INTERVIEW: Circassian identity a ‘hidden germ’ in Turkish politics

INTERVIEW: Circassian identity a ‘hidden germ’ in Turkish politics

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Circassian identity a ‘hidden germ’ in Turkish politics

Circassians first came to Anatolia in significant numbers during the 19th century, when up to a million were forced out of their homeland in the North Caucasus by the Russian Empire.

In Turkey and elsewhere, identity politics have defined the last 30 years. Across the spectrum - from Islamist to secularist politics, from Kurdish nationalism to Turkish nationalism - cultural identity has become the key conduit for political expression.

Circassians, who migrated to the Ottoman Empire after being driven from their homeland in the North Caucasus by the advancing Russian Empire in the 19th century, have typically had a fairly low public profile in Turkey. But as Turkish scholar Zeynel Abidin Besleney describes in a new book (reviewed here), Circassian political activism in Turkey actually has a lively heritage stretching back to the Ottoman Empire. While their identity is still largely seen as a private concern, today Circassians have a rising “consciousness” and activism has become increasingly sophisticated.  

Hürriyet Daily News spoke to Besleney to explore this little-known “hidden germ” in Turkish politics.

What made you want to research this subject? What piqued your interest?

I was born in Turkey, though I’ve been living in the U.K. for 18 years. I myself am Circassian from Turkey, and I had first-hand experience of the issue in the 1990s. I always thought that this was a kind of “hidden germ” in Turkish political history. There is a lively platform for Circassian diaspora activism, which goes back almost a century, but most people who study Turkish political history don’t have much of an idea what this platform actually is. Every now and then Circassians pop up in the news: Sometimes they hijack a ferry or an airplane, sometimes they come out onto the street demanding linguistic rights, which is usually thought of as an exclusively Kurdish domain. I wanted to explore the roots of this activism.

The end of the Cold War seems to have been a major watershed. How did the collapse of the Soviet Union affect Circassian diaspora activism in Turkey and elsewhere?

The early 1990s was the period when the “imagined homeland” met the “reality” of the homeland. Many things that had been imagined prior to that period met the reality. The diaspora and the people left behind had grown apart over more than a century. In the early 1990s, when people had the chance to visit their ancestral homelands, they discovered new things. Sometimes they liked these things, sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes they reactivated their contacts with the ancestors, sometimes they didn’t. This had a huge impact. For almost 50 or 60 years it was an activism based on imagined conceptions, but from the 1990s onward it was brought down to earth as real individuals, real personalities, real locations. 

In Turkey, there was a specific ideological movement within the Circassian diaspora called “Returnism,” which focused on “returning to the homeland.” That also became a reality. Many people started going back to the Caucasus to live or settle. Some stayed there, some returned to Turkey disappointed. These dynamics came out after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Before the end of the Cold War, people didn’t actually have the opportunity to travel there at all. Turkey was on the frontline of the Cold War as a NATO member, and only very few individuals - taking great risks - actually traveled to the North Caucasus. It was only in the 1990s that large numbers of people had a chance to visit what they called their ancestral homeland.

What changes have taken place in Circassian activism during the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) time in power? To what extent were these changes a direct result of AKP policies, or would they have happened anyway?

During the AKP’s first two terms, from 2002 to 2011, a democratization process was in place. The AKP’s moves to lift certain bans on linguistic rights for Kurds and other ethnic groups were part of a degree of openness about discussing these things in public. This created an atmosphere for Circassians to come out to explain themselves to the Turkish public. There were also new media opportunities with the widespread use of the Internet through the 2000s. Because Circassian groups didn’t really have any old media outlets, they utilized the Internet to create connections within Turkey and then across borders - in Jordan, Europe, the U.S., and the North Caucasus itself. This also coincided with Sochi being selected as the host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, in 2007. This proved to be a spur for Circassian activism on a global level.

As for the AKP itself, a Circassian figure, Abdüllatif Şener, was one of the founders of the party in 2001, and served as the deputy prime minister. When he left the government in 2007 or 2008 there was a kind of purge within the party. Once Erdoğan got hold of the whole party, there were few Circassians left at any level. Today, the AKP has not a single Circassian figure within the party structure. Within the main opposition Republican People’s Party [CHP], the Peoples’ Democratic Party [HDP], even the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP], there are a number of prominent Circassian-origin figures. But this is no longer true for the AKP.

