August 13, 2012

Turkish Parliament, cemevis and secularism
by Ahmet T. Kuru*

5 August 2012 / ,
The debates around Alevis’ cemevis have been ignited again by two recent events. One was a decision by Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals. The court held that cemevis could not be presented as houses of worship.

In fact, in a secular democratic country it is up to individuals to define what is considered a house of worship and what is not. Therefore, this decision is extremely problematic from legal and political points of view. Sociologically, it is clear that the decision does not mean anything for Alevis, who perceive cemevis as places of worship. In a truly secular and democratic country, state institutions can partially deal with this kind of debate when it comes to financial issues -- for example, governments control exemption from property tax, etc. On these issues, state organs are supposed to respect people’s perceptions of religious institutions rather than teach them what is right and what is wrong.

The second event was a deputy’s request for a cemevi within the building of the Turkish Parliament. The speaker of parliament rejected this application, referring to an opinion of the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate, according to which the proper houses of worships for Muslims are mosques. I would like to examine three arguments mentioned during this debate.

The first argument is: ‘’In a secular country, religion and politics should be separate; thus Parliament’s building should include neither a mosque nor a cemevi.” The defenders of this argument confuse the secular nature of Parliament and the religious needs of the individuals working in it. Parliament may have a house of worship in the same way it has a restaurant and barber shop, because the common goal of these places is to meet the daily needs of individuals. The principle of secularism requires that while fulfilling these needs, Parliament’s administration follow impartial and transparent rules. Any house of worship can be opened within Parliament’s building if it is requested by a sufficient number of deputies.

The second argument is: ‘’According to the Religious Affairs Directorate, the house of worship for Alevis is the mosque, therefore there is no need for a cemevi in Parliament.” A problem of this argument is its depiction of the Religious Affairs Directorate as a source of official “fatwas” on all religious affairs. In a democratic and secular country, it is individuals, not state institutions, who make religious institutions meaningful. An “official religion” is not more meaningful than an “official history.” Another problem with this argument is that it pits cemevis and mosques as if they are each other’s alternatives. In fact, an Alevi can pray in a mosque and do the cem (an Alevi religious ceremony) in a cemevi at the same time, similar to a Mevlevi, who can pray in a mosque and do the sema (whirling dervish ceremony) in a dervish lodge. In short, the elimination of cemevis is similar to the closure of Sufi lodges in the early Republican era.

The third argument is: ‘’Alevism is a separate religion, and its worship is the cem.’’ An individual can decide this for themselves. Yet it is hard to make a generalization on behalf of all Alevis in Turkey. A person who defines Alevism as a separate religion has to explain to what extent Alevis’ beliefs differ from the six pillars of faith according to Islam -- to believe in God, angels, revealed books, prophets, the hereafter/judgment day and destiny/divine will. The person should also refer to some public surveys to support this argument. On the contrary, surveys by respected organizations reveal that about 98 percent of people in Turkey identify themselves as Muslims, which shows that the overwhelming majority of Alevis do not have a religious affiliation other than Islam.

To sum up, the existence of a cemevi or a mosque in Parliament is compatible with secularism. Either to reject the cemevi or to support it in Parliament, as an alternative to the mosque, contradicts the social reality in Turkey. If a sufficient number of deputies would like to participate in the cem, and it is not possible to fulfill this outside of the Parliament building, then a cemevi should be opened in Parliament.

*Ahmet T. Kuru is an associate professor at San Diego State University, department of political science.

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