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Wilfried Dettling {*}

Ali's Friends

The Anatolian Alevis in Germany


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 10/2008, P. 527-531
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    About 600.000 to 700.000 Alevis are supposed to live in Germany. Little is known about them, for often they are simply counted among the Muslims. What is the theological profile of that faith community, which increasingly tries to gain status also in public?


When at the end of last year in the ARD the crime thriller of the series 'Tatort' [scene of the crime] "Wem Ehre gebührt" ['Who deserves honour'] was broadcasted the reactions were not long in coming. The film portrays the situation of an Alevi family in which the father abuses his youngest daughter. In order to escape further persecutions the daughter converts to Sunni Islam.

The outrage among the Alevis in Germany was enormous. They saw the presentation as a deliberate defamation of their religious communion and feared that long-cherished prejudices against their religious and cultural traditions could now be re-ignited. In order to give the matter an appropriate public the Alevi Community Germany (AABF) called upon its members to take part in a large demonstration in Cologne. More than 20.000 people followed the call. The Secretary-General of AABF, Ali Toprak, demanded from the NDR an official apology. At the same time the Alevi community sued the television station for incitement of the people.



The superficial message of the movie is as simple as dangerous: the bad guys here - the good guys there. Here the Alevis - there the Sunnis. The director Angelina Maccarone seems to have missed that with the film long-cherished biases against the Alevis are spread.

On the other hand it can in retrospect be established that the events triggered by the crime thriller led to an increased interest in the Alevi religious communion. So since then the question about the Alevis in general and the Alevi traditions as they are lived and understood in Germany has significantly increased. Something similar can for some time also be made out in the scientific discourse (see for example: Martin Sökefeld [editor], Aleviten in Deutschland. Identitätsprozesse einer Religionsgemeinschaft in der Diaspora, Bielefeld 2008; Ali Yaman und Aykan Erdemir, Alevism-Bektashism. A Brief Introduction, Cern Foundation Publication Nr. 16, Istanbul 2006; Élise Massicard, L'autre Turquie. Le mouvement aléviste et ses territoires, Paris 2005; Markus Dressler, Die Alevitische Religion. Traditionslinien und Neubestimmungen, Würzburg 2002).


Independent Associations Since the Seventies

Historically seen, the beginnings of the Alevi religious communion are presumably in the 13th century. At that time in Persia Turkmen tribes fled from the Mongols and settled in Anatolia. The Turkmen had probably only a short time before adopted Islam as religion. Besides Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law, from whom the Alevis derive their name, Haci Bektas Veli is one of the most important Alevi saints. Haci Bektas presumably belonged to one of the Turkmen tribes (Irène Mélikoff, Hadji Bektach. Un Mythe et ses avatars. Genése et évolution du soufisme populaire en Turquie, Leiden 1998, 25-29).

When at the beginning of the 16th century in Persia the Twelver-Shia became the state religion Shiite Safavids pushed forwards into East Anatolia and conquered large parts of that region. Many of the Turkmen residing in Anatolia joined them. They fought on the side of the Safavids against the Ottomans. Because of their clothing they got also the name "Kizilbas" (redhead).

In the course of time external influences made it possible that in the Alevi community not only independent religious and cultural rites and practices developed but also independent interpretations of Islam. These were often connected with social and political demands and had the result that the Alevis were already in the late Ottoman time exposed to pursuits, slander and persecution. In order to protect themselves the Alevis withdrew from the public.

From now on they practiced their faith mainly in secret, and only those were still admitted who had already been born as Alevis or had before been accordingly initiated into the faith communion. Today the situation of the Alevis in Turkey as well as in other countries around the world has fundamentally changed. As regards Germany the Alevis present themselves as an open "faith- and life community" (Ismail Kaplan, The Mevitentum. A faith- and life communion in Germany, Cologne 2004), which tries actively and constructively to make its own contribution to the interreligious and social discourse.

There are no reliable figures about the Alevis in Germany. According to their information there are about 600.000 to 700.000 which would almost correspond to one third of the Turkish population in Germany. When in the early sixties in Germany Turkish guest workers were recruited also many Alevis came into the country. So in the late seventies the Alevis began to found independent associations. In 1979 a first federation was founded, i.e. a union of 30 local associations. The federation called itself Federation of Patriotic Associations (Yurtseverler Birligi Federasyonu). That organization soon dissolved itself. But the discussion about a new union of individual local associations continued.

So in 1986 the Haci Bektas Veli Cultural Associations (HBVKD) were founded. The HBVKDs demanded of their members above all a greater reflection on the religious traditions. Concepts and contents as "Alevi faith," "authentic Alevi tradition" and "Alevi values" were lively discussed. In the following years further associations were founded, of which some joined the HBVKD, others did not.

At last the idea of establishing a higher umbrella organization was again taken up. The aim of the organization was to be to co-ordinate the interlinking of the initiatives of individual local associations and better to acquaint the public with the Alevi religious community. In 1991 in Ginsheim-Gustavsburg (Hesse) a corresponding association was actually founded. In the course of time the umbrella organization was renamed several times; not least as a result of the Sivas massacre the number of Alevis who wanted to organize increased.



