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Displacement, Ethnicity and the Politics of Exclusion in Turkey

Panel XII-22, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
  • Ms. Yesim Bayar -- Presenter
  • Dr. Amal Cavender -- Presenter
  • Dr. Sossie Kasbarian -- Chair
  • Ms. Idil Ozkan -- Presenter
  • Hrag Papazian -- Presenter
  • Dr. Neşe Kaya Özkan -- Presenter
  • Dr. Amal Cavender
    The persecution and scapegoating of ethnic and religious minorities in Turkey are not recent and have been present throughout its history. However, this persecution has reached new heights under Erdogan's rule, particularly towards the Kurdish communities. The Justice and Ruling Party (AKP), led by Erdogan, has employed anti-terrorism laws broadly to target the Kurds, and Erdogan's speeches intentionally exacerbate discrimination against them. Erdogan's actions are part of his strategy to promote nationalism and suppress alternative narratives, with the Kurdish minority serving as a convenient "security problem" to rally nationalist sentiment around. The Turkish military offensive against Kurdish militias in Northern Syria and the ongoing conflict in Syria have fueled national fervor, leading to increased discrimination against the Kurds in Turkey and general support to eradicate the Kurdish presence in Northern Syria. Erdogan's systematic and institutionalized practices, involving media and party apparatus, aim to create a homogeneous Turkish Sunni-Muslim society and erase the culture and heritage of the Kurdish communities in Turkey and Syria. This paper analyzes Erdogan's policies toward the Kurdish minority in Turkey and Northern Syria, including his role in annexing and the Turkification of the Northern region of Syria. For him, this zone addresses the Syrian refugee crisis, supports the Syrian opposition, and reinforces the presence of Sunni Islam. This paper will also assess the role of media outlets and government reports in perpetuating the Turkish government's intimidation tactics toward the Kurds, ultimately serving Erdogan's ambitions in the region.
  • Ms. Idil Ozkan
    Five hundred years after the Alhambra decree ordered the expulsion of Jews from Iberia, the Spanish government enacted a law offering Spanish citizenship to Jews worldwide. While presented as atonement for the horrors of the Inquisition, the citizenship offer was contingent on applicants documenting their Sephardic Jewish ancestry in Spain. However, not all candidates were practicing Jews, with many coming from converso backgrounds, for whom proving Sephardic ancestry was a bureaucratic challenge. Sabbateans (also Selanikli, or Dönme) present such group in Turkey. A group of Ottoman Jews in the 17th century Salonica joined the proclaimed messiah Sabbatai Zevi’s movement (thus, Sabbateans). When the Ottoman Sultan forced Zevi to convert to Islam, his followers followed suit. As a result of Zevi’s apostasy, continuous anti-Jewish stigmatization, and conspiracy theories that loomed on the community, Sabbateans publicly kept their ethnoreligious backgrounds a secret. Thus, for many young people of Dönme descent, Spain’s reparation law for Sephardim was a turning point: Their families having assimilated to the modern secular Turkish identity in contexts of stigmatization and conspiracy, many young people of Sabbatean descent learnt of their Jewish roots for the first time after 2015 with Spain’s citizenship offer. Although some may sense relief at releasing their “burden of silence” proving their Sephardic roots has proved a formidable challenge for many. This paper examines the parameters through which this group has re-framed their ethnoreligious ancestry in the context of legal citizenship claims. I use data from 22 months of ethnographic fieldwork and oral histories, to ethnographically trace how Sabbateans navigate labyrinthine and counter-intuitively secular bureaucratic body of knowledge through newly developed mechanisms of ancestry authentication. I argue that Spain’s citizenship offer provided a space for Conversos of Sabbatean descent to legally reclaim their Jewish-Iberian heritage. An unintended consequence of this was the revival of Sabbatean ethnoreligious ancestry among the youth, and the formation of a secular bureaucratic body of knowledge about Sabbatean history aimed towards ancestry authentication. Oral histories and interviews are rich resources for analyzing broader ideologies of hybridity and purity that permeate in understandings of ethnoreligious and national boundaries: the mixed character intrinsic to Turkish Conversos—Muslim yet Jewish, Greek yet Turkish, immigrant yet elite—shows the intricate play of binaries permeating nationalist semiotics. This research provides important insights for the study of Jewish-Muslim difference across the Mediterranean and for broader processes by which states regulate regimes of citizenship, ancestry, and belonging.
