Co-authored by Soner Cagaptay
Tensions are rising on the Turkish-Syrian border, as Turkey recently became the first country to take direct military action against the al-Assad regime since Syria’s uprising began in spring 2011. In response to the Syrian shelling of the Turkish town of Akcakale on October 3rd, an incident which killed 5 people, Ankara began shelling Syrian military targets. What is more, Turkey has issued a number of escalation threats — on October 7th, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that “although Turkey does not want war, it is close to war,” suggesting that Ankara is concerned with the spillover effect of the Syrian conflict in Turkey.
One major concern in this regard is the sectarian dimension of the Syrian conflict. The fighting in Syria is increasingly taking on sectarian overtones as fighting between the Assad regime and the rebels morphs into a conflict between Alawites loyal to Assad and Sunni militants opposing his rule. This is a cause of grave concern for Turkey because it is home to a community of half a million Arab Alawites on its southern Syrian border. Furthermore, Turkey’s Alawites reside predominantly in the Hatay province, which also hosts a large number of Syrian Sunni Arab refugees, and until recently served as a base of operations for Syrian rebel and civilian opposition groups. Reflecting the sectarian nature of the conflict in Syria, tensions have emerged lately in Hatay between Turkish citizens of Arab Alawite origin and Syrian Sunni refugees. Local Alawites, joined by various far-left groups, have staged numerous protests against the increasing Syrian refugee presence in the city. Such demonstrations have called for closing down the “terrorist” camps that allegedly house Sunni fighters.
What is more, Arab Alawites in Hatay also oppose Ankara’s policy of confronting the Assad regime. A local paper in Hatay recently published a column that accused the Ankara government of disregarding Alawite concerns and openly supporting Sunni fighters in Hatay. There have also been significant ongoing demonstrations against supporting the opposition in Syria.
Problems between the Arab Alawites in Hatay and the government in Ankara are leading some to surmise a broader cleavage between Turkey’s Alevis — a community that represents 10-15 percent of Turkey’s 74 million citizens — and the Ankara government. Partly due to their similar names (Alevi vs. Alawite), many commentators appear to be confusing the groups, leading them to the erroneous conclusion that Alevis are close kin to the religious sect that controls Damascus. Alawites and Alevis alike represent non-Orthodox Islam, and the two groups have similar-sounding names because of their shared reverence for Ali, son-in-law of Mohamed. Nevertheless, Alawites and Alevis are in fact different groups ethnically and theologically, and confusing the two would be akin to saying that all Protestants are protestors. Just to name a few, here is a list of five ethnic and theological differences between the Alawites and the Alevis, detailed in length in a recent article published in Turkish daily Zaman:
1. Alevis are Turkish; some are Kurdish, but all of these groups pray in Turkish testifying to the Turkish roots of Alevism — Alevis are uniquely the only Muslims in the world who worship in a language other than Arabic. The Alawites in the Levante, on the other hand, are ethnic Arabs who pray in Arabic.
2. Alevis recognize the Quran, but often do not take its imperatives on worship and rite literally. Alawites reportedly believe that the Quran is distorted and that the original Quran is missing — or that their version is the original one. They also conduct their own rituals distinct from other groups.
3. Alawites view Ali as being divine, whereas Alevis merely respect him, among other reasons, as the first convert to Islam — an attitude not uncommon among many faithful Muslims, including Sunnis.
4. Alawites reportedly believe that Ali is god’s reincarnation, Alevis do not. Also whereas Alawites believe in reincarnation, Alevis think that heaven and hell, or afterlife, might exist, or that these could be allegories, giving the concepts an almost Dantesque flavor for the Alevis.
5. The Alawite faith is not open to women, and it is not traditionally taught to them; whereas Alevi men and women pray together, casting the Alevis unique among Muslims for not segregating men and women during worship.
As such, it would be a grave error to mistake the Turkish Alevi community for the Alawite communities on the Turkish-Syrian border. Confusing the two distinct groups would only serve to stoke sectarian tensions and further divide the Turkish public on the issue of involvement in Syria. Some Alevis, like many other staunchly secular-minded Turks, take issue with the rise of Sunni Muslim Brotherhood-led regimes in Damascus, which they fear might discriminate against or even persecute “non-orthodox” sects. Others, but also many Sunni Turks, are concerned over the security risks for Turkey of becoming more deeply involved on one side of the Syrian civil war. But Turkey’s Alevis as a whole, unlike Syria’s Alawites as a whole, are not predominantly supporters of Assad’s regime.
What is more, the issue has relevance for the Arab public, as well: Most Arabs in the Levante and the Maghreb are not exposed to non-Sunni Muslims. For instance, Northern Africa where the majority of Arabs live is almost exclusively Sunni. This leads many Arabs to conclude that all non-Sunnis are related to the Shia sect of Islam and that Alawites and Alevis are within the same off-shoot. This could lead to the assumption that the Turkish Alevi community of 10 million people is supporting the Syrian regime, hence associating them with atrocities committed by the Assad regime against the Syrian people. It is not uncommon to see commentators in the Arab media making this wrong assumption, hence introducing the Alevi community to the Arab world in the worst possible way. Alevis and Alawites are not the same, and it matters for Turks and Arabs, alike.
Khairi Abaza is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Soner Cagaptay is the Beyer Family fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute.