Turkey’s presidential candidate Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu has shattered a longstanding political taboo in the country.
The man now facing a run-off election against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did so with a simple statement in a video released online: “I am a sincere Alevi Muslim.”
Alevi. pic.twitter.com/C9Pd1ZaKoN— Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (@kilicdarogluk) April 19, 2023
Kiliçdaroğlu’s courageous words were soon watched over 60 million times. They sparked a profound and wide-ranging discussion on the Alevi community, a minority group in Turkey.
It reignited debate on the political, cultural and social aspects of the Alevis, seen by some as a distinct branch of Shiite Islam, but by others as a different religion.
Regardless of such exact specifics, Alevis are a distinct minority group in Turkey, numbering about 20 million people according to unofficial estimates.
Kiliçdaroğlu’s announcement drew attention to the group’s history and more recent events, political discourse and legal circumstances that have shaped the lives of the Alevis during the 20-year rule of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
But could be that the video played into the hands of the incumbent president, who has ruled for two decades at the head of a movement that has been accused of stoking religious differences.
Kiliçdaroğlu sought to transcend sectarian divisions and shift the focus away from polarisation. He emphasised that the identity was not something he chose but that he had actively embraced its values alongside cultural civilisation, political democracy, constitutional secularism, and social integrity.
He urged voters to recognise and prioritise the values shared across sectarian boundaries rather than dwelling on differences between groups. But experts on Turkish internal affairs question whether such an appeal will work in a country where religious distinctions have played a major role in national politics.
Opposite sides of the spectrum
Turkey’s social and political groups tend to reflect sectarian lines as well as preferences over economic policy and strategies on foreign relations. Sunni Islamist conservatives are often on one side, with Alevi counterparts on the other.