The Reckoning of Pluralism
Political Belonging and the Demands of History in Turkey
Kabir Tambar


1. In The Time of Pluralism

THE POLITICS OF PLURALISM is an oxymoron, at least within a certain imaginary of modern political community that has been dominant in Turkey for much of the past century. Within this imaginary, political communities are isomorphic with territorially circumscribed nation-states, and nation-states in turn are imagined as internally homogeneous. Whatever differences—of culture, religion, ethnicity, gender, and class—may exist within such communities, they are supposed to be sublated to a feeling of common purpose that would bind a people together in fraternity and ensure their equal treatment. Politics, in this framing, is a field of action that transcends the pluralities that would otherwise fracture a polity. It is grounded in the sense of a shared past and a collective destiny. As with many nation-states in the past two centuries, the Turkish state sought to cultivate this conception of political belonging by standardizing the language and history of the nation.

In Turkey today the issue of pluralism ignites explosive debate, particularly when it takes form in a historical register. Various social actors, organizations, and international political bodies claim that, from its founding, the Turkish state has policed the uses of language and regulated the writing of history in ways that have promoted discrimination rather than fraternity or equality. These groups denounce the forms of historical erasure, of cultural domination, and of political violence that were deemed necessary to build the nation-state. They prompt questions about the very legitimacy of the modernist project that emerged in the early twentieth century, after the collapse of the multi-religious and multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire. The Turkish Republic today faces an unprecedented challenge to the ideologies of homogeneous nationalism that justified its initial formation. Pluralism represents a historical reckoning with the dominant imagining of Turkey’s political modernity.

A brief vignette suggests that this reckoning remains both contentious as a political project and unsettling in its effects. On October 6, 2004, the European Commission released its annual report on the progress of political and economic reform in Turkey. The report argued that recent policies implemented by the Turkish state largely conformed to EU regulations and recommended that full member accession talks be initiated. The positive recommendation notwithstanding, the report offered a range of criticisms against the Turkish state in areas where reform remained sluggish. One of these areas concerned the Alevi population:

As far as the situation of non-Sunni Muslim minorities is concerned, there has been no change in their status. Alevis are not officially recognized as a religious community, they often experience difficulties in opening places of worship, and compulsory religious instruction in schools fails to acknowledge non-Sunni identities. . . . Most Alevis claim that as a secular state Turkey should treat all religions equally and should not directly support one particular religion (the Sunnis) as it currently does through [the Directorate of Religious Affairs]. (European Commission 2004: 44–45)

The report continued, bringing these observations to their political upshot: “Alevis are still not recognized as a Muslim minority” (2004: 54).

Abdullah Gül, who was then serving as Turkey’s minister of foreign affairs, expressed concern about the report’s formulation of the concept of minority. “Europe’s concept of minority is different from our concept of minority. The EU defines minority in terms of ethnic identity, while we use religious identity” (Zaman 2004b). Gül was referring to the fact that under the authority of the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), the only formally recognized minorities in Turkey were Christians (Armenian and Greek) and Jews.1 The long-standing position of the state with regard to Alevis is that, in constitutional terms, they are no different from the Sunni majority. They are, in effect, within the fold of the dominant religious identity in Turkey—they are Muslims, a category for which the state does not recognize sectarian distinction. As such, they cannot be legally considered a minority. In more specific terms, the state has refused to recognize Alevi traditions and practices as deserving special legal recognition as forms of worship. For the past few decades, state officials have instead designated Alevi rituals as historical elements of the nation’s “culture” or “folklore.”

The state’s efforts to classify Alevi practice have not gone uncontested. Both Alevi and non-Alevi actors have disputed state rhetoric in various venues of debate—more often than not, outside of the formal mechanisms of political representation. For instance a popular Turkish musician of Sunni descent, Zülfü Livaneli, published a critical commentary in a national daily about the unwillingness of state officials to view Alevi ritual as worship. “Our Alevi citizens can open a cemevi [a site to perform the cem, a central Alevi practice] as a ‘social and cultural association’ but not as a ‘place of worship’ (ibadet yeri). As this situation is contrary to human rights and to democracy, it is probably not necessary to state that it is also contrary to the principle of secularism” (Livaneli 2005: 6). For Livaneli and the European Commission, the problem is that the Turkish state misrecognizes Alevi ritual, and this misrecognition places unwarranted political constraints on its expression. These arguments contest the state’s authority to stipulate the terms of social and religious difference.

