their equal rights. But gender status is discussed openly and publicly. The Alevis realize they must look back at their history and act self-critically in breaking down social barriers.
German Alevi Muslims say today that religious leadership, which once remained exclusive to males, known as dede, or elders, must be opened up for the development of female clerics called ana. Alevi women are called upon by the community to assume executive positions in the community. To help bring this about, Alevi men must accept more involvement in housework and domestic tasks. One brick at a time, the wall of male domination among Alevi Muslims is being dismantled.
Alevism can be a model for Muslim integration into Western Europe and the conduct of Muslims in the West in general, while providing trustworthy allies against radical Islam, especially in Turkey where the future is uncertain and even threatening. Alevis will fight extremism, for the betterment of all humanity.
Translation by Hasan Canoglu