The Reckoning of Pluralism Political Belonging and the Demands of History in Turkey By Kabir Tambar (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014. 232 pages.)

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Kimberly Hart



At the time Tambar wrote The Reckoning of Pluralism, there was a brief
opening in Turkish political life during which ethnic and sectarian plurality
was both imaginable and debatable. This opening, initiated by the ruling AKP,
attempted to create an official conversation about the Alevis and the Kurds.
This move indicated that those who have state power were willing to accept
the suggestion that Turkish nationalism could encompass sectarian and ethnic
diversity. The opening, however, was brutally closed via the violent attacks
on peaceful protestors during the Gezi Park events of 2013. Turkish
politics changes rapidly, and what was a moment of optimism among those
who hope for a greater freedom of expression in Turkey may be revived.
This means that Tambar conducted his research when Turks were beginning
to discuss religious and ethnic difference, the ongoing war with the Kurds
and possible solutions, and a troubled national memory avoided by nationalist
historians. Only further research can tell us if the Alevi community feels
there is a possibility of greater religious expression. But even within the
context of this brief opening, Tambar’s work contributes to the question of
how the Turkish government locates, defines, and confines religion, in this
case Alevism, in the national imaginary via nationalist historians.
Tambar’s work contributes to a growing body of ethnographic and sociological
literature on Turkey’s powerful if obviously constructed ideological
worldview, in which the state ushers into existence self-evident “truths” for
its citizens. In this case the truth is the origin, meaning, and role of the nation’s
Alevis. The author describes how their history has been domesticated (chap.
3), how public performances of religiosity are self-contained by the Alevis,
who are now burdened with the need to perform national unity and forget aspects
of ritual that appear “irrelevant” to contemporary, urban, political, and
ideological issues (chaps. 2 and 4), and how ritual has become intellectualized
and historicized (chap. 5). Chapter 6, the final chapter, discusses a non-state
Alevi mosque run by imams trained in Iran.
The book will be useful for specialists, for whom lingering questions
about this group’s oft-repeated “shamanistic” origin is a puzzle. Tambar forcefully
illuminates the origins of this nationalist fiction and the related denial of
any possible connection with Shi‘i Islam. Naturally, for those with some background
in Ottoman history, the denial of the Alevis’ sectarian connections to ...

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