On 2 July 1993 in Sivas in Central Anatolia a devastating attack on a group of Alevi artists took place. The group had met in a hotel for a conference when infuriated Sunnis set the hotel on fire. With it thirty seven people were killed. That event had such a lasting effect that it was to join the long history of suffering of the Alevi religious communion as something that brought about identity and until today determines the collective awareness of the faithful.

On 21 September 2002 the statute was once again amended and with it also the name of the Alevi community was changed. Since then the community has the name Alevi Community of Germany (inc.) (Almanya Alevi Birlikleri Federasyonu/AABF). Apart from the change of name also the community's reorientation as regards content was striven for (an excellent survey of the history of the Alevis in Germany is found in Martin Sökefeld, Struggling for Recognition. The Alevi Movement in Germany and in Transnational Space, 2008; Krisztina Kehl-Bodrogi, "Was du auch suchst, such es in dir selbst!" Aleviten [nicht nur] in Berlin ["Whatever you are looking for look for it in yourself!" Alevis [not only] in Berlin], Berlin 2003, 37-44).

Today of the about 130 of the Alevi associations in Germany 107 are members in the AABF, the trend is rising. Until the amendment in 2002 the Alevi community mainly pursued political aims. It described itself as a "democratic association" that saw its tasks above all in carrying out its "activities within the bounds of legal requirements of the Federal Republic of Germany" and in preserving the "cultural identity" of the Alevis. With the revision of the statutes in 2002 a clear shift of emphasis was made. Since then the community increasingly describes itself in religious categories and as a "faith community in the sense of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany".

This significant change of perspective can mainly be explained by the fact that the outward activities have got new priorities. So the Alevi community since 2000 is mainly striving for the approval of an independent religious education in public schools. "In the normal context of their everyday life the children are to deepen what they know from their parents", Ismail Kaplan demands. With it the education official of the Alevi community makes clear what is important for the community in future: youth work and the efforts to be able to offer Alevi religious instruction throughout Germany.

In the Land Berlin since 2002 Alevi RE takes place: after the recognition as a religious community by the Lands North Rhine-Westphalia, Bavaria, Baden-Wuerttemberg and Hesse there is independent religious education since the school year 2006/2007 in Baden-Wuerttemberg (for the moment at two primary schools in Mannheim and Villingen-Schwenningen) and since this school year (2008/2009) also in Bavaria. Those recent developments have brought the Alevi community much recognition and sympathy.


No Separation Between the Sacred and Profane

The literal sense of "Alevi" means follower of Ali. Also other Islamic faith communities see themselves as such, as e.g. the Twelver Shia which is the state religion in Iran or the Nusayris or Alaouites. With those groups the Anatolian Alevis in Germany have above all four elements in common: the Islamic profession of faith, the veneration of the twelve imams, the mourning for the martyrdom of Ali's son Husayn and the rejection of the first three caliphs. In addition to that the Anatolian Alevi tradition knows a large number of independent faith traditions which are neither practised nor recognized by other Muslims. That's why in conversations Alevis like to say that the main differences between them and other Muslims first and foremost are, that they do not visit mosques, do not regard the daily prayers as obligatory, do not fast in the month Ramadan and make no pilgrimage to Mecca.



These external aspects are the result of certain interpretations of God, man and world, on which the Alevi faith is based.

He who is interested in the theological foundations of a religion usually begins with the question about God. The Alevi faith communion is no exception. Alevis profess God as the one and only. They profess it by reciting the Islamic creed ("There is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger") and by adding "and Ali is his friend."

According to Alevi understanding God is characterized by certain qualities. God is seen above all as the Creator of the cosmos, in which man, who has been created by God, has a prominent position. According to Alevi understanding God is omnipresent, what consequently means that there is actually no separation between "sacred" and "profane". God is present for man as "holy strength", which man in his life experiences as "energy" or/and "power".


Man on the Path to Unity with God

Muhammad was the first in whose life God's "holy strength" manifested itself. Starting with Muhammad since then that strength is transmitted to all human beings. Even people who do not regard themselves as religious are qua their "being human" provided with that dwelling within them strength. So man is regarded as the most perfect and most beautiful creature in the universe. God shows his creative power and beauty especially through and in man. Man is therefore also called güzel tanrim ("my beautiful god"). Names of that kind occasionally make it difficult to see a distinction between God and man. Although not always identified with God man is at least called image, or to be more precise, "reflection of God".

Because of his being created by God also the highest respect is therefore owed to man. "So we read in Yunus Emre, "I'm the exterior and the interior. The First and the Last I am. I am his image and my image is in its essence. I am the sublime." According to the Alevi faith God has two further characteristic qualities which have direct effects on the conception of man: God is goodness and mercy, who in everyday life calls upon man to exhaust according to the divine demand the potential which has been given to him and to strive for perfection.

