The Circassian Diaspora in Turkey: A Political History

By Besleney, Zeynel Abidin | Insight Turkey, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

The Circassian Diaspora in Turkey: A Political History


Besleney, Zeynel Abidin, Insight Turkey


This book is the long-expected first book on the politics and history of the Circassian diaspora in Turkey in English that covers an ambitious time frame, ranging from the last period of the Ottoman Empire to 2011. Besleney not only brought in the advantages of having an insider understanding of culture, he also did field work in various countries, where the Circassian diaspora communities are located, i.e. Turkey, the U.S., Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Adyghea, and Abkhazia. Therefore, this work is a unique contribution to diaspora studies and Circassian studies, as well as Turkish and post-Soviet studies. In this "political history," Besleney largely provides a history of ethnic organizations founded by the Circassians in Turkey, and their relations with the hostland and homeland organizations.

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In the first chapter, Besleney discusses various theories in the literature on ethnicity and nationalism, the diaspora studies and various issues related globalization and transnationalism literature. He thinks that the failure of the "Soviet project to create a separate Adighe, Kabardian and Cherkess identity," "ethnic solidarity of the Circassians in the 14th and 15th century Mamluk Empire," and "survival of Circassian ethnic identity in various Circassian diasporas since the 1860s, despite subjection to the nationalizing policies of the states in which they found themselves" demonstrate that the ethno-symbolist theory of nation explains the Circassian case better (p. 11). Besleney rightly argues that "a single formula" is not "capable of explaining emergence, creation and/or survival of all nations or nationlike entities." It would be then appropriate for him to consider whether constructivism would explain certain periods of Circassian ethno-national history better, especially since his work focuses on elite organizations and how they continuously re-negotiate the Circassian identity (whether it includes Abkhaz, Abazin, Ubukh, Ossetians, and even other North Caucasians in addition to Adyge) and re-define what is central to being a Circassian. It seems that ethno-symbolist framework also prevented the problematization of the fit between the Circassian identity/identities in Turkey and the Circassian identity/identities in the former Soviet Union/Russia, and other diaspora settings, which is a main issue for many diasporas. A topic such as diaspora could benefit a lot from a constructivist approach, as it is about an ethnic identity that is hard to standardize and that is contested even more than other territorial nations.

Next, the author argues that Circassians fulfill most criteria for being a diaspora provided by Safran, and would fit in "victim diaspora" in the typology of Cohen. He also argues that Circassians at the same time demonstrate the possibility of enriched existence in the hostland and embrace the possibility of belonging to both the diaspora setting and the homeland, a point made by TOlOlyan with regards to the transformation of diasporas in the global age. Again, these ethno-symbolist theories of diaspora are mainly about the identity of diasporic masses, and say little about the role of elites and organizations but this book focuses mainly on the latter. Finally the author emphasizes the significance of interconnectedness, and advancements in technology, especially the internet in rejuvenating and reshaping the diaspora identity. At the same time, these global transformations have also created new challenges such as a clash of interests between diasporas and the hostlands, as evidenced by Circassian support of Abkhazians, despite the official Turkish foreign policy that supported Georgia.

In the second chapter, the author introduces Circassia and Circassians, followed by a chapter on the pre-exile history. In the fourth chapter, he examines the formation of the Circassian diaspora in Turkey. Late Ottoman and pre-1950 history of Turkey unfortunately is not well researched or understood because of a lack of data, insufficient interest and dominance of non-objective, ideological approaches (especially in the Turkish academia), making it harder for the author to place Circassians in the history of pre-1950s Ottoman Empire-Turkey. …

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