SHAFAQNA- Alawites or Alevis are one of the religious groups in Turkey known to be followers of the Twelver Shia branch of Islam. Alevi communities spread across Turkey but they mostly live in the east and central-west of the country. Sayyed Sinan Buztepe is the religious leader of the Alevis in Cerkezkoy district, northeast of Turkey. Shafaqna has had an exclusive interview with him about his community, their traditions and problems.
Shafaqna: What is the Alevism and who is an Alevi?
Buztepe: Alevism means following Imam Ali (A.S), our definition of Alevism surrounds the personality and character of Imam Ali (A.S). He was born in Ka’aba and martyred in Mihrab (alter) while praying and he spent his life between Ka’aba and Mihrab. Alevism is between Ka’aba and Mihrab, too.
Shafaqna: Tell us about your activities, please.
Buztepe: We established our Dergah (foundation) in Trakya, northeast of Turkey in 2006. Since 4 years ago, we have had full-time activities including daily prayers, Friday prayers, mourning ceremonies in Muharram and Iftar gatherings in the holy month of Ramadan as well as summer schools for children. There are a catering, a canteen and a hostel which everybody can use free of charge. We welcome all Muslims with open arms. These activities are a firm response to those who accuse Alevis of not following the Holy Quran.
Shafaqna: What is the notion of “Alevism without Imam Ali” that has spread in Turkey in recent years?
Buztepe: There are unfortunately people who believe in Alavism without Imam Ali (A.S). They expanded their activities and ideas through institutions and foundations in recent years and built religious gathering halls. They propagate their ideas -that are based on irreligion- among the youth.
Shafaqna: Have Alevis embraced “Alevism without Imam Ali”?
Buztepe: It began in Europe. “Alevism without Imam Ali” societies first surfaced in Germany and we think the German government is supporting them. I can even claim that Vatican is in cahoots with them. By getting their financial support from them (some European governments and Vatican) these so-called Alevis built their gathering halls.
“Alevism without Imam Ali” does not believe in God, his prophets and even Islam. They do not see any spiritual or earthly position for Twelve Shia Imams. Some old Turkish traditions including Shamanism and even Jewish and Christian traditions can be traced in their beliefs. They began from Europe and extended across the world. The Australian government, under their pressure was forced to accept it as a new religion and as a result, the real Islamic Alevism was cornered. I warn the youth in the Alevi communities not to fall into their trap, because by little research they can find out that real Alevism dates back to 1,400 years ago.
Shafaqna: How Alevi community looks at pilgrimage trips and visiting the Shia shrines? Do Alevis attach importance to such rituals?
Buztepe: Although not many Turkish Alevis pay attention to these rituals, the number of those who are interested in pilgrimage visits is increasing. About 10,000 people attended the March of Arba’een in Iraq last year. A great portion of them was Alevis. It is not still enough. We are to blame, because Alevis forgot their roots and took away from the shrines of our imams. We need to hold the responsibility and openly encourage the Alevis to visits shrines of Shia imams.
Shafaqna: What problems do Alevis face in Turkey?
Buztepe: The main problem for Alevis is generally their gathering halls or CemEvis, I personally think our biggest problem is ignorance. Building new structures cannot help us or will not force the government to recognize us as long as our youth remain ignorant and far from (religious) studies. Our biggest issue is that we have been kept away from the school of Ahl al-Bayt. We need to train learned teachers and provide them with opportunity (to teach others) but there has been no such activities in Turkey.
Shafaqna: Is there any Alevi religious seminary or university in Turkey?
Buztepe: No, there is not. In the past Alevi youth used to go abroad mostly to Syria to study theology, nowadays they travel to the holy cities of Najaf and Qom. We still believe religious schools or seminaries should be founded in Turkey to train community leaders and religious teachers.
Shafaqna: How about the religious studies of your community leaders (dedes), is their religious studies at acceptable levels?
Buztepe: In our history, the 1514 Battle of Chaldiran between Iranian Safavid dynasty and Ottoman Turks is seen as a turning point. Before that battle, Alevi leaders used to visit and study at Sheikh Safi al-Din Ardebili’s school in Ardebil, Iran. After that battle, Ottoman Turks prevented Alevis from visiting Iran or attending madresas there. They foreclosed schools and anything related to Alevis in central Turkey and sent many religious leaders into exile. Although Ottoman Turks failed to remove the love of Ahl al-Bayt from the hearts of Alevis, they managed to create a distance between Alevis and religious studies particularly the school of Ahl al-Bayt.
Shafaqna: What do you think of Shia Islam? Is Shiism equal to Alevism or they are different from each other?
