ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey’s Alevi Muslims have been branded “pagans” for their musical ceremonies and liberal customs but Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is seeking their votes as his party reaches out beyond its devout Sunni Muslim base.
Turkey chooses a new parliament on Sunday in one of the most important elections in recent history after Erdogan’s ruling Islamist-rooted AK Party clashed with the country’s powerful secular elite.
The around 15 million Alevis, a fifth of the population, present a challenging target group for Erdogan -- alcohol-drinking Muslims wary of the dominance of Sunni Islam and frustrated by their perceived lack of religious rights.
Alevism is related to Shi’ite Islam with elements of mystical Islamic Sufism and pre-Islamic tradition from Central Asia. Men and women pray together and, unlike mosques, Alevi places of worship, known as cemevis, receive no state support.
Alevis have traditionally backed secular parties like the main opposition, centre-left Republican People’s Party. Winning Alevi votes would help Erdogan overcome fears that his party plans an Iranian-style Islamic state in Turkey.
But Alevi mistrust of Erdogan’s party lingers.
“Our people want recognition and respect,” said Kadir Karakurt, the 70-year-old director of an Alevi centre in a suburb on the European side of Turkey’s biggest city Istanbul.
“The Turkish government doesn’t want to know us. They say we are not a good people. Yet our God is the same, we just have a different path to him.”
Erdogan’s centre-right government has expanded religious freedoms and minority rights in the past five years as part of Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, though critics say reforms have now slowed amid rising Turkish nationalism.
The AK Party is widely expected to win Sunday’s election, though possibly with a reduced parliamentary majority.
Alevis live throughout Turkey and in outward appearance and dress are indistinguishable from other Turks.
They hold their weekly worship, or cem, on Thursday -- not Friday as other Muslims.
At the cem at the Garip Dede cemevi in Istanbul, where Karakurt is director, about 200 people gather on cushions to hear the dede, or community spiritual leader, speak.
Two men play the guitar-like saz as worshippers chant with increasing intensity, pounding their thighs to the rhythm. As the 90-minute ceremony draws to an end, a group of men and women stand and perform the semah -- a sort of sacred folkloric dance seen as an expression of ecstasy to reach the love of God.
The semah and co-worship by men and women, banned in religious services by mainstream Islam, are eyed with suspicion by some Sunnis who deride it as pagan or deviant.
Yet last weekend Erdogan visited a Cemevi promising he and his party would listen to Alevis and saying they and Sunni Muslims stand shoulder to shoulder. The AK Party is also fielding Alevi candidates for the first time.
“We are the most reformist party in Turkey and Alevis have traditionally been a reformist, modern people which is why they are turning to us,” said Egemen Bagis, an AK Party lawmaker from Istanbul and an adviser to Erdogan.
“The AK Party does not differentiate between ethnicities or religions ... We want democracy for everyone.”
But some Alevis doubt Erdogan’s seriousness. They remember that in 2003 Erdogan said Alevism was not a religion.
“Everybody knows Erdogan is not sincere which is why I don’t think he will be successful,” said Izzettin Dogan, chairman of one of Turkey’s leading Alevi organizations.
“He has done nothing for Alevis. Everyone knows his ideas about Islam, he thinks like the Saudis.”
A largely rural people until the 1960s, the Alevis were long oppressed under Ottoman Turkish rule, but as they have moved to the cities they have become more visible and more vocal.
Ali Yaman, a professor of international relations and a writer on Alevism, said that despite all the problems facing the Alevis hundreds of cemevis had opened in recent decades.
“Positive changes are continuing ... This is not because of the AK Party,” he said.
Alevi AK Party parliamentary candidate Reha Camuroglu said it was time to break from set voting patterns.
“The AK Party will be able to take a million or so votes from Alevis in this election. It is a very important turning point.”
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