Turkish Alevi Poetry in the Twentieth Century: The Fusion of Political and Religious Identities

By Dressler, Markus | Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, Annual 2003 | Go to article overview

Turkish Alevi Poetry in the Twentieth Century: The Fusion of Political and Religious Identities


Dressler, Markus, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics


This article examines Turkish Alevi poetry in the twentieth century focusing on how the Alevi community integrates political issues within a traditionally religious genre. The figure of Kemal Ataturk, the state ideology of Kemalism, and the acts of violence the Alevi community have experienced under the Republic are recurring themes in this poetry. A contextual interpretation of Alevi poems contradicts our commonsense understanding of the supposedly distinct categories of religion and politics. The Alevi worldview does not operate with notions of "sacred" versus "profane" and indeed challenges our conception of religion and politics as distinct categories. The Alevi case provides us with a fascinating example of how we are caught in our terminological categories when we ignore the worldview of our subjects.

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[R]eligious studies as a cognitive discipline may actually distort or reduce that which it is claiming to investigate. As an example of this we shall consider the possibility that the secular framework upon which the modern discipline of religious studies is founded may actually subordinate religious phenomena and emic explanations of it to a secular meta-discourse. (Richard King, Orientalism and Religion, 42f.)

Entering Alevi spaces, such as association buildings, private living rooms, or cemevis, (1) one is very often confronted by a surprising visual arrangement: the portraits of the two Alevi saints, Ali and Haci Bektas, accompanied by that of Kemal Ataturk, the founding father and first president of the Turkish Republic, whose picture is almost omnipresent in Turkey. (2) Ataturk is commonly understood as a symbol for the state ideology of Kemalism, especially its key republican and secularist principles. Some Alevis, however, not only strongly uphold these republican and secularist principles, but also give them a religious meaning. These Alevis honor Ataturk as a saint, and also embed laicism and certain themes of republican history into their religious narrative.

About twenty percent of Turkish citizens are estimated to be of "Alevi" background. (3) The label "Alevism," referring to the veneration of the first Shiite Imam Ali, became popular at the beginning of the twentieth century, when it was applied to a number of regional socio-religious communities with similar beliefs, rituals, and social structures. (4)

The aim of the present paper is to investigate the fusion of religious and political identities of Alevism by examining Alevi religious poems of the twentieth century. Poetry is the medium in which this fusion is the most apparent. The medium of the poem offers a distinct voice that--through the use of the stylistic devices of metaphors and analogies--allows the formulation of positions not necessarily expressible in prose. I will look at the ways political issues are framed in these poems. Categorized according to topics, the given examples of Alevi poetry will illustrate the embedding of a variety of political themes in religious contexts.

To provide the background of the poems, it will first be necessary to outline some basic information about Alevi beliefs and history, as well as the role and the place of poetical tradition in Alevism. On a theoretical level, the goal here is to offer a sufficient explanation for the incorporation of political symbols and incidents into the religious narrative of Alevism. I will argue that the phenomenon has to be understood in the context of the societal developments of the twentieth century and the Alevi interpretation of these developments. However, I do not consider the historical approach alone as a sufficient explanation. There are particular aspects of the Alevi worldview that have to be taken into account. As I will try to show, the Alevi worldview has no proper equivalents for a paradigmatic way of thinking that explores religion by reference to dichotomous notions like religious/secular, religious/political or sacred/profane--especially if these notions are conceptualized in an essentialist manner. …

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