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Alevis searching for identity in Germany

The group of children has scarcely sat down before the teacher calls out,  "And now you may ask questions!" Just a moment ago, the children had been concentrating on their steps, performing a dance, accompanied by the lute, singing and Alevi ritual songs. Now the lutenist closes her hand around the strings. Three religious leaders are there; a contingent of 50 other adults from the Alevi community in Berlin sits at the back of the room. An expectant silence.

A feature is going to be produced about them: an opportunity for the community to present their culture – to make clear that they are not "normal" Muslims. Lute music and dance are an integral part of Alevi worship. These are forbidden in mosques where other Muslims worship.

The difference between the mosque and the cemevi

The Alevi children cannot quite believe their ears – they are being allowed to ask questions about their faith. The teacher prompts them, "Does anyone know the difference between a mosque and a cemevi?" A boy puts up his hand. "We Alevis pray in the cemevi not in the mosque. And you may not go into the cemevi if you are in a bad mood!" Correct, says one of the clerics, if you have argued you must be reconciled before you go to worship. The fact that women and men pray together is another difference with mosques, where this is not allowed.

The discussion gathers momentum, a question and answer game evolves. Gradually the discussion turns to the hard facts of Alevism, a religion that is markedly different from Sunni Islam – the denomination to which most Muslims in Germany belong. The children discover that Alevis do not interpret the Koran literally. Nor do they adhere to the five pillars of Islam.

The situation of Alevis in Turkey

Alevis have not always been self-confident as a matter of course, explains Devrim-Deniz Nacar, the teacher, once the room is empty. "In Turkey, many conceal the fact that they are Alevis because they still fear discrimination." If you ask Alevis about how they see themselves, you will usually hear stories from Turkey, the homeland of most German Alevis.

They are not recognised as a separate religious community in Turkey. Diyanet, the Turkish directorate for religious affairs, refuses to grant Alevis their own status. The directorate sees Alevis as being the same as other Muslims. This is why Alevi cemevis do not have the same legal status as places of worship such as mosques, churches and synagogues, but are regarded as cultural institutions. In contrast to imams, Alevi clerics are not paid by the Turkish state.

New Alevi self-assurance

Now Alevis are beginning to fight back against discrimination. "The turning point for us was in 1993 after the Sivas massacre," says Devrim-Deniz Nacar. Islamists carried out an arson attack in the Turkish town of Sivas, in which Alevi writers, poets and artists died. According to the Alevis, the fire service was deliberately late in intervening. Many Alevis say that they were let down by the Turkish state. "This made it clear to us that we no longer wanted to be a community that was lied to, that was kept quiet. Now we are seeking emancipation!" says Devrim-Deniz Nacar, militantly.

The new self-assurance, that they have developed over the years, also includes organising their own religious studies lessons in schools in Germany. The "Islamic Religious Education", given as part of pilot projects in schools in some German Länder, may be suitable for Sunnis, but not for Alevis, according to its critics.

Alevi religious studies as part of a new identity

Having Alevi religious studies in schools is an important issue, however, it is not the be all and end all, says Devrim-Deniz Nacar. She is herself a teacher of history, German and mathematics, and she also gives Alevi religious lessons. "The atmosphere is simply more official in a school. Our being together, as you have experienced it today, cannot replace that!" Listening to Alevi lute music, celebrating the semah dance that symbolises the universe, sitting not on chairs but on cushions and carpets on the floor – "all this creates a completely different atmosphere!" says the teacher. The Alevis are wrestling with a new self-awareness. Alevi religious education in schools is just a part of this.

Thilo Guschas, 20.01.09

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