Academic journal article Law, Social Justice and Global Development Journal

Religious Courts Alongside Secular State Courts: The Case of the Turkish Alevis

Academic journal article Law, Social Justice and Global Development Journal

Religious Courts Alongside Secular State Courts: The Case of the Turkish Alevis

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Today there is increasing awareness that religious law still plays a role in secular societies and their legal systems. Religion has become a more prominent identity both within states and across state borders--be it Islam worldwide, Catholicism and Protestant Evangelism in South America, or Christianity in the USA. (1) It is further accepted that religious convictions of political actors have an influence on politics, and that state law grants a certain free realm for the performance of religion (religious gatherings, processions etc). More ambiguous however is the role of religion and religious symbols in secular courts and courtrooms, and the co-existence of religious courts separate from a secular legal system in a specific state. These religious courts seem to question the legitimacy of the nation state. (2) Religious courts are only tolerated and accepted if they respect the boundaries set by state law. That is why Sharia Councils and the Jewish Beth Din in secular states present themselves as courts of arbitration, and not courts of law. (3)

Post 9/11 there has been particular interest in Islam or 'sharia' and this has led to Islam being one of the most researched and reported religions in Europe in recent years. Recent social science research has investigated the social position and development of the Muslim community in Western countries, the rise of Islam and Islamic fundamentalism in Arab and other countries, and the position of Islamic law in countries with a dominant Muslim population (Mirza, Senthilkumaran and Ja'far 2007; Otto 2006; Otto, Dekker and Van Soest-Zuurdeeg 2006).These publications do not fail to note that Islam and its law are pluralistic, comprising not only the Sunni-Shia division, but also the established schools of Islamic law: Jafari (the dominant school in the Shia branch), Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i, and Hanbali. Apart from these official schools of law however, each local Islamic sect has its own interpretation of what is 'the path'. One of these sects is the Alevis from Turkey.

In this article I focus on legal anthropological aspects of the Alevis in the Netherlands and Turkey. I started my research into the Alevi legal culture in 1999. (4) Since then I have regularly visited Alevi associations to observe meetings and interview people. I have interviewed key informants of the Alevi community in the Netherlands and I attend several cem ceremonies a year (a cem is a religious ceremony, more detailed explanation follows below). I have also visited Alevi associations in Germany and in Turkey in both rural and urban areas, and have observed several cem ceremonies there. I videotaped most of the cems I attended, in order to be able (with help of insiders) to accurately describe what happens and to transcribe the dialogues. The cases I present below are taken from these transcriptions.

The Alevis are an interesting group not only because they are considered one of the Ghulat sects within Islam (Ghulat meaning they show an excessive love for the twelve Imams Moosa 1988), but also because they have--in a legal anthropological sense--their own rules of law and legal procedure. In the Netherlands this situation of legal pluralism up until today did not pose any practical problems, because the type of cases dealt with in the Alevi legal system make a potential conflict with Dutch state law unlikely. The situation is different in Turkey, where conflicts between Alevis law and state law are more likely to occur. The tension brought about by the situation of legal pluralism will endure for quite some time in Turkey, because Alevi culture partly constitutes itself as a suppressed minority culture there: one man/woman? I interviewed related a typical presumption that 'State and Sunni religious institutions cannot be trusted, so it's best to hide particular religious practices from too many public eyes'. …

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