Yet almost from the outset of my research, I encountered statements from Alevis themselves that confounded this political challenge to state authority. Stumbling blocks were already visible in the debate over the concept of minority in 2004. While many Alevi intellectuals and activists agreed that, contrary to state policy, sites of communal ritual ought to be classed as places of worship, there was pronounced disagreement over the category of minority. Some came out in favor of this designation as an effective way of attaining various rights and exemptions (for instance, exemptions for children from attending mandatory courses on religion and morals in public schools). A considerable number of other Alevis, however, began voicing hostility toward the report’s application of the category to their community. Ali Rıza Selmanpakoğlu, the mayor of the provincial town of Hacıbektaş, publicly opposed the report, claiming that the Alevi community has been a foundational component (asli unsur) of the Turkish Republic, a cornerstone (temel taşı) of Turkey’s democracy, secularism, and enlightenment (Hürriyet 2004).2 The trope of asli unsur, that Alevis are an essential and constitutive element of the republic, was expressed by a number of Alevi commentators in the course of the debate. The head of the Şahkulu Dergah Association (an Alevi organization), Mehmet Çamur, accused those Alevis who favored the minority designation of seeking to “prioritize subidentities, divide the nation-state, and Balkanize Turkey” (Özyürek 2009a: 135). At the threshold of a political discourse about pluralist reform, many Alevis themselves responded by appealing to the nation-state’s authorized self-image, positioning themselves within the official narrative of the republic’s founding.

I encountered this ambivalent pluralism not only in the discourse of some Alevi spokespersons—activists, public intellectuals, municipal officials, and the like—but also in public performances of Alevi ritual. Since the 1960s, but accelerating rapidly after the 1990s, Alevi organizations have sponsored gatherings, festivals, and protests in public squares and streets. Commentators have tended to view these events as a politically effective appropriation of public space, in which Alevis represent their cultural differences and forward their political interests (e.g., Yavuz 2003b; Şahin 2005; Sökefeld 2008). Many of my Alevi friends similarly understood such performances as raising awareness within the national public at large about Alevi traditions. It is not uncommon to find participants in such events holding up posters of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. Ali is a figure from early Islamic history who is honored by most Muslims, but is given special reverence by Alevi and Shiʿi Muslims. At such events, his image is emblematic of Alevi identity. What is perhaps less expected is that, alongside the image of Ali, participants often wave Turkish flags and display photographs of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the leader of the nationalist forces under the early republican regime and its paradigmatic icon. The display of these images reverberates with a sense of loyalty to the statist project of secular nationalism, echoing the claim that the community stands as a cornerstone of the republic. Alevi public visibility, often cast as signifying a nascent pluralist politics, is itself mediated by the most potent indices of the Turkish state.

This book examines how Turkey’s Alevi community has raised a politics of pluralism. In the past two decades, numerous Alevi groups have questioned the ways in which their community was marginalized from public life in both the Ottoman and Turkish republican eras. In these acts of questioning, history operates as a key discursive practice. It enables Alevis to contest the forms of organized domination that existed in the past, and it emboldens them to give political voice to their grievances in the present. Yet for many Alevi organizations and intellectuals, pluralist politics operates on a volatile fault line. In its discursive and aesthetic embodiment, the practice of history remains dependent upon the institutional scaffolding of the modernist project. It reinforces, even as it puts into question, the state’s authority to define political community.

In the chapters ahead, I contextualize the practice of history. I specify the genres of speech and writing that mediate its expression, the modes of address that allow it to hail a public audience, and the political authorities that regulate its limits. I examine the icons, images, and forms of spectatorship that define its spaces of appearance. The analysis interrogates the production of political voice at its points of institutional articulation, asking how that voice remains beholden to, even incited by, state power.

The politics of pluralism commonly represents a criticism of the modern state’s violent efforts to assert the ethnic and religious homogeneity of the nation. What, then, are the limits of pluralism when it is organized within the institutional and ideological frameworks of the nation-state? How are the conditions of political criticism regimented by those framings? Where might we locate forms of engagement that, rather than remain vocal within the existing dispensation of citizenly participation, challenge the conditions of political enunciation?

Formations of Political Modernity

I approach the concept of pluralism as an ethnographic object: its political significance is defined by the historical and political context of its invocation. One consequence of this approach is that I do not begin my analysis with a strong, prescriptive definition of pluralism. The problem with beginning in that manner is that it would simply lead us to mark the deficiencies of its actual use, rather than to an understanding of what its invocation contextually signifies. Abstracting the notion of pluralism from its context of use elides the crucial analytical task of interrogating the normative charge that the concept sustains for actors who deploy it.

