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Cablegate: Whose Islam? Ak Parti and Istanbul Alevis

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

240549Z Sep 03



E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/11/2013

Classified By: CG David L. Arnett for reasons 1.5 (b) and (d).

1. (C) SUMMARY: Alevis, followers of a heterodox
religious-cultural offshoot of Shi'a Islam and Anatolian
Sufism, probably number about 10 percent of Turkey's
population (7 million, with several million in Istanbul),
although some Alevis assert that there are 25 million.
Persecuted by the Ottomans and historically secularist since
the founding of the Turkish Republic, Alevis have
historically voted left, especially for CHP. Though Alevi
leaders distanced themselves from CHP in the November 2002
elections, no affinity for AK Parti has taken its place.
Recent comments by PM Erdogan have been seen by Istanbul
Alevis as confirming their suspicions of AK's lack of
sympathy for their beliefs. END SUMMARY.

The Alevi place in Turkish politics

2. (U) No reliable figures exist for the number of Alevis in
Turkey. In a country of 70 million people, Alevi leaders
frequently claim that 1/4 to 1/3 of the population are Alevi.
We think a more accurate estimate is 10 percent of the
population, or seven million. Alevi houses of worship,
called Cem Evis, are scattered throughout Istanbul, filled
with Alevis who previously lived in central Anatolia. Alevis
from the same village often congregate at the same Cem Evi
and live in the same neighborhood.

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3. (U) Alevis were periodically and viciously persecuted by
the authorities for their "heretical" religious views during
the Ottoman imperial era. When Ataturk emerged as a
political force in Central Anatolia in the early 1920s,
Alevis were some of his earliest and fiercest supporters
because they saw him as willing to suppress the Sunni
majority. Support for CHP, the party founded by Ataturk,
continued to be strong until the November 2002 parliamentary
elections. Several Alevi leaders, among them Prof. Izzettin
Dogan (President of the Cem Foundation), said publicly that
CHP had done very little for Alevis over the years, and that
Alevis should feel no special need to vote for them.
According to Prof. Dogan, most Alevis elected not to vote
rather than shift their support to another party.

4. (U) Although a Kemalist form of secularism has been
ensconced in all republican constitutions as a founding
principal of the Turkish state, the government controls and
funds Sunni Islam through the Diyanet. Christians and Jews
are guaranteed some protection for their religious practices
and facilities, but Alevis and their places of worship are

Religion, culture, or both?

5. (C) On September 4, during a trip to Germany, PM Erdogan
discussed the status of Cem Evis in Turkey, saying: "...you
cannot compare Cem Evis to mosques. One is a place of
worship, whereas the other is only a house of culture. We
cannot provide the help for Cem Evis that we do for mosques."
In a September 12 conversation with Poloff, AK Parti
Istanbul Vice Chairman Murat Yalcintas (son of AK heavyweight
and MP Nevzat Yalcintas) confirmed AK's position that Alevi
houses of worship do not rate protection and funding similar
to mosques. Yalcintas said that the Prime Minister's
comments were widely supported within AK Parti ranks.
Yalcintas was critical of Alevi and Shi'a beliefs, saying
"these people claim to be the followers of Ali and the family
of the Prophet. If they honor Ali, they should pray like Ali
did, and go to a mosque." In his view, a Cem Evi could only
claim status as a religious house of worship if Alevis
disavowed being Muslims.

7. (C) In a September 5 meeting with Poloff, board members of
the Haci Bektas-i Foundation (one of the two largest Alevi
organizations in Turkey, representing the committed left wing
of Alevidom) said they viewed PM Erdogan's comments as being
"both a true reflection of his beliefs and, unfortunately, a
legally correct statement," in that there is no legal status
or funding for Cem Evis in existing Turkish law. The board
members pointed out that they often have difficulty in
obtaining permission for building facilities, and get no
government funding from the Diyanet. Moreover, they
complained, Diyanet funds are applied to building mosques,
including in wholly-Alevi villages. Alevi tax dollars are
thus being used to convert Alevis to Sunni Islam.

8. (C) Muharrem Eren, President of the Karacaahmet Sultan
organization (a local, well-established, independent Alevi
organization based in the conservative Uskudar neighborhood
that claims over 5000 active members) told poloff that he and
his followers do not expect the AK government to address
their concerns. Eren claimed that when PM Erdogan was
Istanbul Mayor he had tried to "destroy" their organization,
at one point actually sending a demolition team in an effort
to dismantle their Cem Evi in the middle of the night. Eren
emphasized the widely-held Alevi view that the preservation
of their religion and culture depends on strict enforcement
of Ataturk's secular principles and that his political
sympathies continue to lie with the CHP.

Disadvantaged Alevis?

9. (C) Alevis have long charged that they are excluded from
positions of leadership in Turkish society, and assert that
high military, governmental, or judicial positions are not
open to them. On the other hand, mainstream Sunni Muslim
contacts claim that Alevis are disproportionately represented
in high military, bureaucratic, and business circles;
Islamist PM Erbakan played on this view when he had prominent
members of his 1996-7 government warn against the
"Syrianization" (i.e. secularization) of Turkey. Prof. Dogan
told us, however, that he was troubled by recent complaints
from members of his community that Alevis who are civil
servants have been pressured to attend Sunni religious
services. Reportedly, people he believes to be AK Parti
functionaries have come to government ministries, asking
office directors to regularly pray and attend services at a
mosque. According to Dogan, in some few cases, Alevis have
been pressured into resigning.


10. (C) The views expressed by Dogan, Haci Bektas-i board
members, and Karacaahmet Sultan do not reflect the full
spectrum of the Istanbul Alevi community, but together they
claim to represent the concerns and aspirations of more than
a million Istanbul residents. The latest reaction over PM
Erdogan's statement illustrates a considerable divide between
AK and Turkey's Alevi community. Some AK supporters, while
supportive of religious freedom in general (especially when
it relates to Sunni Islamic religious expression), regard
Alevis as heretics; others consider Alevis to be Sunnis at
heart (they have common circumcision and burial rites),
wayward Sunnis, or merely a cultural group. This latter view
is given weight by the Alevi's use of alcohol, avoidance of
fasting during Ramazan, and hanging of pictures of Ataturk
alongside those of Ali in their Cem Evis. End comment.

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