After spending a weekend in Hatay and really delving into the Syrian conflict, I heard the word “Alawite” being thrown around a lot. Who are the Alawites? Are they Muslims?

In Hatay I observed people of many different faiths engaging socially as friends and business partners. I even snapped a picture of these three men who are good friends– One is an Alawite (left,) One is Christian (middle,) and one is Sunni Muslim (right.)

While walking around Antakya, I asked casual questions about what it meant to be Alawite. One man I met at a jewelry shop, Mehmood, was a practicing Alawite, or Alawi. He explained that Alawites are a branch of the twelver sect of Shi’a Islam.

In a nutshell, it seems the schism of Sunni and Shi’a Islam is rooted in a disagreement of the succession of the caliphate after the Prophet Muhammed’s death. The name Alawite is reportedly derived from the name Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the last of the “Rightly Guided Caliphs” of Islam. Shi’a Muslims apparently regard Ali as the first Shi’a Imam.

Our translator Mehmet gave us his interpretation. He said Alawites do not attend “normal” mosques, and he understood that many do not believe in the literal meaning of the Qura’an. They supposedly do not pray five times a day as observant Sunnis and Shi’as do. It is hard to strictly define what observant Alawites do and do not do, since their practices vary across nations and even neighborhoods and are highly disputed among other sects of Shiism.

Alawites are most highly concentrated in Syria, mainly in the cities of Hama and Homs. The current President of Syria, Bashar Al-Assad, is Alawite. While concentrated in Syria, Alawites reportedly make up only about 12% of the Syrian population.

Alawites in other countries are sometimes referred to as Nusairis or Ansaris.There is also a religious population in Turkey known as the Alevis. I find the distinction between Alawites and Alevis to be unclear.

In my quest to define what it means to be Alawite, a few people told me Alawites and Alevis were one and the same, while others told me they are separate faiths within the spectrum of Shiism that should not be confused. Even in my research, some sources claimed they were the same while some firmly refuted the same idea. A few of my questions regarding the Alawite faith are still unanswered, so my quest continues. I’ll keep you updated!

Antioch’s Religious Blend

Many people may know Antioch for having delicious desserts like Kunefe, or for being a city on the Syrian-Turkey border. However, Antioch may be best known as a “seat of Christianity.” Ten minutes away from the heart of the city is St. Peter  Grotto, where it’s reported the word “Christian” was first used.

One would assume that since Turkey is 99.8% Muslim, the history of Christianity isn’t honored in Turkey. But, in Antioch, there’s an Orthodox Church, a Protestant Church, a Catholic Church, various mosques and a synagogue… all within 15 minutes walking distance of each other.

Members of all of these places of worship work together on different projects for the community. “Christians, Armenians, Orthodox, Jews… it’s an example of collaboration, and we work together.” said Father Bertogli of the Antioch Catholic Church.

At the Orthodox Church there is even special seating to separate men and women, an accommodation for Muslims who may come to their church, according to Razik Effim, administrator for the church.

“All the religions are in a friendship”, Effim said.

A site that really captures the interfaith feeling of Antioch is Sister Barbara Kallasgh’s house. The Catholic nun says every Monday through Friday, at 6:30 p.m., people from all spiritual walks of life come together to sing songs from different religions and cultures.

LIving in a city near the Turkey-Syria border where they can mix with refugees escaping violence in their homeland “It becomes more important for this city to spread this message of peace,” said Kallasgh.

She believes that music is the best way to convey this message.

“Music is something coming from the heart,” said Kallasgh. “It’s more deep, more rooted than words. Music is something we really can feel together. We don’t struggle with music. There are no borders in music.”

Luis Moreno, a local painter, artist, and volunteer for the services, said that Sister Barbara’s is less of a church, and more of a meeting point. Pilgrims, or those visiting holy sites in the city, can “come and go” as they please, and the atmosphere is neutral.

“People can meet, said Moreno, “sing without problems, and pray together for peace.”

Moreno came to Sister Barbara’s from Syria, where, as a Syrian Christian, he did not converse with others of different faiths.

“I wanted to experience something I could not experience in Syria,” he said, “like the dialogue with Jews and Christians, for example.”

And that, according to Effim, is the whole purpose of the city.

“This is one of the best examples in the world of all the cultures,” said Effim,” and there is no place like the city.”

