PLEASE SCROLL DOWN FOR ARTICLE This article was downloaded by: [Erol, Ayhan]  On: 10 August 2010  Access details: Access Details: [subscription number 925513484]  Publisher Routledge  Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK Middle Eastern Studies Publication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information: Re-Imagining Identity: The Transformation of the Alevi Semah Ayhan ErolOnline publication date: 09 August 2010 To cite this Article Erol, Ayhan(2010) 'Re-Imagining Identity: The Transformation of the Alevi Semah', Middle EasternStudies, 46: 3, 375 — 387 To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/00263201003682982 URL: Full terms and conditions of use: article may be used for research, teaching and private study purposes. Any substantial orsystematic reproduction, re-distribution, re-selling, loan or sub-licensing, systematic supply ordistribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden.The publisher does not give any warranty express or implied or make any representation that the contentswill be complete or accurate or up to date. The accuracy of any instructions, formulae and drug dosesshould be independently verified with primary sources. The publisher shall not be liable for any loss,actions, claims, proceedings, demand or costs or damages whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directlyor indirectly in connection with or arising out of the use of this material.  Re-Imagining Identity: TheTransformation of the Alevi Semah AYHAN EROL Without understanding who Alevis are or what Alevism is, I think that it isimpossible to know what Alevi ritual dance, the semah , is. Thus it would be useful togive a short introduction to the historical emergence of Alevism and the Alevis. Upto the sixteenth century, there was no evidence of the existence of the socio-religiousor political group later known as the Alevi. Principles associated with the Alevi sectsuch as teberra , withdrawing, for example, or religious themes like the TwelveImams’ du ¨ vezdeh imam and the martyrdom of Imam Huseyin at Kerbela do notappear in the nefes , hymns, before the sixteenth century. 1 Historically Alevismemerged from the numerous heterodox groups of Asia Minor which had closereligious and military links to the Safavids in sixteenth century Iran. 2 There werevarious heteredox groups in Anatolia with more or less close relations to oneanother. With the emergence of the Safavi Dynasty, however, two tendencies beganto differentiate these groups. The Sufi-influenced beliefs existed all along and theseheterodox groups became visible due to the Safavi influence. As the Safavid threat inthe east grew stronger throughout the sixteenth century, the Ottoman state becameintolerant towards other practices of Islam apart from those of the Sunnis. It was atthis point that Alevi communities began to experience political oppression.According to the Ottomans, Alevis were Safavid ‘collaborators’, and were knownas kizilbas (red-heads), in reference to the red turbans of the Safavid soldiers.Thereafter, the Alevis were oppressed not only by the state, but were also disliked bythe Sunni community. In the collective memories of most Sunni groups, the Alevicommunities were not considered to be ‘proper Muslims’ and their villages andneighbourhoods were marked as the world of ‘the other’.The Alevis in Turkey have allegiance to the Twelve Imams, who are patrilinealdescendants of the Prophet Muhammed’s cousin and son-in-law Imam Ali, but theyare certainly not a part of Iranian Shiism. It is a serious mistake to think of Alevis asShia Muslims. Alevism is a kind of religious syncretism or semi-syncretistic religiousbelief based on ancient Turkish beliefs which still have some elements of animismand shamanism in them and which, at some point in their history, have integratedsome ideas borrowed from Shiism. 3 Culturally, Alevism is linked to the Muslimworld. However, it represents an Islam that has distanced itself from everything thatrepresents Muslim orthodoxy, even from Shiism. One of the most obviousdifferences between the Shiism of Iran and the Shia-related Alevis of Turkmenistan,Azerbaijan and Turkey is their attitude to music. 4 Middle Eastern Studies,Vol. 46, No. 3, 375–387, May 2010 ISSN 0026-3206 Print/1743-7881 Online/10/030375-13 ª 2010 Taylor & FrancisDOI: 10.1080/00263201003682982  D o w nl o ad ed  B y : [ E r ol ,  A yh a n]  A t : 09 :41 10  A u g u s t 2010  The name Alevi sometimes appears in English as Alawi, Alawite, Alouite, orAlevi-Bektashi. At this point, it might be useful to indicate the relationshipbetween Alevism and Bektashism since it is common in scholarship on the subjectto speak of ‘Alevism-Bektashism’ as one and the same phenomenon. This epithetemphasizes the shared principles between the two groups, and overlooks somecritical differences. As a Sufi order, Bektashism shares the basic beliefs andsymbols of Alevism but, in contrast to it, membership in the order depends onvoluntary association. In other words, anyone can become a Bektashi if he wishesand if he is found to be worthy. But one cannot become an Alevi if one is notborn an Alevi. The beliefs of the Alevi are identical to those of the Bektashis.Both groups refer to Hacı Bektas¸i Veli, 5 a Turkish dervish, who came to Anatoliaaround the year 1230. Many Alevis believe that Hacı Bektas¸i Veli is the thirteenthcentury manifestation of Imam Ali. But the Bektashis formed an organizedgroup, whereas the Kızılbas¸-Alevi, who stayed in their villages, remained more orless disorganized. The Bektashi follow an unchangeable ritual whereas theKızılbas¸-Alevi believe in myths in which legends are mingled with local folklore. 