Transformation of the Alevi Movement in Diaspora: A Case Study in Munich / By Türkan Özkan, Izzet Baysal University & Deniz Coşan-Eke, Ludwig-Maximillian University Date: May 30, 2014   Research/Policy Papers

Abstract -As a new social movement, the Alevi movement is grounded mainly on the identity-based politics. The primary demand of Alevis is to be recognized as a distinct cultural and religious community and to be treated accordingly in a way that their differences are respected. Both in theory and practice the Alevi identity is complicated and rich. This paper tries to analyse the intersection of diaspora and social movement studies. This study also focuses on different perceptions of faith and rights’ claim between first and second generations of Alevi immigrants in Munich. By taking into consideration the Alevi struggle for recognition, we hoped to provide a case study for the literature on cultural diversity.



Turkish migrants, who initially came to Europe as guest workers, have increasingly entered the political and academic domains in a struggle for identity recognition. This process has not only influenced the countries they have immigrated to, but also the political happenings in the Republic of Turkey. One example of a Turkish migrant group undergoing political and intellectual transformation is the Alevi community, which is a religious and cultural group that adheres to a heterodox belief system within the framework of Islam known as Alevism. Although settled mainly in Turkey, Alevis can also be defined as a transnational community as a consequence of increasing international migration.

Most Alevis currently living in Europe immigrated after 1961, when a number of labor recruitment treaties were signed between Turkey and a few Western European countries. By the end of the 1980s, Alevism had become associated with the struggle for recognition of identity, especially in Germany, which has subsequently influenced the Alevi community in Turkey.After the 1990s, the dispersion of Alevis in Europe provided an opportunity to construct transnational political networks. As a consequence of this networking, the Alevi community has begun to organize themselves within numerous Alevi associations, not only in Turkey, but also in many other European countries.

The Alevi community claims both the recognition of and respect for their identity, which includes increased pressure on the Turkish state for non-discriminative treatment. Such recognition resists a holistic Muslim perception and rests on a claim of mainly socio-cultural and religious rights. Due to the persistent labor of the Alevi federations which are especially well-organized in Germany, the Alevi community there has gained important privileges and rights.

In the light of above context, and to contribute to the struggle for recognition of the Alevi identity, this paper tries to analyze the changing perception of the Alevis at the intersection of diaspora and social movement studies. Similarly, the current study focuses on different perceptions of faith and rights claims between first and second-generation Alevi immigrants in Munich. By unfolding the process behind the Alevi struggle for recognition, we hope to provide a case study for the literature on cultural diversity.

  1. Methodology

This article analyzes the transformation of Alevi movement in the context of diaspora with regard to differences between the first and second-generation Alevi immigrants in Munich[1]. Further, the paper examines how the diaspora is influencing the direction of Alevi movement as a political struggle. To this end, the main research centers on whether the Alevi movement as a social movement has any influence on the creed and the rights of Alevis. The following sub-research questions are also addressed: the meaning of Alevi recognition, and the differences between the first and second-generation Munich immigrants in terms of the recognition of Alevism and their rights.

In addition to the exploration of the relevant literature regarding the issue, multi-method approaches are used to collect data to provide alternative ideas about this research issue. In-depth interviews were conducted with first and second-generation Alevi immigrants in Munich in order to understand their perceptions and viewpoints regarding the Alevi movement and the position of Alevi diaspora. The analysis is partially based on ethnographic experience as participant observer of Alevi religious and cultural events such as AABF (Almanya-Alevi Birlikleri Federasyonu-German Alevi Federation) Dedeler Kurulu[2] Educational Meeting as well as local meetings such as Cem meetings[3] in Munich Alevi Culture Center[4](Münih Alevi Toplumu-Munich Alevi Culture Center) (MAT), the evening meal during Muharrem month[5]. Also field notes and personal notes of informal conversations with the members of the Alevi organizations in Munich have been used.

In addition to the activities at the MAT, the snowball technique is used to discover the expectations of the Alevi community in Munich. Munich has been selected as a location for fieldwork due to its extensive network of Alevi immigrants. In-depth interviews were conducted with 4 participants from the first-generation between the ages of 59-76, who migrated to Munich after the Labour Treaty in 1970s. Another 4 participants were interviewed from the second-generation between the ages of 39-52, who were born in Germany or came to Germany when they were children. Respondents were chosen based on self-identification as an Alevi and contact with the Munich Alevi organization. Participants are similar with respect to social status and class and the sample is made up of 4 women and 4 men. Due to anonymity clause, the names of the participants cannot be given, but they are written as pseudonyms and a table at the appendix is prepared in order to give some information on the interviewees.

