Turkey and the Alevis

Letter From Istanbul

A street vendor sells Turkish flags in Istanbul, January 2017. Murad Sezer / Reuters

In an unverified recording released in November, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State (ISIS), demanded that his followers wage war against Turkey. “Turkey today entered your range of action and the aim of your jihad,” Baghdadi said to his loyalists, and further instructed them to “invade it and turn its safety into fear.” The declaration followed Ankara’s decision, in late August, to send troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria

Then, on New Year’s Eve, a gunman, allegedly affiliated with ISIS, killed 39 people and wounded dozens more in a shooting at a ritzy nightclub in Istanbul. The attacker escaped; Turkish authorities claim to have identified him and are engaged in a manhunt, but have not released his name, and the country remains in a state of emergency. The attack, meanwhile, has sharpened divisions between secularists and Islamists, some of whom look favorably on the death of revelers celebrating an “un-Islamic” holiday such as New Year’s, which in Turkey is associated with Christianity. 

The club shooting is thus the latest example of ISIS’ strategy of stoking existing schisms in Turkish society. Over the last two years, the group’s bombings have killed hundreds in Turkey, with victims from different religions and ethnicities. But ISIS is also trying to fan the flames of sectarianism, and experts worry that Alevis, the country’s largest religious minority, may be its next target. 


Alevism is a unique branch of Islam found in Turkey. About one-fifth of Turkey’s 80 million people, including both ethnic Kurds and Turks, are Alevis. Like Shiites, Alevis revere Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, and like Sufis they focus on spirituality. Their differences with other mainstream Muslims in terms of ritual and custom, however, are vast. Alevis tend to be liberal and leftist. They don’t pray in mosques, they don’t fast during Ramadan, and Alevi women rarely cover their hair unless they are in the prayer hall. According

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