6 It is therefore possible to say that the Alevis can be referred to as ‘ruralBektashis’ while the Bektashis can be referred to as ‘urban Alevis’. The beliefs of both groups are syncretic. They contain elements from different srcins, belongingto religions with which the Turkic people have been in contact: Buddhism,Manicheism, Nestorian or local Christianity. Thus, both insider and outsiderperspectives stress the heterodox or syncretic feature of Alevism as a traditionwithin Islam.The Alevi readiness to accept an internalized God, the importance they give toImam Ali, their permitting men and women to worship together, their distrust of mosques are unorthodox perceptions of faith within a society where orthodoxinterpretations of religious life are dominant. 7 Ahmet Yas¸ar Ocak has argued thatthe diverse roots of Alevi belief and culture are not just in Islam but also in othertraditions such as Christianity, shamanism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, and particu-larly in the prehistoric Anatolian religions. 8 In spite of its syncretistic belief structure,which shows strong traces of gnosticism, the community recognizes itself inside thegeneral frame of Islam. 9 There is no doubt that heterodoxies, gnosticism andsyncretism are generally not well explained by means of unilinear evolutionist modelsor from a unidimensional perspective. Nevertheless, the Turkish elements in Alevismare decidedly prominent. 10 Determining how many Alevis there are today in Turkey is practicallyimpossible since they have had to conceal their identity for so long even thoughthere has been an unprecedented rise in their political exposure in the past twodecades. Although it is hardly possible to do more than estimate, however, itmight be reasonably argued that the Alevi is not a minor community, withapproximately 15–20 per cent of the population or, according to other estimates,6–10 million adherents, it represents at the very least 10 per cent, more probably25 per cent of the entire population of Turkey, which is now 73 million. 11 Anatolian Alevis are ethnically mixed communities including Arabic-speakinggroups and Kurdish Alevis who speak a mother tongue called Zaza orKırmanchi. While 75 per cent of Alevis in Turkey are Turkish and 20 per centof the total Alevi population is Kurdish. The rest of the Alevis are made up of 376 A. Erol   D o w nl o ad ed  B y : [ E r ol ,  A yh a n]  A t : 09 :41 10  A u g u s t 2010  smaller ethnic populations. Today’s Anatolian Alevis (Alevis who live in Turkey)do not often associate themselves with the groups in Iran, Iraq or Syria, thoughthey are quick to point out their similarities with certain Turkic-speaking groupsin Central Asia and with the Bektashis of the Balkans.Anatolian Alevis are not one unified group, nor do they even have a concretehistorical entity. They have had the understanding of a plural Alevism from thebeginning. Indeed, not just ‘Alevi’, but even ‘Kurd’ and ‘Turk’ may be regarded asbecoming common currency comparatively recently, or at the very least as havingchanged their meaning very substantially since the Republic of Turkey was formed. 12 In practice, however, any claim to be a true form of Alevisim will be empricallyincorrect, simply because Alevism has taken very complex forms over the centuriesto adopt new conditions. When the heterogenity of the Alevi movement during thelast two decades is taken into account, it is obvious that the case is more complex.Without overlooking the vast difference between Alevi communities, how should wedefine Alevism?Identity is a name given to the escape sought from uncertainty. Identities are,therefore, the names given to different ways we are positioned by, and positionourselves within the narratives of the past. One definition of ‘cultural identity’ is howone identifies oneself in terms of belonging to a group, whether that group is basedon race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, education, lifestyle and so on. Alevism is asense of belonging for the people who call themselves Alevis and who are recognizedas Alevis by outsiders, namely Sunnis or non-Alevis, which they have constructed byconsidering what things are common to themselves and what the differences arebetween themselves and ‘others’. 