  • This paper explores how Armenians in Turkey navigate a nationalist landscape in everyday life. The data draws from interviews conducted by fifty-two Armenians who were born and raised in Turkey and who currently reside in Canada. Based on their life stories, the paper focuses on a variety of social interactions and encounters in everyday settings. The discussion starts with an examination of the family as an institution. Participants’ narratives highlight a clear boundary between private and public domains. While the former is considered a safe space the latter was where the complexity of social life needed to be meticulously navigated and performed. In this section of the paper, I also explore broader family ties and varied experiences of being Armenian based on geography (i.e. being Armenian in Istanbul versus in small towns in Anatolia). What does it mean to be an Istanbulite? How does it compare to individuals’ identifications with the nation? How do individuals’ conceptualizations of Canada and Armenia compare to these identifications? In the second part of the paper, I focus on relationships with neighbors and friends. These personal, everyday interactions and relationships do not always run smoothly, and sustaining stable relationships could at times be especially tricky. Participants routinely expressed how seemingly strong and deeply rooted relationships could swiftly take a different, unwelcome, direction. The paper considers the fragility of these seemingly well-established relationships and enquires into how individuals make meaning of their interactions with others. While the discussion pays attention to the limits of nationalist politics and its impact on everyday life, at the same time it highlights when and how the political (i.e. the exercise of state power) could shape these personal and everyday engagements. The paper seeks to make two contributions to the existing literature. First, the discussion establishes the connection between the everyday and the political. Nationalist politics have, until recently, been explored by looking at how the state behaves. Consequently, the impact of nationalist policies on minorities has been neglected in the sociological literature. The present paper establishes this link. Second, the examination highlights the complex response strategies that individuals employ when navigating an exclusionary and unstable landscape. In so doing, the study remains critical of those scholarly works that treat minority responses using an assimilation-dissimilation scale.
  • Hrag Papazian
    In recent years, there has been a burgeoning scholarly and public discourse on Armenians who had officially converted to Islam in Ottoman times or under Turkish Republican rule, and on their descendants living in Turkey today. Armenian and Turkish academics, journalists, public intellectuals, and even officials have been writing and speaking about these people, often in generalized and at times politicized ways. “Hidden/Secret/Crypto-Armenians” (Gizli/Kripto Ermeniler; Թաքուն/Ծպտեալ Հայեր), “Islamized Armenians” (Müslümanlaş[tırıl]mış Ermeniler; Իսլամաց[ու]ած Հայեր), “Converted Armenians” (dönme Ermeniler; կրօնափոխ հայեր), and “Muslim Armenians” (Müslüman Ermeniler; Իսլամ/Մահմետական հայեր) are some of the most widely used labels, with their Turkish and Armenian counterparts, applied to the contemporary descendants of Armenians converted to Islam. Discussing these and other terms and their uses in both Turkish and Armenian contexts, I aim to analyze and deconstruct them in order to reveal some of their empirical inaccuracies and analytical shortcomings, as well as to shed light on the ethically and politically problematic facets of some of them. Reminding that classificatory terminology is often not devoid of ideological content and that it might also have its implications on those classified, I suggest more nuanced ways of approaching, understanding, and describing representatives of this very diverse and still multiply vulnerable population.
  • Dr. Neşe Kaya Özkan
    This paper explores how Hemshin people living in the north-east of Turkey respond to the sociolinguistic and environmental transformations that have been taking place on Hemshin lands after long-lasting Turkish only language policies and more recent “development” projects such as hydropower plants, stone quarry, and major roads. As Hemshin landscape is transformed through the uncontrolled investment projects, Hemshin people have been mobilized around a unique grassroots movement. Through the analysis of written texts such as social media posts, news reports, and recordings of in-depth interviews that I conducted during the 21 months of multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork in Istanbul, Rize, Artvin and highland pastures in Turkey between 2021 and 2022, I demonstrate how Hemshin people fashion their environmental opposition in unique and unexpected ways. In a context where the official line of the Turkish state promotes the ideology of ethnic, cultural, and linguistic homogeneity of the Turkish nation state and the specificity of Hemshin identity as a distinct ethnic identity has not been made explicit in the local or national public discourse, Hemshin people mark boundaries that distinguish them from outsiders as they employ their linguistic and cultural resources in their environmental opposition. Emerging from within the Hemshins’ strong “sense of place” (Feld and Basso 1996) and commemorations of “tasks of habitation” (Ingold 2002) in Hemshin landscape, Hemshin linguistic resources involving place narratives, and Armenian toponyms, and ethno-ecological words which are incomprehensible to outsiders not only perform a boundary-marking role and disrupts the monologism of Turkish language in Turkey, but also prompt negotiations and reaffirmation of cultural difference and what constitutes that difference among the Hemshins. In the process, relationships with both language and environment are mutually (re)created, maintained, and (re)negotiated. Drawing from the literature on multispecies ethnography that acknowledges the dynamics of life emerging within shifting and changing “assemblages” in the ruined landscapes of the Anthropocene (Kirksey 2015, Tsing 2015, Tsing et al. 2017) and linguistic anthropological work on language “survivance” attending to “vitalities of language” (Davis 2017, Perley 2011) as well as studies that complicate the view of languages as “systems” and “social practices” (Demuro and Gurney 2021, Pennycook 2021) I argue that instead of taking language and the environment as two distinct spheres of the political, we look at how these two are mobilized and constitute one another as parts of larger semiotic assemblages in people’s articulations of identity, survivance and claims over the environmental commons.