Ancient ruins of Antakya (Antioch)

Hatay is known for being a region with ruins that are thousands of years old. On our first day in Antakya (also known as Antioch), we visited an ancient cave where Saint Peter and Saint Paul are said to have hidden with early Christians during the Ottoman empire. It can be traced back to the Acts of the Apostles in the Christian Bible. The oldest elements of this church date back to the 4th and 5th centuries. We touched the walls they touched as they were developing the essentials of the religion we now know as Christianity.

There was also a stone altar, and chair that were later added by crusaders around the 9th century.

Another great thing about this historic site was the tunnel created to crawl up to escape from Ottoman attack.

The Month of God

Today marked the first day of Rajab, the seventh month on the Islamic lunar calendar. The name Rajab is derived from the Arabic word rajaba, which means “to respect.” The two months before the holy month of Ramadan, the 9th month, are considered sacred months in which battles are prohibited. I find this fact interesting as we pack to leave for Hatay, the border region between Turkey and Syria, where many victims of Syrian political unrest seek refuge.

The Prophet Muhammed is quoted as saying, “God gave us twelve months in the year, eleven of which are ours and one of which belongs to God. What rewards God will give his servants in His month, no one knows, not even the Prophet(s).”

Some celebrations can be seen during the month of Rajab, especially by those who follow the “Twelver” sect of Shi’ah Islam. The more common practice during Rajab, however, is simply more strict observance and steadfastness in faith.

Looking at them, looking at me

On Saturday, we stepped foot in some of the oldest and most celebrated mosques – like the Blue Mosque – in Istanbul. The rules for those mosques are as follows:

  • No shoes allowed. You either carry your shoes in from outside or leave them on a rack outside the worshiping area.
  • Women should have their heads covered and wear a long skirt; men should wear long pants and not shorts. Occasionally they let these rules slide, but if the officers outside believe you’re dressed inappropriately, they’ll often provide a sheath of cloth to drape over your legs or shoulders.
  • You’re not technically supposed to speak aloud inside the mosque if you’re a visitor. They’re not too strict about this, so we didn’t feel too bad about exchanging awed “wows” as we looked around.
  • Photographs should not be taken during the prayers, which are supposed to happen five times a day; a couple hours before dawn, sunrise, midday, afternoon, sunset and after the last light of day disappears.
  • Visitors are supposed to stay behind the area designated for prayer.

Visiting these mosques was obviously a new and unusual thing for me. And the weirdest thing happened when we visited the first one: Another visitor politely asked if he could photograph me just standing there. I thought it was strange, but I told him that it was fine.

And it happened again later that day. After entering the Blue Mosque, I stopped looking upward at the ceiling when I realized an older woman was looking at me. I instinctively checked to make sure my scarf was in place, and I pulled my sweater close as I murmured a quick “Merhaba.” I blushed, embarrassed and worried that she thought I was dressed inappropriately. But not five minutes later, a man tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, but my mother-in-law would like to take a picture with you. She likes you very much.” The small woman was smiling at me shyly and I happily agreed.

I realized, then, that she wasn’t judging me for me for being different. On the contrary, I think – or at least I hope – she realized that I was trying to be respectful of her beliefs, even though it was pretty clear I came from a very different place. I’ll never quite understand what it’s like to be her, just like she’ll never quite understand what it’s like to be me. But the least we can do is try.

Gülen Movement: Connection with Niagara Foundation

Whenever I mention the Gülen movement, I get reactions like, “That’s controversial,” or “That’s a touchy subject.” So I want to explore it: I will be exploring the reason behind its controversy, its role in the democratization of Turkey, and its connection with the educational system of more than 140 countries.

I got a chance to learn about the basic ideals of the Gülen movement at the Niagara Foundation in Chicago. The Niagara Foundation is a Midwest organization that openly supports and embodies the values of the Gülen movement, by promoting fellowship and dialogue between cultures and nations. For example, the Niagara Foundation funds trips for Americans to visit Turkey to develop of more informed sense of Turkish culture. I sat down with the Niagara Foundation’s Assistant Director in Chicago, Hakan Berberoglu to get a brief overview of this movement.

My curiosity for this movement continues. I interviewed Professor Ihsan Yilmaz at Fatih University this afternoon. Professor Yilmaz currently serves as the Chair of the PhD Programme in Political Science and International Relations at Fatih University, Editor-in-Chief at European Journal of Economic and Political Studies (EJEPS), advisor at Journalists and Writers Foundation, and writes as a columnist at Today’s Zaman. He gave me more insight into the role that the Gülen movement plays in Turkish politics and democratization–video coming soon.