A questionnaire was developed as the main research tool of the study. The questionnaire consists of 20 questions and mainly included the migration historical process of respondents and their ideas and experiences about the Alevi movement. Fieldwork was completed in one month, in August of 2012, but the ethnographic experience has been ongoing since September 2011.

III. Alevism: Plurality of Definitions

Alevism can be defined as a heterodox belief system in the framework of Islam and the Alevis are a religious and cultural community, settled mainly in Turkey. Yet, as a consequence of increasing international migration, Alevis can also be defined as a transnational community. It is also important to keep in mind that different groups have diverse and sometimes even opposing representations of Alevism. In fact, Alevism can be viewed as a purely religious matter, understood as a political philosophy of liberation and resistance or mainly representative of a culture, of a way of life. On the one hand, the Republic of Turkey has ignored the religious and ethnic distinctness of heterodox minorities since its foundation. On the other hand, the conceptualizing and defining of the Alevi identity is also difficult because the concepts such as nationalism, religion, culture, minority, immigrant, citizenship and so forth all contribute to define Alevism in local, national and transnational contexts. In fact, Shindeldecker (1998) argues that “32 different interpretations of the nature of Alevism” can be found in published books and articles on the subject of Alevi identity.

Some members of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı) and some government officials claim that Alevism could not demand the right of representation because ‘even Alevis themselves cannot define it (Alevi Çalıştayları Nihai Raporu, 2010). However, it should be seen as a diversity of Alevi identity, which bases itself on the different ethnic origins, cultures and religions because Alevism is influenced by another cultures and belief systems. Therefore it cannot be said that there is only one form of Alevism. Several definitions of Alevism appear in the public sphere, in the diaspora and within Alevi community. Yet instead of making Alevism an ambiguous or weak notion, the plurality of definitions point to Alevism as a religious creed, a culture, a social movement and a diaspora group with transnational ties which aims to be recognized in the host countries and to influence its homeland country’s politics.

  1. Alevism in Diaspora

After the labor-recruitment treaties in 1961, Alevis migrated as a result of economic difficulties they faced in Turkey. As a consequence of the Turkish military coup in 1980, many Alevis migrated to other lands under the pressure of military regime. This is why there is no reliable information about the ethnic and sectarian differences in Turkey. It is even quite difficult to estimate how many Alevis came to Europe in this period. Sökefeld (2006: 273) states “after the early 1960s, Alevis remained for decades undistinguished from the general mass of Turkish laborers in Germany. This did not even change when the Turkish military coup of 1980 created a new wave of politically-motivated leftist Alevis to replace the earlier influx of labor migrants”.

At the end of 1980s, Alevis assembled around Alevism and leftist ideology in Europe thanks to the Alevi organizations in Europe. Most of the Alevi migrant organizations in Germany, for example the Hamburg Alevi Culture Center, were established in 1989 in the wake of the political events in Turkey (Sökefeld & Schwalgin, 2000: 16). As Sökefeld (2002: 173) states: “Most of the founders had a political rather than a religious background because they were activists of Turkish socialist organizations in Germany”. Even though the leading Alevi movement in Europe remains completely autonomous from the Alevi activities in Turkey through their economic power (Massicard, 2006: 2), it can be argued that Alevi organizations in Europe have been largely motivated by Turkish politics. In fact, almost all of them partially or completely oppose Turkish government policies about Alevism and keep direct or indirect ties with their counterparts in Turkey. Therefore, as Massicard (2006) claims, we should look at the role of Alevi diaspora for analyzing the emergence of identity politics among the Alevis.

Most Alevi federations in Europe united under one umbrella called European Confederation of Alevi Communities in 2002. The organizational strengthening of Alevism has gained speed since 2000s. In this respect, the impact of the diaspora on the Alevi movement cannot be ignored in the analysis of the Alevi identity since the members of the Alevi community in the diaspora have built up their identity mostly as “dual belonging” between the homeland and host countries.