Pluralism is a charged concept because it directs attention to the history of Turkish citizenship and the mechanisms of political power formative of that history. In Turkey, as elsewhere, the political imaginary of citizenship has not been static. It has evolved in the course of a tumultuous history, which included the development of legal protections of life and property in the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire, culminating in the promulgation of an imperial Constitution in 1876.3 The Constitution was suspended only two years later, and although it was reinstated in 1908, the empire itself disintegrated by the end of the following decade. The Turkish Republic, which emerged on the heels of the demise of the Ottoman Empire, was the product of one of the most spectacular transitions of political sovereignty in the Muslim world. Political leaders who guided the foundation of the republic touted national citizenship for the social and political freedoms it enabled. As with the leaders of many emergent national states in the twentieth century, Turkish republicans inscribed themselves within a political tradition that claimed the values of equality and liberty, but only by identifying political rights with national sovereignty.

The localization of rights within the nation was deeply problematic rather than self-evident. The late Ottoman and early republican regimes that propounded the notion of citizenship also policed the conditions of loyalty and belonging to the nation, often in violently exclusionary terms. Determinations about who constituted a national of a given state, and who was to be excluded from such nomination, were decided by assertions of state sovereignty and the unstable results of imperial warfare. From the late nineteenth century to World War I, the Ottoman Empire hemorrhaged much of its territory, from the Balkans, to the Levant and the Arabian peninsula, and across North Africa. Sizable non-Muslim communities, particularly Armenian and Greek Christian populations, were “exchanged,” exiled, forcibly relocated, or systematically killed. In the process, a massive influx of Muslim refugees entered Anatolia from Greece and the Balkans. The first decades of the Turkish Republic continued this method of political intervention, forcibly displacing Kurdish populations for the sake of assimilating them to the linguistic and cultural norms that state authorities saw as befitting citizens of the new nation-state (Üngör 2011). This series of events, disturbingly regular as a form of state action, constituted the historical context for defining the Turkish nation, the political subject whose freedoms it protected, and the collective whose well-being it ensured. The freedoms heralded by national citizenship were premised on the violent repudiation of the ethno-religious pluralities that characterized Ottoman social and political life.

The dilemmas of political modernity in late Ottoman and early Turkish republican contexts were symptomatic of a broader political dynamic. Writing about the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Hannah Arendt (1966: 272) detailed the historical consequences of “[combining] the declaration of the Rights of Man with national sovereignty”: the development of refugees, asylum seekers, and the stateless as mass phenomena; the increasing exercise of state sovereignty in the practice of mass denationalization and expulsion; and the establishment of the category of minority as a permanent legal institution, in which the recognition of certain populations as remaining outside of normal legal protections was considered an enduring and lasting situation rather than a temporary exception to the norm. Nation-states across a wide geography, including those in western Europe and North America that are commonly seen as models of democracy, normalized the use of emergency powers as a means of politically dispossessing those now classed as internal enemies.4 The consequent political form promised liberties and entitlements, but only to those defined as existing within the national community. For Arendt, the appearance of masses of individuals divested of political rights and unable to secure entitlements and protections signaled an impasse for a political tradition that aspired to provide inalienable rights of man.5 The late Ottoman and early Turkish republican regimes were exemplary of, rather than exceptional to, the global norm.

For many commentators in Turkey today, the history of violence and exclusion that led to the establishment of the nation-state remains a crucial problem for democratic politics. Ergun Özbudun—a legal scholar and (at the time of writing) president of the academic committee charged with drafting a constitution to replace the one established after the 1980 military coup—submits that “the most fundamental problem facing the present-day Turkish democracy is to reconcile . . . social pluralism with an authoritarian state tradition that seeks to impose an artificial homogeneity, even uniformity, on the society” (Özbudun 2012: 70). Forced to negotiate between claims to social difference and the project of enforced homogeneity, democratic politics in the modern state contends with the legacies of a historical contradiction.

