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Writing Religion: The Making of Turkish Alevi Islam by Markus Dressler (review)
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Writing Religion: The Making of Turkish Alevi Islam, by Markus Dressler. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013. 323 pages. $58.50.

Markus Dressler’s work is absolutely brilliant in its critical and elaborate reading of the ways in which the Alevi identity in Turkey has been historically and politically constructed. The main premise of Writing Religion is that the Alevi Question in Turkey is historically related to the formation of secular Turkish nationalism. He basically questions the assumption that Alevis are mainly ethnically Turkish, and that they are syncretic in their belief system. He argues that such assumptions are relatively very new, and date back to the early years of Turkish nationalism propagated by first the Committee for Unity and Progress, and then by the Kemalists. Tracing the footsteps of a particular kind of scholarship of the founders of contemporary Turkish nationalism concentrating on the Turkic and Islamic elements of the Alevi-Bektashi belief system, Dressler concludes that Turkish Alevism is nothing but a construct, aiming at the incorporation of a heterogeneous group of people into the newly established Turkish nation from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Dressler elaborately analyzes the texts of Mehmed Fuad Köprülü and tries to convince the reader that not only Köprülü, but also his predecessors such as Ziya Gökalp and Baha Sait; along with Köprülü’s students and successors such as Irène Mélikoff, Abdülbaki Gölpınarlı, Ömer Lütfi Barkan, Halil İnalcık, Ahmet Yaşar Ocak, and the others have all contributed to the so-called scientific attempts of aligning the Alevis with the newly emerging Turkish nationalist rhetoric by underlining their Turkish and Islamic elements.

Referring to my own works, I could also confirm that the intellectual efforts underlining the proximity between Alevi-Bektashis and the new Turkish Republic were revitalized in the 1960s. Hüseyin Cahit Yalçın, İsmail Hakkı Baltacıoğlu, Nurettin Artam, Falih Rıfkı Atay, Ahmet Emin Yalman, Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu, Hasan Âli Yücel, Fikret Otyam, Doğan Avcıoğlu, Mümtaz Soysal, Kemal Karpat, and Cihad Baban published several works stressing that Alevism is the cultural self-defense of the Turks facing the imposition of Arab traditions through Islam, an imposition which became obvious in the 1950s through the conservative and populist Democratic Party (DP) rule. These intellectuals, who were not of Alevi descent, were convinced that Sunni Islam had become very reactionary (irtica) and violent in the 1950s, taking too much space in the public realm through the erection of numerous mosques, disseminating Arabic scripts all around the country, and an arrogant discourse against Alevis and non-Muslims. The vocalism of the non-Alevi intellectuals with a left-wing orientation was also supported by Alevi intellectuals such as Halil Öztoprak, Cemal Özbey, Sefer Aytekin, Kazım Kızılca, İzzettin Doğan, and Niyazi Düzgün.

The book is also very rich in attempting, by referring to the memoirs of the Christian missionaries in the 19th century, to establish parallels between Christianity and Alevism. Hence, I admire the author for having analyzed both the intellectual and ideological sources of Alevism propagated by the Christian missionaries and Turkish nationalists trying to incorporate the Alevis into their own cultural and religious milieu. However, I should also say a few words about my criticisms on the work. First, the book starts with a misleading introduction concentrating on the “Alevi opening” of the Justice and Development Party in late 2000s. I understand the concern of the writer in contextualizing his book, but the introduction does not really match the body of the book. Second, although the book is entitled Turkish Alevi Islam, it contains a disproportionate amount of material on the Kurdish Alevis as a distinct ethno-cultural-religious group. Third, the author does not inform the reader about the sources of the syncretic nature of the Alevi-Bektashi belief system, but only defines the discourse of syncreticism as an ideological attempt of the Turkish nationalists to incorporate the Alevis into the nation-building process. (One could...