Alevis in Turkey have been struggling against denial and seeking official recognition. The creation of a religious site for Alevis in Diyarbakir provides an opportunity for Alevi citizens to practice their faith. However, given that Alevis have been subjected to massacres and pogroms and systematically discriminated against in Turkey, this project also helps to carry out core functions of memorialization, such as the provision of justice and non-discrimination. This memorialization effort also enables Alevis to experience a certain degree of healing, since it grants them wider recognition and contributes to ending discrimination. At the dedication ceremony, leaders of NGOs fighting for Alevi rights emphasized that solidarity with oppressed groups would build a new Turkey, meaning the further democratization of Turkey. Osman Baydemir, the mayor of Diyarbakir, highlighted the multi-cultural and multi-faith history of the city, as well as the need for communities to live their faiths.
The Turkish state has not recognized the Alevi identity as a distinct ethno-religious identity since the establishment of the republic in 1923, and this policy continues to this day. Although the Turkish Republic claims to be secular on a constitutional basis, the Directorate of Religious Affairs, an institution subordinate to the Prime Minister’s office, has regulated all religious activity since 1924, based on the principles and practices of Sunni Islam. This institution has refused to recognize the Alevi faith and has pursued a variety of discriminatory policies. These include not providing houses of worship for Alevis (called cemevi) apart from mosques, and refusing to fund the expenses of existing cemevis. According to Sunni Islamic discourse, the Alevi faith is a sect of Islam; since mosques are the only “true” places of prayer for Muslims, there is no room to acknowledge cemevi as sacred and distinct religious institutions. Yet the Alevi faith and Sunni Islam differ substantially on philosophical and practical grounds. More importantly, the insistence by the Alevi population that cemevi be recognized as their official religious sites does not, in their view, aim to create boundaries with Sunni Muslims, but is about enabling the survival of the Alevi faith. Since the Justice and Development Party (the AKP) came to power in 2002, they have several times promised a so-called “Alevi opening”—a liberalization of the rules regarding Alevis–but these initiatives have not been translated into policy, mainly because of the government’s ideological views.
Construction of the Diyarbakir Cemevi began in July 2011, with a ceremony attended by representatives of various civil society organizations, the mayor of Diyarbakir, and religious leaders. The building process did not take long, and the Diyarbakir Cemevi was dedicated in a crowded ceremony in December 2011. Many NGOs that advocated Alevi rights were present at this ceremony, in addition to the mayor of Diyarbakir, other leading political figures from the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), representatives of the Pir Sultan Abdal Cultural Association, the Alevi Bektashi Federation, the Confederation of Alevi Associations in Europe and a number of other NGOs, religious community leaders, and thousands of people who attended to show their solidarity with Alevis. The main purpose of the project was to provide a religious site for Alevis in which they can practice their religion. The building contains various sections specifically designed for religious and social purposes: a hall to be used for the religious ritual known as “cem,” a conference room, a place for the religious ritual of lokma (the sacrifice and sharing of food), a room for paying respects to the families of the deceased, an administrative office, cafeteria and mortuary. During the opening ceremony for the Diyarbakir Cemevi, the whirling ceremony of “semah” was also performed. Naming sections of the Cemevi helps to keep alive the memory of victims in Alevi history. For example, the conference room is named Seyit Rıza Conference Hall, referring to a Kurdish-Alevi leader executed in 1938 in the course of the Dersim Massacre. Since the Diyarbakir Cemevi was opened, it has also hosted various conferences and activities addressing the history, faith and identity of Alevis.
In February 2013, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said, “Cemevis are sites of cultural activity. In Islam, the mosque is where you pray. In Christianity, have you ever heard of a place other than a church? Our Alevi brothers are Muslims like us, and they have a different interpretation of Islam.” The main challenge to the purposes of this project has been this government attitude that the Alevi faith is merely a different version of Sunni Islam. This attitude encourages the persistence of an ethno-religious hierarchy in Turkey and implicitly justifies discriminatory policies towards the Alevi population. Today, although the total number of mosques in Turkey is 82,693, there are only 937 cemevis. Considering that millions of Alevis live in Turkey, these figures highlight the extent of discrimination against the Alevi faith. Recently, Hüseyin Aygün, an Alevi deputy, requested the establishment of a cemevi in the Turkish parliament for Alevi MPs and workers, but his suggestion was not welcomed by the government.