The Reckoning of Pluralism: Political Belonging and the Demands of History in Turkey

In the space of only a couple of months in 2014, two deaths once again recalled the tenuous and paradoxical place of the Alevi community in Turkish politics. One of the deaths was of a 14-year-old boy, Berkin Elvan, who lost his life several months after being hit in the head by a teargas canister during the Gezi Park protests. He had left his home to buy bread. His death gave rise to demonstrations across the country. Not long after, police shot and killed a young father as he was leaving the Istanbul funeral of an elderly woman from his natal village. Although these were supposedly apolitical murders — the victims were labeled collateral damage of Turkey’s recent political unrest–because they identified as Alevi, their deaths were immediately politicized.  For Turkey’s inflammatory president, at that time the prime minister, Berkin Elvan’s mere presence on the streets signaled that he must have been involved in the protests and thereby justified police violence.  Yet for others, these deaths raised the specter of past incidents of violence against Alevis, including incidents that had taken place in the city where Tambar did his fieldwork.

By some estimates, Alevis constitute around 15 percent of the Turkish population, and they are generally viewed as a branch of Islam whose ritual practice incorporates elements of Shi`ism and Sufism. Kabir Tambar’s lucid monograph explores the paradoxes of the Alevi community’s position in Turkey today: Muslim but not Sunni, cast by nationalists as living remnants of the Anatolian past even as they are often portrayed as being at the forefront of critique against the secular nationalist regime. Tambar describes how these contradictions are lived, and also recounts attempts at their ideological resolution. Based largely on ethnographic fieldwork in the provincial Anatolian city of Çorum, Tambar’s narrative links these paradoxes to the contemporary experience of Alevi ritual and the everyday ways in which his informants attempt to understand the Alevi past.

He organizes his argument as an exposition of the Alevi community’s relations with the Turkish state. The first chapter describes a recent change in dominant political paradigms in Turkey.  He begins in the period when the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 provided the only official recognition of difference in the form of minority religious communities recognized under the treaty. Tambar then takes readers up to the present period when even the far right-wing Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi (National Action Party), responsible for assaults on Alevis in the 1980s, searches for ways to accommodate religious pluralism, especially Alevism. Tambar refers to this as a “new mode of regulating social difference” (p. 8), one in which today key government officials attend Alevi religious ceremonies and festivals, and in which the status of the Alevi community within the Republic is debated as a historical matter. This turn to history, or historicism, is to be one of the main focuses of Tambar’s argument, as he analyzes the Turkish state’s attempts to domesticate Alevi difference and Alevi attempts to utilize or circumvent the state’s discursive boundaries.

Tambar explores this problem through several ethnographic themes. In the chapter “Disciplines of the Parable,” Tambar shows how ritual lament, traditionally an intrinsic part of Alevi (as well as Shia) ritual practice, today seems to many young Alevis historically anachronistic.  At the same time, elements of Alevi ritual have become parts of popular culture, played and danced by folklore troupes at festivals. In the following chapter, “Anatolian Modern,” Tambar explores how Alevis faired after the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the Turkish Republic.  He describes how Alevis were assimilated to the Muslim majority at the expense of proclaiming their difference from its Sunni character. This assimilation was expressed in early ethnographic studies, beginning in the late Ottoman period, in which Alevi folklore and social structure were used to describe an Anatolian society. Anatolian Alevism came to represent the Turkish nation’s historical depth in Anatolia, thereby closely linking the history of Alevism to the history of the (Sunni Muslim) Turkish state.

Tambar expands on this theme in the next chapter, “Incitements to Visibility,” where he describes the contradiction experienced by many Alevis between the state’s labeling of their rituals as culture, and a desire to have those rituals recognized as religious practice. Although those rituals acquire public visibility, they are visible only within the constraints on pluralism imposed by the state. The final two chapters, “Pedagogies of History” and “The Morality of Mourning,” explore the contradictions in Alevi uses of social history.  Tambar describes how Alevi attempt to link Alevism to the discourse of Turkish modernity, yet this same Turkish modernity encourages the decline of mourning and lamentation as ritual practices, viewing them as anachronistic.

Tambar is a cogent writer, and the work will be of interest to anyone working or teaching on religion and state in the Middle East and the problems of pluralism in multi-faith societies. I should note, however, that those expecting a rich ethnographic exploration of the contradictions of pluralism as they are lived in Turkey today may be disappointed. Although Tambar bases his argument on ethnographic fieldwork, this compact volume uses little of that, instead confining his narrative to the more general descriptive level of the Alevi community’s relations with the Turkish state. Although each chapter contains one pertinent ethnographic example, Tambar refrains from giving his reader an exposition of life in divided Corum, only referencing past incidents of violence and hinting at present divisions. And while Tambar focuses quite a bit of his research on rituals that many of his informants find anachronistic, he gives little insight into what Alevi identity means to his informants, if it is not a religious identity. For this reader, it was a shame that Tambar stripped so much of the meaty ethnography out of this book, for his previously published articles support complex analyses with ethnographically thicker material.

Moreover, stripping away that ethnographic content makes the book appear to raise more questions than it attempts to answer, as when he briefly mentions the role of Leftist politics without exploring the link between Alevism and Leftism at the quotidian and affective levels. And while it is understandable that he may not wish to engage with the Kurdish problem, Tambar’s failure to mention it leaves readers with only one framework for understanding certain acts of violence, a framework that overlooks what those in Turkey know all too well.  For example, when he analyzes the Dersim massacre, the 1938 suppression of rebellion in Turkey’s southeast that resulted in the murder of up to 80,000 Turkish citizens by the state, he appears to follow one line of argument that attributes the massacre to the state’s attempt to suppress Alevism.  In doing so, he ignores an important debate around the population’s Kurdishness. Similarly, in Tambar’s mention of activist and writer Cafer Solgun’s controversial discussion of Dersim, in which Solgun claims that Atatürk was aware of plans for the massacre, Tambar fails to note that Solgun refers to himself as an Alevi Kurd and that in various writings he has described the massacre as an attempt at ethnic and religious assimilation. While these are rather specific examples, they indicate some of the ethnographic complexity that falls between the cracks of Tambar’s otherwise persuasive argument.

Rebecca Bryant, London School of Economics and Political Science

Tambar, Kabir. The Reckoning of Pluralism: Political Belonging and the Demands of History in Turkey. Stanford University Press, 2014. Read more at Stanford University Press. 

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