The Circassian diaspora in Turkey

The Circassian diaspora in Turkey

William Armstrong -
The Circassian diaspora in Turkey

Abkhazians carry flags in a parade in the disputed Black Sea region. Many Circassians have traditionally felt an affinity with the Abkhazians of the North Caucasus.

‘The Circassian Diaspora in Turkey: A Political History’ by Zeynel Abidin Besleney (Routledge, 224 pages, £84)

In the list of ethnicities he likes to recite in speeches praising Turkey’s multicultural richness, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan always gives a shout out to Circassians. Unlike the Christian minorities that are routinely ignored in Erdoğan’s public rallies, referring to Circassians carries no political cost. Circassian identity has a fairly low profile in Turkey and Circassian-origin Turks tend to have a fairly limited “national consciousness.” 

The Circassian diaspora in Turkey The 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. Never having the strength to bring together the ethnicities of the largely Sunni Muslim North Caucasus as a united state, Circassia as a country ceased to exist. Hundreds of thousands of Circassians were killed or died, and their land - emptied of its native inhabitants - was offered to ethnic Russians and Cossack settlers. Some people today refer to the events of 1859-64 as the first modern genocide.

The vast majority of survivors found refuge across the Black Sea in the lands of the Ottoman Empire. The many tribal and ethnic groups arriving from the North Caucasus fitted into the multinational Ottoman patchwork, which accommodated Circassianness without imposing an obligation to assimilate. Estimates vary, but today there are thought to be around 2-3 million citizens of Circassian origin in Turkey, and many from the community have risen to the highest stations in the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. Many Circassians played a key role on the ground in the massacres of Ottoman Christians in 1915.

This book by scholar Zeynel Abidil Besleney is the most detailed study available of the political development of the Circassian community in Turkey over the past few decades. It is a sometimes tiring slog through a complex acronym soup of organizations and affiliations. While Besleney’s knowledge of the subject and of the various institutions that make up Circassian public life is beyond doubt, the inclusion of more colorful ground-level research - perhaps featuring the voices of activists more prominently - would not have gone amiss. Still, the author’s task is not made any easier by the obscurity of his subject; on the whole, the Circassians have been comprehensively assimilated within Turkey.

Besleney’s book is perhaps most interesting for the non-specialist when it uses Circassians as a prism through which to consider the broader history of modern Turkey. While they fitted into the Ottoman patchwork like others, Circassians as a group were hit by the more restrictive framework of the Kemalist state after the 1923 declaration of the republic, which kept ethnic and religious differences on a tight leash. They were forced to Turkify their names, prohibited from wearing “national costumes,” and banned from teaching, studying and speaking the Circassian language in public.

But the state never had the logistical infrastructure to control every inch of the country, and communities of Circassians in remote areas remained largely untouched by official policies. With the waning of Kemalist zeal after the 1950s, space opened up for alternative narratives, and urban migration profoundly shaped Circassian activism. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Turkey’s turbulent universities incubated fissures in North Caucasian identity. “Returnism” adopted left-wing literature on the ethno-political rights of minorities to the lack of Circassian cultural rights in Turkey, and looked sympathetically to the Soviet Union. Bitterly opposed to the Returnists in the anti-Communist camp were the United Caucasianists, who prized Circassians’ Sunni Muslim religious identity against the godless Soviets. Divisions within the North Caucasian diaspora in Turkey thus mirrored divisions in wider Turkish society through the 1960s and 70s.

The 1980 military coup marked a watershed. Although little known in the Turkish public domain, Circassian activists were among those targeted by the military regime for separatism and ethno-centrism. Their activities were seriously disrupted and it took around two decades for changes to come. The catalyst was Turkey’s intensified contact with the EU from the late 1990s, which put fresh wind into the sails of Circassian activism. Various meetings were held between Turkish Circassian groups and EU delegations, and financial aid was granted for cultural and linguistic projects. This was part of a broader “opening up” that increased the visibility of Turkey’s Circassians, whose sense of identity had also been strengthened by the fall of the Soviet Union.

That momentum eventually petered out. However, after the announcement that the 2014 Winter Olympics would be hosted in the symbolic old Circassian capital Sochi, diaspora groups were mobilized to conduct an unprecedented campaign against the Games. Global Circassian activism was raised to new levels and the community was brought together like never before. Rallies and street protests were staged outside Russian missions around the world in 2009, 2010 and 2011, generating significant publicity.

Today, Circassian groups can often be seen demonstrating on Istanbul’s central İstiklal Caddesi. Many will be doing so later this month on May 21, when the Circassian genocide is traditionally commemorated. As identity politics continues to gain momentum and the Internet boosts communication opportunities, it is certainly worth keeping an eye on Turkey’s Circassian activists.