The Austrian Supreme Administrative Court is set to issue a ruling on a petition by the Austrian Federation of Alevi Unions to have their religion officially recognized as separate from Islam -- and not part of the updated version of the 1912 Islam Law, which went into effect in 2015. The new law recognizes two "Islamic religious societies" -- the Islamic Community in Austria, which represents Islam's Sunni sects, and the Islamic Alevi Community in Austria, which is defined as an "Islamic sect."
Austrian Federation of Alevi Unions president, Özgür Turak, told Gatestone about the legal struggle for official recognition of Alevism as distinct from Islam:
"The 1912 law granted the 'Islamic Community of Austria' the right to teach courses at schools and to choose their own teachers, whose salaries would be paid by the state. In 2007, researchers discovered that the 'Islamic Community' teachers who came to Austria from abroad supported sharia law and opposed the European values of human rights and democracy. The Austrian public was outraged by this, and the Austrian Office of Religious Affairs took it upon itself to amend the country's Islam law.
"During that period, our federation was already trying to get official recognition by many European countries, including Austria, of Alevism as an authentic faith. To this end, we reached out to the Austrian Office of Religious Affairs, which told us that if we Alevis were to agree to be included in the new Islam law, we would immediately be recognized as a faith.
"We responded that Alevism could not be defined according to Islamic laws. In 2009, however, one of our federation's members -- the Vienna Alevi Cultural Association – must have seen the Office of Religious Affairs offer as an opportunity, and without informing any other Alevi group, it applied to the Office as the 'Islamic Alevi Faith Society.'
"That year, meanwhile, our federation applied to the Office to be recognized as an authentic faith. Our application was rejected, however, on the grounds that, according to Austrian law, for a faith group to be recognized, the applicant group should have a name and a belief system different from those of the already recognized faith communities. As a result, these 'Islamic Alevis' were recognized by the Office as the 'Islamic Alevi Community of Austria' within the country's Islam's law."
That, said Turak, "is when our legal battle began."
It was then that his federation petitioned the Austrian Supreme Administrative Court. After a long struggle, the federation's first hearing was held a month ago, on December 28.
Turak explained to Gatestone why the issue is of such importance to his community:
"Among the clearest consequences of the lack of recognition of Alevism as an authentic faith in Austria is the fact that the Islamic institutes at universities provide courses explaining Alevism based on Koranic verses and the hadith.
"It is thus that we want the Austrian government to recognize Alevism as an authentic faith outside of the Islam Law, and grant us rights equal to those of other faith communities."
"Some Turks left their former religion, Shamanism, and some Kurds left their former religion, Zoroastrianism, and in time converted to Alevism. In some cases, when they were forced to convert to Islam, they chose Alevism... Some Armenians, Arabs, Persians and other ethnic groups have also converted to Alevism.
"But Alevi teachings cannot be seen as Zoroastrian, Shamanist or Islamic. Although Alevism has some things in common with all these religions, Alevism is a different and distinctive faith."
According to Federation vice president, Zeynep Arslan, the claim that "Alevism is inside of Islam" is "nonsensical and unscientific."
In a recent interview with Turkey's CAN TV, Arslan noted:
"Of course, Alevism has been affected by Islam in a region where Islam is the dominant religion and reigns over [societies] through authoritarian methods, and where religious and state affairs are intertwined... But Alevism is not to be restricted to Islam! Anyone who studies and researches our faith a little bit would understand that. Alevism is a distinct faith. Alevism has been affected by Christianity, as well. Does that make [it] a branch of Christianity? And Islam has been affected by Judaism. Is Islam a branch of Judaism?"
Referring to the history of Alevis as one of "massacres, genocides, exiles and [forcible] migrations," Arslan continued:
"[Yet] we did not bow down to the Ottomans. In spite of everything, we have not given up on our faith and identity in Turkey, either. We need to struggle for our existence in Austria, as well."
Summarizing challenges Alevis face in Austria, Arslan said:
"A community that calls itself the 'Islamic Alevi community' has emerged in Austria. This group has become an instrument to placing particularly the Alevis supported by Turkey under the mold of Islam... Some officials of that group are trying to stop us from even identifying as Alevis... They have threatened to shut down Alevi associations. We often have to deal with their complaints to the courts."
Several Alevi intellectuals and faith leaders in Turkey recently issued a public statement in support of the Austrian Federation of Alevi Unions, declaring:
"The mythology, philosophy and rituals of Alevism are different from many religions, including Islam. Alevism cannot be seen as a sub-branch, sect or perversion of any other religion."
The statement went on:
"To preserve their societal structure and faith, Alevis struggled for centuries in lands where Islamic sharia was dominant, and they were massacred because they did not accept Islam. That is why Alevis tried to survive by staying away from Islam-dominated institutions. During no period of history have Alevis accepted to be tried according to Islamic sharia.
"We as Alevis do not believe in the 'Adam and Eve' mythology... or in 'heaven or hell.' We believe in immortality. We believe that [when people die], they 'change clothes' [to come back to earth], and that the world is in constant motion. Hence, we do not believe in the concept of 'sin.' We build our lives on [receiving] blessings, and want to complete our lives accordingly."
The statement also clarified Alevism's view of others:
"Alevism regards all nations as equal, and we say that 'good people are good regardless of their language, religion or skin color.' Humanitarian tolerance has for centuries been at the center of our philosophy... We treat other religions, cultures and philosophy with respect. We do not see other religions as inferior or superior to our own faith."
Addressing the oppressive policies of the Turkish government, the statement continued:
"Although the officials of the lands where we live have signed agreements of international law, they never implement what is required by the law. Our religious rights and freedoms are guaranteed by international law, but our places of worship, cem houses, are not recognized [by the government]; our taxes are collected without our consent to be used to pay the salaries of imams who reject or insult us. Our faith was registered as 'Islam' in our ID cards until recently. Alevi school children still have to enroll in compulsory Islamic courses, in spite of rulings by the European Court of Human Rights. Those who refuse to attend those classes are exposed and degraded. Our children who say they are Alevis at schools are insulted by their teachers and suffer affronts.
"Just like what Turkey has been trying to do for years, the first step to melt Alevism under a dominant religion [Islam] in Europe and destroy it has been taken in Austria. This Islamist move should definitely be eliminated. Hence, we the signatories... reject the placing of Alevism under the roof of the Austrian Islamic community."
Alevis have been suffering from Islamic intolerance in their home country, Turkey, for a century. They are now struggling against rising Islamic supremacism in Europe. Their ongoing battle on behalf of human rights and against sharia law and political Islam must not be ignored by the West. Let us hope that Austria's high court does the right thing this week and accepts their petition to be recognized as a distinct faith.
Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute. She is currently based in Washington D.C.