  1. The Achievements of the Alevi Movement

The initial goal of the Alevi movement in Germany has been the recognition and protection of the Alevi identity, but as time passed the focus of the movement upon the unfair treatment in Turkey began to be supplemented with the domestic integration and minority politics (Sökefeld, 2008a: 272-273). As opposed to a withdrawal from public life or reaction to German integration policies, Alevis have argued, in contrast to other migrant groups, that they are not so different from other groups in the country. Furthermore, they claim to be recognized as same as and equal to German citizens. The most important facet of that strategy is the effort to use the legal-institutional framework to better adaptation and moreover to affect their home country’s policies relating to their cognates. Sökefeld (2008b: 186-189) uses the term ‘institutional integration’ for that process and expands it beyond the state to incorporate dialogue with civil society organizations and other religious communities.

Via the AABF which is a registered association[6], Alevis are legally recognized as a religious community (Religionsgemeinschaft) and in some states of Germany they achieved the status of public legal personality or corporation under public law (Körperschaft des öffentlichen Rechts)[7]. The obligation of the German state to religious neutrality[8] does not allow direct administration of the religious communities but by courtesy of that status, a religious community is entitled to regulate their affairs without the participation of the state or the civil society. Also, religious societies that are corporations under public law shall be entitled to levy taxes on the basis of the civil taxation lists in accordance with land law. Moreover, property rights and other rights of religious societies or associations in their institutions, foundations, and other assets intended for purposes of worship, education or charity shall be guaranteed[9]. Finally, to the extent that a need exists for religious services in public institutions such as prisons, hospitals or the army, religious societies shall be permitted to provide them but without compulsion of any kind[10].

In the process of institutional integration, Alevism was recognized as one of the four religious affiliations, children were asked when enrolling in school, alongside Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism. Arguably the most outstanding achievement of the Alevi movement, at least in some German states (North Rhine-Westphalia, Hesse, Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Saarland and Lower Saxony), is the procurement of the right to hold religious classes in schools. It has been a long and complicated struggle, which cannot be elaborated in the current paper, but it should be mentioned that a reluctant approach has been adopted towards the Islamic classes while Alevi classes have been successfully bestowed.

Although there are still insufficiencies, the right to hold religious classes means the education of children of their religion and culture by the teachers assigned by the Alevi Federation and according to the curriculum appointed by the same organization. The Federation salutes that achievement as a step forward to self-regulation of the Alevi community. Religious lessons in primary school, endeavors to religious classes in secondary school and higher education and also steps taken to the foundation of an Alevi Institute are the results of that right[11].

  1. The Changing Ideas and Attitudes of the New Generation

In connection with the fieldwork in Munich, a comparison between the first and the second-generations’ ideas and attitudes may give us some perspectives as to the changing role of the Alevi movement in diaspora. In general it can be said that the young generation of Alevi immigrants in Munich is more active in participating in organizational activities. In addition, they are more inclined to use the internet, all are subscribed to the Federation’s journal, pursue the agenda and watch Alevi TV channels. So the second-generation is receptive of the news, agenda and discussions, while the first-generation of Alevi immigrants pursues the news through conventional channels and is not so active in the Federation.

When asked to compare the rights of Alevis in Turkey and Germany, the second-generation does not speak of specific rights, with the exception of being recognized and the ability to write their religion in the official documents. Indeed, they express the opinion that they have no rights, cultural or religious, in Turkey. But as Fadime (see Fadime, Table 1, Appendix) answered, “in Germany we have many rights and the most important point is that Germany recognizes us and gives manifold rights as Alevi.” Yet Seda said “We are not equal citizens in Turkey. In case Turkey defines someone as her citizen, then she has to respect his belief, political idea and culture (Seda, Table 1, Appendix). Unfortunately, I do not feel as a true Turkish citizen.” The members of the first-generation puts an emphasis on the Alevi courses and the achievement of a common draft on Alevi rituals by the Federation and in general they conceive that they are foreigners in both countries, but Hüseyin (see Hüseyin, Table 1, Appendix) emphasizes that “in Germany at least they feel in security while feeling exposed to more discrimination and insecure life in Turkey.”

