PM dines with Alevi leaders .hurriyet2008-detailbox-newslink { font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size:13px; font-weight:bold; text-decoration:none; color:#000000;} .hurriyet2008-detailbox-newslink:hover { font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size:13px; font-weight:bold; text-decoration:underline; color:#990000;} ISTANBUL - Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan joined a fast-breaking iftar dinner on Wednesday, but not just any iftar.

This breaking of fast was special because it was not within the Sunni faith, the mainstream and officially accepted branch of Islam in Turkey, but within the Alevi faith, a liberal sect of Islam whose adherers live mainly in Turkey and Syria. The highly symbolic dinner in Istanbul was held at Feshane, an old Ottoman compound that used to be a fez factory. A similar iftar dinner was held last year on Jan. 12 in Ankara.

Among over 2,000 guests, were leaders and members of prominent Alevi organizations, such as the Cem Foundation. Other guests included many Sunni, and even non-Muslim, celebrities. Aside from the several ministers and members of Parliament from the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, there was also the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, Ali Bardakoğlu, Patriarch Bartholomeos I, and many other public figures. Reha Çamuroğlu, the AKP parliamentary member who is an Alevi and who started this rapprochement between the government and his religious community, was along with Erdoğan, the luminary of the evening.

Unlike Sunnis, who fast during the 30 days of Ramadan, Alevis fast in another month of the lunar Muslim calendar, Muharram. This is also the month in which the tragic affair of Karbala occurred, when the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, Hussein, was killed by the men of a tyrannical Muslim ruler named Yazid. Both Shiite and Alevi Muslims attach great importance to this event in their theology. For Alevis, the Muharram fasting is also about mourning. That is why the dinner is kept simple. Water, which victims could not find in Karbala, is excluded and no knives are used at the tables in remembrance of the swords that slew the beloved Hussein.

In his speech that followed the fast breaking, Erdoğan offered a message of unity through pluralism. "The job of the state is not to define the differences in society, but to recognize and respect them," he said. Erdoğan said his government had taken many steps toward such recognition, including the recent opening of the official Kurdish TV channel, TRT-6. He said textbooks for classes on religion now include 32 pages and accurate information about the Alevi faith, whereas it had previously been poorly presented. He refrained from making promises about other Alevi requests, such as recognition of their places of worship, cemevi houses, and official support to cemevis including salaries for Alevi clerics.

Confusion and rejection
Alevis, however, are not united in these requests and their division was reflected yesterday when some organizations not only refused to join the iftar, but also criticized it. "In our culture, an iftar is for grief," said Ali Balkız, the head of the Alevi-Bektaşi Federations. "So we protest the fact it has been exploited by politicians."

Bektaşi is the name of the Sufi order that grew mainly among the Alevis. This group of Alevis also boycotted the first Alevi iftar that Erdoğan joined in Ankara last year, and said the Sunni-leaning AKP was trying to co-opt Alevis.

The officially supported faith is Sunni Islam and Alevis have always complained that injustice flows from that. But the protective wings of the state also fear autonomy and when combined with internal rivalries among different Alevi groups and organizations, it generates controversy.

"But it is still very important and progressive that the Sunni mainstream has reached out to the Alevis," said Niyazi Öktem, a law professor who despite being a secular Sunni has had prominent roles in Alevi organizations. "It was a wonderful iftar and it will contribute to overcoming the prejudices that have kept Sunnis and Alevis apart for centuries.