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by JOSEPH RICHARD PREVILLE for ISLAMiCommentary on MAY 12, 2014:

How much do we know about Turkey’s minority community of Alevi Muslims? What are their struggles and aspirations – past and present? And, how do they figure in Turkey’s vigorous debates about history, identity, citizenship, and pluralism? Kabir Tambar takes a close look at the Turkish Alevis in his impressive new book, The Reckoning of Pluralism: Political Belonging and the Demands of History in Turkey (Stanford University Press, 2014).

Kabir Tambar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University. After earning his Ph.D. in 2009 from the University of Chicago, Tambar taught in the Department of Religion at the University of Vermont. He also served as a member in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey from 2011-2012. His scholarly work has appeared in History of the Present: A Journal of Critical History, American Ethnologist, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and Public Culture.

Kabir Tambar discusses his new book in this exclusive interview.

Who are the Turkish Alevis and why are they struggling to get government recognition?

Kabir Tambar
Kabir Tambar

Alevis are a sizable religious minority in Turkey (reportedly about 15%), with deep historical connections to Shi‘i Islamic communities and the Bektaşi Sufi order. Since the 1990s, Alevi groups have collectively asserted themselves in Turkey’s urban centers, performing their communal rituals in public and making demands on the state for access to governmental resources from which they have long been systematically excluded. In my book, I suggest that the question is not whether Alevis should be recognized, but how they have been recognized. What are the categories that the state uses to classify different populations and render them intelligible to governmental rationalities? What sorts of aesthetic contexts are supported by the state, and how does this official support work to privilege certain expressions of collective belonging at the expense of others? In short, how do state authorities mobilize forms of knowledge, aesthetics, and emotion to define and cultivate acceptable expressions of religious difference?

How are Alevis represented in official historical narratives of Turkey?

Alevi religious history has not been a major topic of official history writing in Turkey, but it also has not been entirely ignored. In the years leading up to the end of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the Turkish Republic, there was a concerted effort by nationalist political leaders to champion certain populations across Anatolia, including Alevis, as bearers of a Turkish national heritage. Alevi rituals were examined as evidence of an old and perduring presence of Turkish linguistic and cultural life. It was during this same period that certain populations – notably Greeks and Armenians – were being forcibly displaced from Anatolia, “exchanged” in population transfers, or deported and killed. In this volatile context before and after World War 1, territorial borders were being redefined, and entire populations were being told that they did or did not belong to a certain state. The “inclusion” of Alevis within the ethno-national imaginary of Turkey was one side of the same maneuver that “excluded” other communities of Anatolia from their historical homelands. In my book, I situate this question about how Alevis have been represented in official history in this setting, where the very act of history-writing was enmeshed in the political reorganization of southeastern Europe, Anatolia, and the Middle East.

Why should Turkey confront its history (tarihle yüzlesmek)?

Like many states across the broad geography that stretches from southeastern Europe across the Middle East, the Turkish Republic was founded amidst an extraordinary degree of violence. The “republican” project of ensuring universal citizenship – liberty and equality for all, regardless of the circumstances of birth – was itself shaped by a historical moment in which ethno-nationalist discourses of birth determined who could be a citizen of a given state. As I understand it, the idea of “confronting history,” as many people in Turkey today are using that phrase, is meant to draw attention to this violent past and its legacies in the present. At its most provocative, the idea of confronting history is one way of rethinking democratic futures. It allows us to ask whether democracy might not demand a robust critique of its own historical foundations in the formation of the modern nation-state.

Do you consider Turkey a pluralistic country?

The Ottoman Empire that preceded the Turkish Republic maintained a remarkably heterogeneous population in religious, linguistic, and ethnic terms. By the late nineteenth century, this heterogeneity became the source of political turbulence in new ways and for various reasons – partly because of the efforts of European powers to “protect” Christian communities residing in Ottoman lands; partly because of the global rise of ethno-national discourses and the political movements they propelled; and partly because the Ottoman state itself was severely weakened by wars with other imperial powers. By the time of the birth of the Turkish republic in 1923, political authorities insisted on defining the nation in strictly homogeneous terms. Historical pluralities were not exhaustively eliminated from the territories that became Turkey in the twentieth century. The reason that pluralism today elicits such contentious commentary is that it draws attention to the ongoing traces of this heterogeneity and to the history of political power that has sought to discipline and regulate its expression.

How is Turkey a land of contradictions?

Turkey is often said to be a land of contradictions – where east meets west, where Islam and secularism are bridged, and so on. I find that many of those metaphors are premised on misleading assumptions about the differences said to exist between Turkey and Europe or between Muslim societies and the secular West. There are contradictions that I think are worth highlighting, but they are ones that many states around the world are grappling with today: for example, the idea of republican citizenship was meant to guarantee liberties and equality for all, but it was proclaimed by a state founded in exclusionary violence. It’s important, I think, to de-exceptionalize this contradiction. The source of this contradiction lies not in the particularities of a certain state or nation — much less in the specificities of a religion or culture — but lies in the international political system put into place in the early twentieth century. Given that this contradiction manifests itself most strongly as a question of borders — who is included or excluded in a state — it is imperative that we don’t frame our understanding of the contradiction itself in a way that presupposes that border; for instance, between east and west.

How can Turkey reconcile its contradictions to create a better society for all its citizens?

I can only speak tentatively here, but I don’t work from the assumption that this contradiction is reconcilable by the Turkish state, since the state itself is a product of that contradiction. As I discuss in the book, state authorities have embarked on various projects for managing some of the constitutive tensions of political belonging, but these projects are regulatory. They don’t aim at transcending or resolving the contradictions that beleaguer the state, precisely because the state’s own identity is caught up in those contradictions.

What lessons in your research can be applied to an assessment of the turbulent state of Turkish politics today; particularly rifts between ruling (AKP) supporters, Gulen Movement adherents, secularists, Kurds and others ? Is there hope for reconciliation given Turkey’s history?

In observing calls for “reconciliation” among different political actors in Turkey, I find myself interested in the concept itself. Reconciliation often implies that the parties coming together have equal capacities for public participation and speech. It is worth exploring, I think, whose visions of the historical past and political future are privileged in this process. What political practices, projects, and imaginings provide a ground for this coming-together, and which actors find a space upon it? In “hoping for reconciliation,” we should be careful not to overlook the actually existing asymmetries that continue to organize social and political life in Turkey. It is also important to remember that political alignments are always contingent, even though they often only appear as such after they fall apart. Calls for reconciliation are often motivated by the aim of stabilizing particular alignments. As scholars, it is worth remaining aware of these kinds of motivations, particularly when they are backed by coercive force. In what ways do public authorities mobilize concepts like “reconciliation” to regulate the terrain of politics itself? An important task of scholarship, as I see it, is to turn our analytical lens on social concepts that circulate with such significant political stakes.


Joseph Richard Preville is an American writer living in Nizwa, Oman. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Tikkun, The Jerusalem Post, Muscat Daily, and Saudi Gazette. He is also a regular contributor to ISLAMiCommentary.

This article was made possible by the Transcultural Islam Project, an initiative launched in 2011 by the Duke Islamic Studies Center — in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations and the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies — aimed at deepening understanding of Islam and Muslim communities. See and for more information. The Transcultural Islam Project is funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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