Another question raised concerns the specific differences between the organizations of the host and homeland countries. The first-generation participants have divergent answers. One says that Alevis in Germany feel freer and are well-organized, but Alevi associations are not sufficient in transmitting Alevi culture and religion to the youth. Aziz (see Aziz, Table 1, Appendix) thinks that the main divergence of the Alevis living in Turkey is at the point of ‘Sunnization’ (Sünnileştirme) in terms of intervention in Alevi activities and the effect of Sunni terminology upon Alevi rituals. As the example of Sunnization of Alevi terms, he states the differences between ‘erkan‘ and ‘namaz’. Namaz, the Sunni term for the religious practice, is equated to the Alevi term ‘erkan‘. This participant, who is also adede[12], defines the process as an aspect of the assimilation of the Turkish state. Nevertheless, he argues that Alevis are not exposed to this kind of repression in Germany, in some part through the efforts of Alevi associations. In fact, AABF has regulated the process of Alevi rituals and Alevi terminology. Zeynep (see Zeynep, Table 1, Appendix) points to an interesting difference, which is based on gender equality: in Germany the associations are organized better, more active and women are more willing to participate. She states that the pressure on Alevi women living in Turkey affects also their attendance to the activities in the associations.

While the first-generation emphasizes the pressures on Turkish Alevis, the second-generation highlights the point that, while the religious aspect of Alevism in Turkey is more emphasized, Alevism in Germany is perceived as a struggle for political and cultural identity. They also confess that the movement within Turkey is weaker than in Germany. The most important thing they point is that the struggle for Alevi recognition did not start with a religious claim in Germany, so the political aspect is stronger than the religious and cultural dimensions. They also feel proud and tell their Turkish cognates not to hesitate in improving the ties with the organizations in Germany because Alevis are recognized by and their associations are protected by the German Constitution.

When asked about differences between Turkish and German Alevi experiences of their religion and culture, second-generation Alevis confess that they do not have enough knowledge about the Alevism in Turkey. In regard to the first-generation, they put a stress on the repression experienced in Turkey, but they also say that inner coherence of their community was stronger and more religious than the organizational structure in Germany.

The first-generation interviewees, although members of MAT, in general complain of the poor religious education provided in MAT and thereof they do not participate in all the activities. As a result, they stress that courses on Alevism should be opened for all age groups, not only for the children. The reason given is to deepen knowledge of Alevism in order to be able to claim rights. For the second-generation, the most salient issue is the language obstacles to learning Alevism. In order to attract younger members and to increase the attendance to cem the second-generation needs to learn religious knowledge in German. Also Seda summarizes the ideas of the second-generation as “Alevism changes and transforms; we have to reinterpret our rituals and beliefs accordingly.”

VII. Conclusion

The Alevi movement in the diaspora has transformed the Alevism. This process has a long historical background and theoretical framework not discussed in the current paper. Instead we focused on reviewing the findings of the questionnaire. First, although the younger Alevis have not experienced repression in Turkey, they are aware of the collective memory that makes up the Alevi identity. Due to their openness to up-to-date events and new technologies, they can follow the agenda and are more willing to enter into new discourses, such as giving the authority to conduct the cem also to female faith leader-Ana. Equally important, the younger generation is willing to abolish the genealogically-based origin obligation for dede (male faith leader) which means that the customs to inherit the authority paternally would have to change and therefore anybody who has the proper qualifications like adequate education and a decent character may be an Alevi religious leader if she or he likes to. Additionally, the second-generation sees the Alevi movement more as a political and cultural struggle than a religious one, which is the emphasis of the first-generation. This overlaps with the AABF’s aims and efforts.

Alevis of the second generation, while stressing pressing needs in both countries, overwhelmingly agree that their focus should be on their host country. This is in contrast with Alevis of the first generation, who tend to concentrate on the alleviation of repression for Alevis in Turkey. They feel like foreigners both in Turkey and in Germany yet do not feel repressed in the host country. The second-generation is convicted that rights in Germany are at least indirectly tied to the situation in Turkey, a significant difference between the two generations, which is explicated in the following quote, Ali (see Ali, Table 1, Appendix) claims that: “We should not focus only on the situation of Alevis living in Turkey because we and our children live here in Germany. We are Europeans and we have to enjoy and struggle for our rights in Europe. However I believe that if Alevi movement would become stronger politically and economically in Europe, we can contribute to improvement of the rights of Alevis in Turkey.” As a summary, we can state that the first-generation Alevis express concern regarding the degeneration of community coherence while the second-generation attaches more importance to the recognition of rights, equal citizenship and political identity.