According to Alevi faith man faces the demand to lead his life in accordance with the standards given by God. In this context Ismail Kaplan emphasizes that "God has originally created man in perfection (...) He has created all men equal. I must always again become aware of that. Then I also recognize that I have no right to inflict violence or injustice on others. Perhaps I can very briefly formulate that so: Do as you would be done by. If we act differently, then we act against God's will."

Statements of that kind imply the idea that man is based on a unity given by God. Man has lost that unity to a certain degree, but he is all his life looking for it. He can find it everywhere: in himself, in the creation, in the communion with people. To recover that unity inherent to man is the actual aim of human life.

Sinan Erbektas, Chairman of the Alevi community in Worms, emphasizes similar things: "The Alevi faith knows no top and bottom - there is perhaps an inside and outside, but there is no idea that there was anything where God is not. Our faith says that God is everywhere. From this idea stems also our ethics. That means, as Alevi I must not do harm to others. Why? Because the other person is a creature of God, indeed, he is an emanation of God."

The Alevi idea connected with man's striving for unity has its origin in the classical tradition of Sufism. It assumes that man decides in favour of a way of which he assumes that it will lead him to the all-embracing unity with God. In the Alevi tradition that path is clarified with the help of the term "four gates - forty levels (dört kapi kirk makam).

On his spiritual path man goes through a process that leads him from an imperfect to an increasingly perfect level. Each gate is again characterized for its part by ten individual levels which the believer has to cope with. In detail the four gates are described as follows: The first gate is the "Gate of Sharia". On that stage it is first about the outward observance of religious and ethical rules. The second gate is the "Gate of the Mystic Path." It stands for the inner path which a seeker must go. The third gate is called "Gate of Knowledge". The faithful who goes through that gate starts for the path of self-knowledge. The fourth and final gate is called "Gate of Truth" and leads to the "agreement" with God's reality.

The faithful goes the Alevi path of perfection in the confidence that his "heart" as a "house of God" is the place where he finds "God in himself". The knowledge of God's dwelling in his heart gives him strength to go the arduous path up to the end. In order to be able to successfully go the path of the "Four Gates - Forty Levels" a corresponding spiritual guidance is needed. The "Guide of the Path" (pir or dede) accompanies the faithful and gives him a share in his own spiritual experiences.



When the faithful has gone through all forty levels and at last through the fourth gate up to the end he becomes the "perfect man" (insane-i Kamil).

The decision about the question on what level of perfection the believer is everybody makes for himself. Nobody, not even the spiritual guide, can ultimately decide through what level the faithful is just passing. And everybody also performs for himself the development which he makes on the spiritual path. The spiritual guide is here really no more but also no less than a trustful and experienced companion who helps the faithful to reach the chosen aim.

Because of the current interest in the Alevi faith the Anatolian Alevis in Germany face major challenges. On the one hand it is essential to look at the situation in the associations on the spot and there (are) to reconcile the not seldom existing tensions between the generations and the different ethnic groups.

In addition the Alevis also increasingly concern themselves with the inner-Islamic dialogue. With it the question of belonging to Islam appears time and again. Also the questions with which outsiders come to the Alevis, questions about their conception of themselves as well as about the religious, cultural and theological foundations of their faith require an appropriate positioning.

Moreover, in recent times especially the voices of younger Alevis can be heard, who expect from their clergy (dede) true-to-life and convincing introductions to their faith. Not for nothing the Alevis in Germany for some time have been calling for the establishment of a university chair for Alevi theology. It is true though, even if that should happen the Alevis themselves would still face a task. In the foreseeable future they had to succeed in presenting a theology which can stand up to historical, philosophical as well as systematic questions.

All in all the Alevi religious communion in Germany is still in an open situation. But viewing the development in recent years it can be established that the Anatolian Alevi community describes itself as a religious community and, although linked into the framework of Islam, is able more and more clearly to present itself in public with its own traditions and rituals; traditions which distinguish it from other Muslims.

Looking to the future all those who at present bear responsibility in the interreligious dialogue in Germany will therefore do well to be aware of the Anatolian Alevis' conception of themselves and to do what they can that in future that religious communion is more frequently than up to now included in the interreligious dialogue.


    {*} Wilfried Dettling (born in 1965), Jesuit, Dr. theol., Director of the Bible Forum of the Catholic Academy Caritas Pirckheimer House, Nuremberg. Expert for the Christian-Islamic dialogue. 2000-2006 Islam Official of the Diocese of Speyer and a member of the "Multi-religious Study Group" (MUREST) in Germany. Member of the Commission for Interreligious Dialogue (KIRDE) of the Archdiocese of Bamberg. Recent publication: "Nur wer Gott im Menschen und den Menschen in Gott erblickt, ist der Freund der Wahrheit" (Haci Bektash Veli). Die anatolischen Aleviten in Deutschland Partner für den interreligiösen Dialog, Regensburg 2008.


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