Turkey has recently been the center of large protests once again. In Izmir, crowds have gathered in the streets, chanting statements against the government’s requirements to have religious studies made mandatory in public schools. The protests have been mostly peaceful, with people gathering and holding up banners, playing music, dancing, and on occasion, holding prayers.
Contrary to what people may think of me as a Greek Orthodox Christian living in a “Muslim Country”, this protest is not coming from non-Muslim groups. The uprising was started by Alevi Muslims, a historical Turkish Muslim community who differ from the mainstream Sunni Muslims that make up the majority in Turkey. Although I am not a scholar in Alevism, I can pinpoint a few differences from its Sunni counterpart.
1) Alevism is considered a branch of Islam akin to Shia Islam more, which is more prevelant in Iran, rather than the Sunni branch which is more prevalent in Arab and Western countries.
2) Alevis congregate in a “Cemevi”, which are not considered a “house of worship”, but more so a place of gathering. Cemevis also are more humble in architecture, and don’t include minarets.
3) Women and men are not separated when in worship, and often sing and dance together.
4) The understanding of Islam is inspired greatly by ancient Turkish culture, rather than Arab culture, which founded the religion.
These of course are just a few differences, however, they do create an identity that differs from what is now the majority in Turkey, Sunni Islam.
From conversations I’ve had with non-Sunni Muslims, and non-Muslims, I have asked one basic question: What exactly do they teach in these religion classes?
The response has unanimously been, “They teach the basics of other ‘world religions’, and how Islam is the final and complete religion of them all”. I can’t really be too surprised by that answer. After all, Greek public schools have icons in many of the classes, and the church indoctrinates the youth from day one. Why should I expect anything different in Turkey?
But the problem at hand is not religion, but the pursuit of religious expression. The Alevi argument is that these mandatory religion classes are just a way to manipulate young minds and steer them in the direction of Sunni Islam. Alevis have a rich history and culture, that if not passed onto future generations, it will face extermination. I understand the importance of such a religious culture, as the Greek Orthodox Church faces dwindling numbers in a growing secular and pluristic American society. There are many Alevis who see nothing wrong with the classes, as they want to experience a mutual understanding with their Muslim brothers and sisters, no matter which branch they come from.
There are also those from the Alevi community that go unheard or unseen. They are the those who come from Alevi families that don’t care about religion, and may find themselves to be agnostic or atheist. Their voices are just as important, and I hope they speak up as well.
Turkey has come a very long way in holding such religious protests on a national level. It’s a sign of approaching new heights of understanding, personal and national growth. May they continue peacefully and with a resolution that satisfies all parties. Inshallah.