For political sociologist Çağlar Keyder, political liberalism offers the possibility of addressing this contradiction. Political liberalism, he claims, stands opposed to the authoritarian tradition of the republican state but does so without abandoning the project of political modernity altogether: “The current struggle in Turkey seems to be between the old authoritarian-modernizationist, paternalistic state, with its crumbling nationalist and populist legitimation, and a modernist conception of political liberalism and citizenship” (1997: 48). On this account, political liberalism loosens the grip that the paternalist state holds over the definition of national belonging, disarticulating citizenship from the arbitrary exercise of sovereign power. Liberalism, Keyder maintains, offers a credible response to the rise of Kurdish, Alevi, and Islamic movements, a response that would tame the demands of those movements away from separatism or militancy toward the exercise of rights within the framework of the law. He continues, “If the project of modernity is to divest itself of its modernizationist encumbrance, then political liberalization, ushering in civil rights and the rule of law, is the next step” (49). The task, then, would be to liberalize the historical project of modernity, or as Fuat Keyman (2007: xxvi) puts it, to make “Turkish modernity more societal, liberal, plural, and multicultural, [and to transform] Turkish democracy into a more consolidated and substantial democracy.”6

What is striking is the fact that in the present day, liberalization is touted as a necessary means of democratization not only by certain minority groups and critical intellectuals, but also by the reigning regime. Mainstream Islamist political groups in Turkey that were once antagonistic to political and economic liberalization have come to adopt policy platforms that indicate an accommodation to, if not full embrace of, these processes.7 For their part, secularist political groups that were long representative of the statist elite have begun to develop practices of self-representation defined within the framework of liberalization.8 The concept of pluralism, moreover, has been at the center of these liberalizing rhetorics. Since 2001, the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) has included “pluralism” (çoğulculuk) among the principal values of its official platform. More recently the major opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP), mentioned the term in its party agenda. Even the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, MHP), which sponsored violent assaults on Alevi communities in the late 1970s, has begun issuing statements about how best to recognize and institutionally accommodate religious plurality (Milliyet 2009). Pluralism has come to be invoked both by minorities and intellectuals critical of state practice and by those who wield the powers of the state. This variegated field suggests that the discourses of pluralism and liberalization are not simply about augmenting minority freedoms; rather, the political liberties they support are elements of a new mode of regulating social difference.

In the face of an apparent consensus about pluralism as a governing ideal, it is worth remaining vigilantly concrete about the institutional forms that liberalization has taken and the practices of political freedom it has enabled for minorities. Rather than imagining that pluralism has resolved, or even holds open the possibility of resolving, the historical tensions of Turkish modernity, we ought instead to investigate how discourses of pluralism have contributed to the reconfiguration of those tensions. What do contemporary formations of pluralism owe to the history of political violence they are otherwise meant to transcend? What forms of power animate the pluralist political subject?


1. The Treaty of Lausanne employs the term “non-Muslim” to refer to minorities in Turkey, and yet it has consistently been interpreted as entailing protections only for Orthodox Greeks, Armenians, and Jews. Smaller Christian groups such as Syriacs, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Nestorians have not been historically protected by the treaty (Oran 2007).

2. The town of Hacıbektaş is an important location within the geography of contemporary Alevi society and politics. It is named after a medieval Anatolian saint, Hacı Bektaş-ı Veli, revered by many Alevis. The town is also the site of the largest annual Alevi gathering.

3. The substance of legal protection has varied over time. While the category of religious identity was paramount in debates about Ottoman citizenship in the mid-nineteenth century, issues of gender equality—for instance, with regard to divorce, inheritance, and voting rights—only came to be protected in the twentieth century.

4. For accounts of the use of emergency powers in the United States before and after the Cold War, see Lobel 2001–2002 and Buck-Morss 2000. Agamben 2005 provides a comparative history of emergency powers in the United States and several western European contexts.

5. Arendt maintained that the nation-state itself lost its coherence in this process: “The nation-state cannot exist once its principle of equality before the law has broken down. Without this legal equality, which originally was destined to replace the older laws and orders of feudal society, the nation dissolves into an anarchic mess of over- and underprivileged individuals” (Arendt 1966: 290). One might question Arendt’s presumption that the nation-state has ever, in any actual historical context, enshrined equality without remainder. On this point, see Balibar 1991 and Rancière 2010.

6. Arat 1997 similarly argues that feminist criticisms of the early Republican state contribute to a liberalization of the project of modernity.

7. Scholars disagree on how this transformation came to pass—some emphasize concerted reorientation in the intellectual and political thought of Islamist groups (Yavuz 2009; Silverstein 2010), while others highlight their responsiveness to practical exigencies and political constraints (Turam 2006; Tuğal 2009).

8. Özyürek 2006 offers an extended account of the range of practices adopted by secularist political groups. See also Tambar 2009 for a discussion of the ambivalence of secularist political identity, which in recent decades has attempted to constitute itself as a mode of popular politics, even as it continues to depend on the political interventions of state apparatuses such as the military and the Constitutional Court.