The Alevis of Turkey are one of the largest, most mysterious, and least familiar religious minorities of the Middle East. Even their numbers are unknown (estimates range from 6 to 20 million) and their history is murky (they seem to have emerged as a community in the sixteenth century). The handsomely produced proceedings from a 1996 conference go a long way toward providing reliable information on this large population with a vast potential to affect Turkish public life. The one problem with Alevi Identity, at least for most readers, has to do with its being pitched for fellow experts; the volume lacks introductory chapters, a glossary, an index, and the other features that would make its subject more accessible.
In brief, the Alevis are one of the Shi`i groups so remote from the Sunni mainstream (like the Druze, the Ahl-i Haqq, and the `Alawis of Syria) that their adherence to Islam is in doubt. They have little use for the Qur'an (which they believe is missing hundreds of verses about `Ali ibn Abi Talib, the central figure of their faith), they do not attend mosque, and they ignore many of the Islamic regulations. Alevis had a rough time of it during the Ottoman period but their status improved with the Republic, which they enthusiastically backed. A profound change took place in the 1970s, when a new generation of Alevis, growing up in the cities and well-educated, turned to leftist politics as a hallmark of their identity, to the detriment of organized religion.
The Alevi tradition, unwritten and unsophisticated, now must modernize if it is to hold on to the youth and survive. This means either establishing itself as a valid, if heterodox, variant of Islam or, as the more assertive elements would have it, declaring Alevism to be "outside Islam" and its adherents not Muslims. Failing the success of either of these options, the Sunnis of Turkey and the Twelver Shi`is of Iran both avidly seek to bring Alevis into their fold. Religiously, Alevis faces a choice: join with either Sunni or Twelver Shi`i branches, become an independent grouping within Islam, or identify as non-Muslims. Before long, which direction they will go should become apparent.