In a landmark move on Wednesday Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, presidential candidate and leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, publicly talked about his Alevi identity in a speech addressing young people, seeking their support in eliminating a system in the country that discriminates against some of its citizens.
Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kılıçdaroğlu, 74, who is running against incumbent president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the presidential election on May 14, released a video on Twitter titled “Alevi.”
Since Kılıçdaroğlu was elected leader of the secular CHP in 2010, much has been said about his roots in the eastern province of Tunceli and his Alevi identity. Kılıçdaroğlu himself has never made it an issue until Wednesday, when he openly discussed it.
Turkey is a majority Sunni country, with some in the conservative and religious population viewing Alevis as apostates; therefore people adhering to the Alevi faith generally avoid revealing their beliefs in public out of fear of facing discrimination or social alienation.
Alevis follow a heterodox Islamic tradition that separates them from Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Some view it as a cultural identity as much as a religious faith.
“Dear sons and daughters who will vote for the first time [in the upcoming elections]. I am an Alevi,” Kılıçdaroğlu said, adding that he is an honest Muslim who would never violate the rights of others and who would never use the state for personal gain.
There was a tacit reference to Erdoğan and his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Kılıçdaroğlu’s remarks since Erdoğan and his government are accused of corruption, favoritism and numerous rights violations despite making frequent references to the values of Islam, which forbids such actions.
Kılıçdaroğlu said every person’s identity is what makes them special and that they should stand behind it proudly.
He called on young people to help Turkey cross a “critical threshold” and support his presidency despite claims that an Alevi cannot assume the country’s top state post.
“We will no longer talk about our identities, but rather our successes. We will no longer talk about separations and differences but instead, our common features and dreams. Will you be with me on this journey of change?… Are you ready to pull this discriminatory system out by its roots?” Kılıçdaroğlu asked young people.
The CHP leader’s remarks about his Alevi roots unleashed a flood of appreciation and praise on social media, with many congratulating him for breaking a taboo. The video has been watched more than 50 million times in 24 hours, making it one of the most watched videos in a single day on Twitter.
Nick Ashdown, a Canadian journalist who mainly covers Turkey, described Kılıçdaroğl’s statement as “historic.”
“Historic statement from KK, talking openly about his Alevi background, something he’s very rarely done in the past. A huge deal from a major politician, breaking a big taboo and taking ownership of his identity (which Erdoğan tries to throw in is face),” he tweeted.
Historic statement from KK, talking openly about his Alevi background, something he’s very rarely done in the past. A huge deal from a major politician, breaking a big taboo and taking ownership of his identity (which Erdoğan tries to throw in is face). https://t.co/U1RQuz7VBu
— Nick Ashdown (@Nick_Ashdown) April 19, 2023
“These are not just the words of a leader but of a sincere and good person. Turkey’s opp leader Kilicdaroglu speaks at eye-level with Turkey’s citizens, sharing about him being an Alevi-a religious minority (and shunned in the past by some conservative Muslims). He has my respect,” tweeted Louis Fishman, an assistant professor of Modern Middle East history at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.
Turkish journalist Aslı Aydıntaşbaş described Kılıçdaroğlu’s video as “incredibly courageous,” saying he is “almost breaking a political taboo in Turkey.”
Jailed Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş said on Twitter through his lawyers that he congratulates Kılıçdaroğlu for his beautiful messages and sincerely supports them, adding that it is possible to live without discrimination, equally and peacefully, in the country.
Herkes gönül gözüyle izlemeli, kalbiyle hissederek dinlemeli.
Bu topraklarda ayrımcılık olmadan, eşitçe, kardeşçe, huzur içinde yaşamak mümkün.
Sayın Kılıçdaroğlu'nu kutluyor, bu güzel mesajlarını canıgönülden destekliyorum. https://t.co/Vu8nlMtA2A
— Selahattin Demirtaş (@hdpdemirtas) April 20, 2023
Kılıçdaroğlu’s statements also prompted some Alevis on social media to recount their memories when they had to hide their beliefs during their childhood or at their workplace or faced discrimination for being an Alevi. They said they were very much honored by Kılıçdaroğlu’s courageous remarks.
One Twitter user said his late father, who used to tell him to never reveal his Alevi faith, fearing that he could face discrimination, would be proud if he had seen Kılıçdaroğlu today.
Turkey has long denied Alevi demands for state recognition, and Alevi houses of worship, known as cemevis, are not officially recognized by the state, hence given no financial assistance.
Meanwhile, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu and Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), as well as some pro-government figures criticized Kılıçdaroğlu for talking about his Alevi faith. They accused him of playing with the country’s sensitivities ahead of the elections.
Kılıçdaroğlu is the presidential candidate of an opposition alliance of six parties that espouse different ideologies and world views.