In Turkey, Religious Differences Battled Out In Building Project

In an Ankara suburb, a new religious complex is going up, promoted as a bridge of understanding between the Sunni majority and Turkey's largest religious minority, the Alevis. But the combination mosque and cemevi, or assembly house, has provoked protests and anger in the poor neighborhood. Alevis are up in arms about what they call an effort by the Sunnis to assimilate them into Turkey's dominant mainstream religious culture.

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In a working-class suburb of Turkey's capital, there have been running clashes between the country's Sunni Muslim majority and the minority Alevi minority. A new religious complex was intended to bring the two groups together. Instead, it has heightened tensions between them. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports that the growing sectarian hostilities next door in Syria are only making relations worse.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: In the basement of a nondescript apartment building in a largely Alevi working-class neighborhood of Ankara, an Alevi ritual is going on just a few blocks from where a new Sunni mosque and Alevi cemevi, or gathering house, are going up.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

KENYON: In a sight never seen in most Muslim rituals, Alevi men and women mix together on the carpeted floor, singing and going through dances and prayers that have evolved from a mix of Sufi, Islamic and pre-Islamic traditions. Because of the similarity in their names, Turkish Alevis are often confused with Syrian Alawites, the minority that includes President Bashar al-Assad's family. In fact, the two are different in several ways, but both fear repression from Sunni Muslims. In Syria, Alawites fear the growing strength of Islamist fighters among the largely Sunni rebels, while Turkish Alevis fear their government's willingness to let Islamist fighters move through Turkey could reawaken old sectarian tensions here. Alevi elder Mehmet Uzuner says a project that shoves Turkish Sunnis and Alevis up against each other will only provoke needless animosity.

MEHMET UZUNER: (foreign language spoken)

KENYON: If they're built together, the mosque loudspeaker will blare out the call to prayer and we won't be able to hear ourselves, he says. And likewise, our singing and dancing might disturb their prayers. Supporters of this mosque-cemevi project dismiss such complaints, noting that Sunnis and Alevis have worshipped in close proximity for years. The project is sponsored by an Alevi foundation and the influential Sunni figure Fetullah Gulen. Dogan Bermek, head of an Alevi federation, says it's a response to the biggest threat facing both Alevis in Turkey and Alawites in Syria right now - sectarian divisions that have grown violent as the Arab Spring uprisings have evolved.

DOGAN BERMEK: People have used this Arab Spring to create a Sunni-Alevi fight, a Sunni-Alevi clash, especially in Syria right now. And there is a great tendency to reflect this Sunni-Alevi clash to Turkey also. First of all, this is a strong reaction to those people, saying in Turkey we are not going to buy what you are selling in Syria.

KENYON: But the involvement of Gulen, a controversial figure who inspires devotion in some and bitter suspicion in others, has only heightened the opposition. Alevi activist Ali Keninoglu argues that the mosque-cemevi project is part of a long effort to assimilate Alevis into the Sunni mainstream.

ALI KENINOGLU: (foreign language spoken)

KENYON: This project will be a model to prove that cemevis aren't real houses of worship, he says. Gulen and others have said this in the past, that just going to cemevi is not real worship.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION)

KENYON: At the site of the new mosque and cemevi compound, the resentments are more local and practical.

MUSTAFA TAN: (foreign language spoken)

KENYON: Sitting amid crumbling old houses and shops, Alevi Mustafa Tan and his Sunni friend Adil Eli say theirs is a neighborhood of Alevis and opponents of the government, and has suffered for it. No one can get a building permit here. They said the ground was unstable. None of us can rebuild our houses, says Mustafa, but all of a sudden these guys come with their big project and, boom, the permits are approved and up it goes. Adil says it's not so much about religion as wanting a little respect for the neighborhood. I don't want a mosque or a cemevi here, he says. What about a swimming pool? At least that would be useful. Project supporter Dogan Bermek agrees that Turkey has long failed its Alevi minority. The latest evidence is the government's new package of reform proposals which all but ignores Alevi demands. But he says this project isn't part of what he calls the Sunnification of Turkey but a reaction to it, and a warning to the government that its policy of giving Syrian rebels of all stripes unstinting support is pulling Turkey deeper into a regional morass of sectarian tensions.

BERMEK: The tendency of government is not to take such warnings. If you look at the Syrian policy, when they believe something is right they go on with that until they hit the wall. And even after hitting the wall they say that this wall was too bad.

(LAUGHTER)

BERMEK: But we have to find ways to live together.

KENYON: For now, however, this project meant to promote peace and harmony is expected to draw even bigger protests as construction continues. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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