Bayram Balcı, who has been carrying out studies on Middle Asia and Middle East in France for many years, works as a senior researcher at the Center for International Studies and Research (CERI Centre d'études et de recherches internationals), which is one of the most distinguished research center in France. Balcı, who has been still working as a guest researcher in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Middle East Programme in the US., has done his doctorate in Islam Civilization. Among the study fields of Balcı, there are certain subjects such as the Middle East, Caucasus, Turkey’s Policy about the Middle East and Shiite belief. We have had a talk with Bayram Balcı, whom we found a chance to see in Ankara, about the denominational aspect of the events which were reported in Syria and which have been the main topic of discussion in recent months and about the possible impacts of these events on Turkey.
What is the relationship between the Alawites in Syria and the Alevis in Turkey?
As Shi’ites, the Alevis of Turkey and the Alawites of Syria are both followers of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, and this leads some to believe that the group is somewhat homogenous. But in reality, there are differences and numerous internal divisions between and within the two communities.
The Turkish Alevis form a community of faith rooted in the traditions and pre-Islamic beliefs of the Turkic tribes of Central Asia, with Anatolian traditions and Islamic beliefs mixed in. Representing nearly 20 percent of the Turkish population and given a misleadingly generic label, the Alevis are a disparate mass divided into different groups, notably along ethnic lines. Some, for example, are Turkish by language and culture; others are Kurdish and are known as Zazas.
As for the Syrian Alawites, also known as Nusayris, from the name of the group’s supposed founder, Muhammad Ibn Nusayr al-Numayri, they are Arabs. Throughout their history, the Alawites’ religious leaders have often sought to identify with Twelver Shi’ism, while preserving practices specific to their community. The Syrian Alawites are clearly different from the Turkish Alevis.
In addition, there is a small Arab Alawite community living around Antakya on the Turkish side of the border in Hatay Province, which is long claimed by Syria.
What do the Alawites and Alevis have in common?
In Syria, the Alawites make up about 10 percent of the population. In religious and linguistic terms, the Syrian Alawites are the same as the Alawites in Turkey, and share few resemblances and traits with the Turkish Alevis.
What they do have in common is that they have both been targets of discrimination. Under the Ottoman Empire, there were many prejudices against the Alevis, notably because they were considered heterodox. It wasn’t until the advent of the Turkish Republic in 1923, that their situation improved, although their problems were never definitively resolved.
While the Turkish state is secular, the Sunni majority has always been dominant and its influence has grown stronger. This has fueled the Alevis’ feeling of inferiority and discrimination.
As for the Alawites of Syria, they too lived under Sunni domination during the Ottoman period, gaining definitive power only in 1970 with the rise of Hafez al-Assad.
What separates the Alawites and Alevis?
Apart from feeling that they are disliked by the Sunni majority in their respective countries, the Alawites of Syria and Alevis of Turkey remain quite diverse. Their religious practices are fundamentally different, they don’t speak the same language, and there is limited interaction between the two communities. Even the Alawites in Hatay Province, similar in origin to those of Syria, have been somewhat Turkified.
Are Syria’s sectarian tensions likely to impact Sunni-Shia relations inside Turkey?
While the 400,000 Alawites of the Hatay region have been under Turkish influence for a long time, they still maintain an affinity for their fellow Alawites who are in power in Damascus. Since the outbreak of the popular uprising, there have been some discreet demonstrations of solidarity involving a small number of Alawites with the Assad regime, for example in February 2012 in the border town of Antakya.
As for the Alevis of Turkey, who speak Turkish or Kurdish rather than Arabic, their sense of solidarity with the current leadership in Damascus is even weaker and less apparent. And yet, certain Alevi or pro-Alevi Turkish media outlets make a point of criticizing Erdogan’s policy toward Syria. They accuse him of adventurism and nurturing hidden intentions to foster the emergence of a Sunni government in Damascus close to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). But such rebukes should be seen in the context of Turkish domestic policy.
The Alevis form one of the cornerstones of the Republican People’s Party (CHP)—the largest party opposing Erdogan—which champions secularism and the separation of mosque and state instituted by Ataturk. However, from the outset of the Syrian crisis and Erdogan’s decision to clearly side with opponents of Bashar al-Assad, the CHP’s criticism of Erdogan’s party has had more to do with politics than solidarity with the Damascus regime or Syria’s Alawite community. Furthermore, no Alevi cultural federation has rallied in support of Assad.
Nevertheless, Erdogan’s support for the Syrian opposition is bolstering his popularity with his supporters on the domestic political front even though he is guarding against criticism of playing sectarian politics by positioning himself as a defender of the oppressed Syrian people.
On the whole, it is difficult to maintain at the present time that the Alevis of Turkey support the Alawites of Syria or Bashar al-Assad’s regime, or that an armed intervention in Syria would inflame interfaith relations in Turkey. The reality is that any Turkish intervention in Syria is unlikely to be entered into unilaterally, but only as part of a multinational effort and would be motivated by humanitarian and political considerations. Under these circumstances, Turkish action would be unlikely to raise sectarian tensions among the Alevi community.
Mr. Balci, thank you very much.