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Alevis look to European Court of Human Rights for cemevi recognition

29.01.2012, Today’s Zaman

In a bid to gain official governmental recognition for Alevi houses of worship, a prominent Alevi civil group has petitioned the European Court of Human Rights to help end what it defines as “decades of official discrimination” against the 6-12 million strong minority community.

In an exclusive interview Thursday with Sunday’s Zaman, İzzettin Doğan, president of the Alevi association Cem Foundation, said that he had officially petitioned the European Court of Human Rights in the wake of an Ankara court ruling earlier this month that found “no legal basis” for the recognition of Alevi places of worship, known as cemevis, in existing Turkish law.

The petition is the latest development in the frustrated quest of Alevis to gain recognition for cemevis in a Sunni-majority nation. “This issue cannot be left to the opinion of the government. This is a basic human right; it is the right to freedom of religion,” said Doğan.

Alevis practice a form of Shiite Islam that mixes Sufism with ancient traditions of Anatolian folk culture into a form of worship largely unique to present-day Turkey. Just what defines Alevism, however, varies widely within the religious community. “Some see it as simply a different practice of Islam; others see it as a completely different religion. Others say it is the very essence of Islam,” İstanbul Şehir University assistant professor of social sciences Talha Köse told Sunday’s Zaman on Thursday.

The religion’s unorthodox practices have for years made it the target of a state that has left Alevism out of text books on religion, has constructed mosques rather than cemevis in Alevi villages and has refused to recognize Alevis as a religious community distinct from orthodox Islam. Alevism has technically been banned in Turkey since the 1925 Closure of Dervish Lodges Law, which shuttered the country’s dervish and Sufi orders as the early republican state sought to limit the reach of both orthodox and non-orthodox forms of Islam.

Despite decades of state opposition to the Alevi community, however, Doğan’s petition to the European Court of Human Rights comes at a time when both Alevi foundations and voices from within the government say that attitudes are changing and a historic turn for Alevi rights may be nearer than imagined. “Mentalities are definitely changing, and the flow of change is going to be for the benefit of cemevis,” said Şule Toktaş, an assistant professor at Kadir Has University and coauthor of a recent Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) report on Alevism and the Turkish government.

Government reforms: built to pass?

If Alevism remains unrecognized by the state, it will certainly not be for a lack of talk. In 2009, the Turkish government announced an “Alevi opening” and made plans to hold a number of informal talks that would bring together prominent members of the Alevi community and high-ranking government ministers.

Sunday’s Zaman predicted in 2009 it was very likely after the year’s round of talks “Alevi dedes, or spiritual leaders, [would be] included on the payroll of the Religious Affairs Directorate and the Culture Ministry,” and further stated that cemevis might soon be listed “as places of worship whose utility bills are paid for by the state.”

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