13 This definition is valid for all communities whichcome together on the basis of cultural difference, because people tend to develop asense of belonging to a particular group. Moreover, quantities or qualities are notimportant in cultural identity, but rather the composition of elements distinguishingthe groups from one another. The reason for the cultural difference might be formedin different ways such as religion, language, ethnical root, nation, ideology, commonhistory, or lifestyle. This conceptualization does not exclude the different definitionsand perceptions of Alevism, which are historically constructed or reproduced fromdifferent reference points. In other words, this approach allows Alevism to beperceived as a religious belief, cultural or political system or formation. Thus whileAlevis see themselves as part of the wider Alevi community, they emphasize theconcept of ‘unitary’. An Alevi community may develop a sense of singularity bythinking of themselves as unique. Alevis sometimes define themselves as differentAlevi in order to mark their differences. This stems from the point of referenceindicated by the community. It also provides the opportunity for the Alevicommunity to imagine themselves as a specific collectivity, which is guided by a ‘suigeneris’ Alevism.Social groups are unified by a common ‘imagination’ as well as the ability toidentify genuine cultural differences and similarities across groups. The existence of common symbols provides grounds for linking different Alevi communities.However, these are interpreted and used in different ways by the Alevis. Theambiguity of symbols is important because it enables people to manipulate symbolicmeanings for their own purposes. Is there a certain unifying symbol which allowsAlevis to see themselves as a collectivity? As a historical and mythological The Transformation of the Alevi Semah 377  D o w nl o ad ed  B y : [ E r ol ,  A yh a n]  A t : 09 :41 10  A u g u s t 2010  personality, Imam Ali is the most convenient starting point to identify the mostimportant symbolic marker of Alevi cultural identity.Having been marginalized socially, politically, and geographically since thesixteenth century, Anatolian Alevis formed their own rules, and thus drew apartfrom the direction of the central authorities. 14 In this process, religious and socialauthority within the community was held by ‘holy men’, dedes , belonging to ahereditary priestly caste. Dedes trace their allegiance through saint Hacı Bektas¸ Veliback to Imam Cafer, Imam Ali and the Prophet Muhammed. Although all menwithin a dede lineage are theoretically qualified to teach Alevism, this is not the casein practice, and not all dedes are active. It is the cem ritual officiated by the dede thatappears as the most significant phenomenon in this process. The cem ritual serves toreinforce social solidarity through teaching the doctrines of the sect. The cem ritualscould be described as the secret gatherings of the Alevi communities who have notbeen able to express themselves and their identity within the framework of theprevailing social order, and have come to live outside that order. Thus the cem ritualfunctioned, for the Alevi masses, as a mechanism of justice, education, ordering of social relations, and a means for solving the spiritual problems of the society. Inrural areas, these ceremonies concerned with the resolution of disputes within thecommunity took place in one of the larger houses belonging to a member of thecommunity. Reconciliations always took place before cem rituals, because accordingto the Alevi creed it was forbidden to worship unless all taking part in the ritual areat peace with one another. Until the early 1990s, Alevis actively avoided explainingtheir beliefs to outsiders and were against permitting non-Alevis to participate intheir rituals. By the mid-1990s they began to hold their rituals publicly in the Cemevis in Turkish cities and in their cultural centres in the diaspora. 15 The song ( deyis , lit.‘saying’ or nefes , lit. ‘breath’) and dance ( semah , sema , lit. ‘audition’) are of centralsignificance in the cem rituals. At the same time they are perceived as an expressionof faith. The religious repertory is usually based on subjects which relate to theProphet Muhammed, Imam Ali, Imam Hu ¨seyin and others.The role of the musician in the cem is of major importance because he is one of the12 assistants who are named according to their specialized ritual function and thehistorical-mythological figures they represent in the ritual. He is referred to as zakir ,  guvende , sazende or asık , depending on regional usage. In its ritual setting, religiousmusic is performed by a zakir with accompanying ba   glama , also called saz , thegeneral name of the long-necked lute with moveable frets, plucked with a tezene (aplectrum). This is the basic instrument for Alevis. Learning the musical repertory of the zakir ’s own community involves more than performance skills. It includes beingexperienced in the values associated with Alevism as understood by the community.In other words, in some Alevi communities in Anatolia the young men of  dede families are expected to play ba   glama because of their important religious roles.Among many Alevi communities dedes are therefore at the same time zakirs . 16 The semah produces a context in which the unity, harmony and concord of Alevicommunities are at a maximum, and in which they are felt intensely by everymember. The semah with its accompanying song may therefore be described as anactivity in which, by virtue of the effects of rhythm and melody, all members of anAlevi community are able to cooperate and act in unison. Performed by men andwomen to the accompaniment of the ba   glama , the semah is an inseparable part of the378 A. Erol   D o w nl o ad ed  B y : [ E r ol ,  A yh a n]  A t : 09 :41 10  A u g u s t 2010