Buztepe: These claims come from the advocates of “Alevism without Imam Ali”; they want to create a rift between Alevism and Shia, they have tried vastly to reach their end. Alevism means Shia; it supports Shia Islam, Shia also means Alevi or an advocate of Imam Ali (A.S). Those who try to separate between Alevis and supporters of Ahl al-Bayt claim “Alevis are different from Shias” or “We are Alevis of Anatolia”.
(I ask you) is there a difference between Alevi in Iran, Syria or Iraq? (No), there isn’t any difference. An Alevi is always an Alevi regardless of where he or she lives. Supporters of Imam Ali (A.S) are always the same. Based on old documents, about 350 years ago Alevis in Anatolia region were called “Shias”. Ottoman Turks even described Shias as Alevis. At the same time, the word “Alevi” is given to someone who is a descendant of Imam Ali (A.S). Trying to part away Alevism from Shiism is a “plot” and a “trick”. Alevi youth who visited holy shrines in Iraq met with lovers of Ahl al-Bayt coming from across the world and they noticed that fact (that there is no difference between Alevism and Shia religion). To me, all Alevis are Shias and all Shias are Alevis.
Shafaqna: What do you expect from the Turkish government? Has it successfully resolved your problems in recent years?
Buztepe: Turkish political parties see Alevis as a “political issue”, so they try to solve our problems via political bargaining or through Diyanet (Ministry of Religious Affairs). This government held several conferences and meetings with Alevi leaders to solve our problems. One of our major demands always is the establishment of our schools, which is not met yet. Alevism is a religious matter, therefore how politicians want to solve a religious issue? They have no plan, whatsoever.
Shafaqna: How much is the Alevi population of Turkey?
Buztepe: Alevis, Bektashi Alevis, Ja’afaris (Shias), Arab Alevis are around 15 million; 3 millions also live in Europe.
Shafaqna: What is your response to the accusation of Iran’s Shiafication of Alevi Turks?
Buztepe: I totally reject this allegation because Alevi means Shia and a supporter of Imam Ali (A.S). What does Iran want to do? Shiafication of Shias? It would have been acceptable if Iran were a Christian country, this is very absurd. On the other hand, there is as strong connection between Iran and us from the past. The shrine of 8th Imam of Alevis, Ali Ibn Musa al-Reza (AS) is in Mashhad, his revered sister buried in Qom. They connect us with Alevis in Iran and the greater Khorasan. The claim of “Iran’s Shiafication of Alevis” is another trap, we are Turkish nationals and Iran cannot put pressure on us or interfere in our affairs. The leaders of “Alevism without Imam Ali” are behind these allegations, Imperialism and Zionist mercenaries spread these false allegations among people. We ask, “How Iran wants to turn an Alevi -who is by default a Shia- into a Shia?”
Shafaqna: Where is the source of these accusations?
Buztepe: It stems from the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Anti-revolutionaries and political groups across the world have been acting against Iran ever since. They spread these allegations against Iran to prevent Alevis in Turkey from being influenced by the Islamic revolution and the school of Ahl al-Bayt.
Shafaqna: The mourning month of Muharram is a very important month in the Islamic calendar. Do you have enough plans for this month?
Buztepe: We do not have enough programs because of the ignorance of Alevi communities. They have to know the 12 imams for real not only in words. Imam Hussein’s (AS) uprising should be thoroughly studied and explained to Alevi groups. Preachers at mourning processions must preach different aspects of this uprising.
Shafaqna: It seems some in Turkey spare much effort to pit Sunnis against Alevis. As a religious leader who advocates unity among Muslims, what do you have to say?
Buztepe: We have bitter memories from before and after the 1980 military coup when Alevis and Sunnis in several cities and towns confronted each other. Nevertheless, they managed to mend their relationships and continue their coexistence. Sunnis in Anatolia’s region are peaceful, patient and harmonious people. Evil powers did not and will never obtain their goals in this region. Alevis and Sunni should look at each other as their real brothers and tell it loudly to all. We are on the same front and we will not fall into division.
Shafaqna: What is your message to Muslims specially Alevi communities?
Buztepe: Let’s resort to Islam and Ahl al-Bayt because the third way is deviation and those who usher you to that path do not seek the interests of Alevi communities. The Holy Quran and Ahl al-Bayt are al-Thaqalayn or two weighty things left by the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) for the followers of Islam. Alevi community leaders who met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf cite him as describing Alevis as “The doves of Imam Ali’s Shrine”. The grand Ayatollah told them “They flew you away from this holy shrine, isn’t it the time for you to return?”
It’s getting late…. Real and old traditions of Alevism believed in God, the Prophet Mohammad and Ahl al-Bayt (A.S). We have to continue this path otherwise; our next generation will not inherit anything from us. All our religious traditions would be lost and we would leave this world empty-handed.
This interview is originally published on Shafaqna Turkish and is translated by Shafaqna English.