As a final remark, it can be said that Alevi movement is a kind of new social movement grounded on mainly the identity-based politics and its main demand is to be recognized as one of the different cultural and religious communities and having their identity and their differences behaved respectfully. Alevi identity is complicated and rich in its theory and practice. The Alevi aphorism “Way is one, paths are thousand and one” is still valid in the sense that it refers to the variety of paths of different ways. The variety of the paths is also related with the form that the Alevis experience. It does not mean that syncretism degenerates the essence of the Alevism. Instead the survival of Alevism depends on it. Thus the differentiation between the generations or transnational spaces does not led Alevi movement to dissolution, but only helps it to fortify and deepen.

Türkan Özkan, Research Assistant, Izzet Baysal University, Bolu,Turkey &Deniz Coşan-Eke, PhD Candidate, Ludwig-Maximillian University, Munich, Germany

Please cite this publication as follows: Coşan-Eke D. & Özkan T. (May, 2014), “Transformation of the Alevi Movement in Diaspora: A Case Study in Munich”, Vol. III, Issue 5, pp.55-66, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, Research Turkey. (


Table 1


*Al names are pseudonyms.


[1] We would like to thank to the participants in this study and Munich Alevi Culture Centre for their support.

[2] Dedeler Kurulu or İnanç Kurulu (Faith Leaders or Faith Committee) consists of 12 faith leaders (dede or ana, that is the female faith leader) and one of the representatives of  the Executive Committee of the AABF. For details: <> (Retrieved on 18.02.2014).

[3] Alevism is a face-to-face belief system and cem (the gathering ceremony), the main ritual of Alevism, fulfills this condition. Alevis do not go to the mosques because their worship is cemevi (the place of worship), which is not only the place for praying and practicing the religion, but also a cultural center. Dede conducts the cem rituals and he sits on one side of the room and the people who gather for the ritual sit in a circle on the floor, facing each other during the cem. It should be mentioned that apart from many other Islam communities, Alevi men and women participate in all religious and cultural rituals together.

[4] Munich Alevi Culture Center (MAT) is one of the oldest Alevi associations in Germany. This center has been organizing different activities for Alevis since 1988. You can find more information at <> (Retrieved on 20.09.2012).

[5] Alevis fast in the first twelve days of the month of Muharrem, which starts twenty days after the Feast of Sacrifice (Kurban Bayramı). In the last day of the fast, they prepare a special soup called “Aşure” which includes variety of fruits, nuts and leguminous seeds. They share it with their neighbors, relatives and friends.

[6] Being a non-profit association exempt from taxes, a registered association (eingetragene Vereine) has to comply with the strict rules of the German association law, be abided by the supervision of tax office and has to be registered at the district court (Amtsgericht). Above all, the aims of the asssociation have to comply with the constitutional order in order not to be declared illegal and closed down.

[7] For further details see < >  (Retrieved on 11.10.2012).

[8] See Article 137 of the Weimar Constitution (1919); also part of the Article 140 of the German Basic Law, at <> (Retrieved on 07.10.2012).

[9] Article 138 of the Weimar Constitution and also Article 140 of the Basic Law, ibid.

[10] See Article 141 of the Weimar Constitution, ibid.

[11] For further information see the website of AABF, <>.

[12]A dede (etymologically means grandfather) can be generally defined both as a leader in solving problems of social life among Alevi society and also as a spiritual leader in Alevism. Dedes are one of the three main social conventions, together with musahiplikand görgü cemi, in historically constituted Alevism (Yaman & Erdemir, 2006).“Dede is a kinship-oriented, genealogically-based authority” (Sökefeld, 2002:164).


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Shindeldecker, John (1998) Turkish Alevis Today. Istanbul: Sahkulu Yayınevi.

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Sökefeld, Martin (2008a) “Difficult Identifications: The Debate on Alevism and Islam in Germany,” in Thielmann, Jörn&Al-Harmaneh, Ala (eds.): Islam and Muslims in Germany, Leiden: Brill, pp. 267-297.

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