Diaspora, Identity, and Religion: New Directions in Theory and Research

By Waltraud Kokot; Khachig Tölölyan et al. | Go to book overview

8

Religion or culture?

Concepts of identity in the Alevi diaspora

Martin Sökefeld

There are two things in which the whole of Alevism is comprised. These are cem and semah.

Dede Hasan Kilavuz


Introduction

This paper focuses on one of these two things which according to the Alevi Dede quoted above are at the core of Alevism: Cem. 'Cem is the school of Alevism. Without Cem there is no Alevism,' writes another Dede, Mehmet Yaman from Istanbul (1998:5). In this chapter, I will explore the changes undergone by this Alevi ritual that parallel the processes of migration and the formation of diaspora. But my purpose is not a description and analysis of changing ritual. Rather I will discuss how a dispute about what Alevism means for Alevis in the diaspora or, to put it short, what Alevism is, is mirrored in discourses about cem and in the ritual practice. There is a fundamental disagreement among Alevis about what Alevism is, whether it is religion or culture. I will contrast the stereotypical representation of cem among Alevis with diasporic ritual practice and a case study of a particular cem in Hamburg. This enables me to point out a basic transformation in the character of the Alevi community.

In the final part of the chapter I will discuss a general issue of conceptualizing diaspora. Frequently, the formation and development is analysed with reference to questions of 'perpetuation and change' that arise after the moment of migration. The case of Alevis, however, gives some hints that this is a too narrow framework and that continuity and change have to be related to a more inclusive cultural continuum of ongoing transformations which connects country of origin and diaspora.

It is difficult to give a short introductory characterization of Alevism without apparently siding already with one of the two positions. One could start with a sentence like: Alevism originated as a religious minority in the power struggles which surrounded the formation of the Ottoman Empire in Anatolia. However, in order to avoid the contentious adjective 'religious' I will characterize Alevis simply as a minority.

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