How has the Internet affected Circassian activism? Has it exacerbated ideological fissures, or has it brought people together?

Circassians had to wait until the 2000s to have a higher-profile public debate. Circassian-origin Turkish citizens are spread out geographically across the country, and this physical separation was one key reason why you couldn’t get large numbers of people gathering and discussing things. Also, the 1980 military coup really changed the game. There were restrictions on movement and restrictions on people gathering in large numbers. NGOs were shut down across the board and they remained closed for at least six or seven years. In the 1990s there was a rise in armed Kurdish activity, and that also had an effect on Circassian activities because they didn’t want to be seen as another separatist ethnic group. What’s more, there were many divisions within Circassian society itself.

In the early 2000s, with the change of government and after the capture of [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, which was followed by a ceasefire, the scene changed. The Internet came into the picture at this point too. It gave an opportunity and platform to all the activists spread around the country to come together to discuss ideas. Circassians did not have the media outlets and they weren’t geographically united, so there wasn’t a single united platform. But the Internet gave this opportunity. Instead of having a TV channel or a newspaper they had websites, Yahoo groups, blogs, where 3,000-4,000 professional activists discussed everything. So the Internet gave Circassian activism a momentum and an outlet that it had lacked before.

Would you say that at the moment, in 2015, Circassian “consciousness” is rising or falling?

In terms of culture, the Circassian language is in steep decline. It has actually been in decline for decades. But at the same time, I think Circassianism as a political and diasporic identity is on the rise. There are actually two types of individuals in Circassian society. On the one hand, there are those who have the language and who had an upbringing in a Circassian environment, with all the cultural traits but perhaps without political consciousness. On the other hand, there are those who don’t speak the language and didn’t have the upbringing - perhaps because they were born in cities - but they do have the Circassian political identity, the sense that they have more than one homeland, that they have different belongings and affiliations. 

With the spread of English, Circassians also had the chance to communicate with others from outside as well - not just in the Caucasus but also Circassians in Georgia, Syria and the United States. So not knowing the language is no longer a barrier. We can therefore talk about a different kind of Circassian nationhood, or Circassian national identity, prevailing these days. This identity is quite global and interconnected, mostly free of national geographical boundaries. 

What would you say are the most important issues for Circassian activists at the moment, both in Turkey and elsewhere?

The loss of language and the assimilation policies within Turkey is probably the most important issue. Basically this idea of fighting against assimilation everywhere - whether in Turkey, Russia, the U.S., Syria, Jordan, or elsewhere - is the main thing.

Secondly, there is the situation in the ancestral homeland of the Caucasus. When Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia the scene in the Caucasus changed. It’s very difficult to talk about democracy in the Caucasus and Russia as a whole. But Circassian activists want a democratic Caucasus, a democratic homeland - whether it’s part of Russia or outside of Russia is another issue. Linked to this, many people are interested in having some kind of dual citizenship with their ancestral homeland. 

Is there a generational divide between the younger generations, who may have lost the language but have a heightened Circassian consciousness, and older generations who are the opposite?

Yes. This is a well-known trait of diasporas. The first generation tries to survive; the second generation settles and engages with the host community; the third generation is then really disturbed by the perceived changes to their “essential” culture. 

But I must stress that Circassian political consciousness or activity didn’t just start in the 2000s. It really started as soon as they arrived in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. Circassians occupy a separate “category” within Turkey, in terms of all those ethnic groups that did not originate in Anatolia - Bosnians, Albanians, Georgians, Turks from the Balkans. Firstly, Circassia was never a part of the Ottoman Empire. Secondly, Circassians never had a real relationship with the notional “Turkishness” that people from the Balkans, for example, had. So Circassians and Turks have sometimes considered themselves “apart” from each other. 

Circassians are probably the third biggest ethnic group in Turkey that can bring out thousands of people to demonstrate for political aims. Time will tell how changes in national identity in the new generations will play out.