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12.00  Acknowledgement as a Precursor to Heritage: The Alevi Muslim Minority and the Legal Recognition of Religious Architecture in the Turkish Republic

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9:00, Monday 6 Jun 2016 (30 minutes)

The conceptualization of heritage can only resonate when a community has achieved acknowledgement of its role in society. For minority groups, the concept of heritage is internalized and utilized for the preservation and continuation of practices, traditions, and the transmission of knowledge and identity. Yet this heritage may be, for all intents and purposes, invisible or beyond the detection of mainstream society, or decried as something anathema to the precepts of the culture at large. This leads to a particular set of concerns and problems: if a way of life or tradition of belief is presented as something fundamentally wrong, religiously forbidden, or illegal, how can practitioners argue for the critical nature and transmission value of its material and cultural heritage?

This paper will present the Alevi Muslim minority in Turkey and their struggles to receive official acknowledgement of their places of worship as a case study in the historical and legal ramifications of recognition and inclusion as elements leading toward heritage. The Alevis and their ancestors have practiced some 700 years in what is now the Turkish Republic and its surrounding states. Alevis reject many of the tenets of the mainstream Sunni Islam that has dominated the region since the thirteenth century. They eschew the paradigmatic mosque as their site of congregational worship, choosing instead to gather at ceremonial sites known as cemevis, literally “houses of the cem [ceremony].” 

Turkish law has been used to prohibit groups like the Alevis from operating private places of worship, and Alevis often find themselves struggling to license and maintain their cemevis and centres. Cases have reached the Turkish Court of Appeals, the highest level of the judicial system, and petitions have been brought before the Turkish National Assembly for parliamentary discussion. The very existence of religious spaces unique to Alevis requires on-going advocacy, which is hindered by the lack of understanding of their needs and practices by the general public, in spite of the fact that there are an estimated fifteen to twenty million Alevis living in Turkey and abroad today. 

This paper is the product of site analyses of Alevi cemevis and cultural centres, the collection of oral histories assembled during interviews over the course of several years, and a review of media accounts of judicial proceedings and the official records of the Turkish National Assembly pertaining to issues of Alevi architectural recognition, autonomy, and agency. This is an interdisciplinary undertaking with elements of architectural history, anthropology, social history, and legal and religious studies, which, combined, point toward religious architecture as a human rights issue with identifiable legal and heritage concerns. Alevis continue to struggle to claim their integral role in Turkish society and their resistance toward the refusal of the government to recognize their legal claims to places of worship on the Turkish landscape.

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