Good news this weekend from south-eastern Diyarbakir. The municipality joined with an Alevi organisation in a ceremony for the opening of a cemevi, a prayer house for Alevis (a liberal path in Islam). A brand new, multipurpose building where the (small) Alevi community of Diyarbakir can come together to celebrate their religion. Still, I have some reservations too. Because in Turkey, religions other than the state version of Sunni Islam depend on the goodwill of local authorities to practice their religion freely.
Turkey is a secular country, but not in the sense that religion and the state are strictly separated. On the contrary: religion and the state are very closely intertwined. Religious life is controlled by Diyanet, the state directorate for religious affairs. Their version of Sunni Islam is taught in schools (mandatory) and in all mosques, all imams are civil servants educated in state schools and universities, and the highest religious authority is also a public servant. Diyanet was founded right after the foundation of the Republic, to protect the ‘secular’ state against the power of religion.
Treaty of Lausanne
Diyanet has in this way always contributed to protecting the unity of the Turkish nation state. Everybody was proclaimed to be a Turk (even if you were Arab, Greek, Kurd, Armenian, Laz, or whichever other ethnicity), and everybody was a Muslim following the state religion. The only exception was made for ‘non Muslim minorities’, as mentioned in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923: Greeks, Armenians and Jews were entitled to practice their religion, have their own schools and other facilities. Muslim minorities who were not Turks and/or not Sunni Muslims, like Kurds and Alevis, were not recognised as minorities. In practice this meant they also didn’t get any rights to their own religious or ethnic identity.
Which doesn’t mean by the way that there are no cemevi’s in Turkey. There are, but they are cultural centres, not houses of worship. Comparable to the derwish lodges, a religious sect that was also reduced to something cultural in stead of religion, as you can read in this former blogpost. *)
It is not surprising that it is in Diyarbakir that a cemevi is now being opened. The municipality, ruled by pro-Kurdish party BDP, knows what it’s like when your identity is being denied. Osman Baydemir, the mayor of Diyarbakir, is pretty determined to make his city a place where everybody can be himself – he referred to that also in his opening speech at a conference about the history of the Diyarbakir region which I recently visited. He had already mentioned the opening of the cemevi at the conference, and he also expressed his wish to make the city more multi-religious, as it used to be in pre-Republic times, when for example large groups of Christian Armenians were living there.
In most regions of Turkey, Alevis don’t get their right to open a cemevi. On the contrary even: the AKP government is known for building mosques in predominantly Alevi regions, like the province of Dersim/Tunceli. That’s not the only problem Alevis have in Turkey: their children still have to follow the mandatory religious classes even though they teach nothing about their religion, and despite a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights – read more about that here.
I admire the efforts of Baydemir very much. He shows that a suppressed people like the Kurds who get some power, are able to look beyond the interests of their own group, and are eager to give others the rights they are also denied. But he too has to act within the limits of the state, like with the cemevi: it’s officially a cultural centre, not a house of worship. If – which is pretty theoretical at the moment, but never mind about that now – Armenians decide to settle in the region again, would it be possible to re-open one of their churches for religious ceremonies? In theory, maybe, but in practice? In Diyarbakir they would have the support of the municipality, but how about other regions of the country? Imagine Greeks re-settling in the north of Turkey, known for being pretty nationalist. Would they get support from nationalist mayors to experience their religion the way they want, and to re-open their confiscated and abandoned houses of worship?
The opening of the cemevi in Diyarbakir shows the deeply rooted problem that Turkey has with religious freedom. No kind-hearted mayor, no municipal goodwill should be needed to settle somewhere as a religious group. What is needed is a solid law that guarantees the freedom of religion. So that all groups, whether they are Alevi, Greek, Armenian, (or Dutch Christian, for that matter) or whichever other religious identity, can just open a house of prayer if they feel a need for it.
*) This small paragraph was added after the comment underneath of Theoldtturk, since I don’t want people to think that the cemevi in Diyarbakir is the first in Turkey and you could indeed get that impression.