Turkey: Give me Your Tired, Your Poor
by Daniel Pipes
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[N.B.: The following reflects what the author submitted, and not exactly what was published. To obtain the precise text of what was printed, please check the original place of publication.]
Although little noted by the outside world, the Ottoman Empire and Turkey has for two centuries been a land of immigration. Millions of individuals running from trouble have turned up in Istanbul and Anatolia seeking refuge. As a French magazine recently noted, correctly, "Every historical upheaval releases a wave of emigration toward Turkey." Peoples fleeing persecution, foreign conquest, or other forms of turmoil-and here is another little-known fact-invariably found a welcome on arrival.
Turkic speakers make up a majority of the immigrants. The modern tradition of Turkic immigration began in 1783-85, when sizeable numbers of Crimean Tatars fled Moscow's conquest of their homeland by seeking asylum in Ottoman territory. Over the next century, Turkic speakers from the Volga-Ural area, the Caucasus, and Central Asia followed their example. Sunnis from Azerbaijan took refuge in Turkey in such large numbers, their proportion of the Azerbaijan population declined from over 50 percent to only 30 percent. Between 1926 and 1936, some 300,000 Turkic speakers arrived in Turkey, mostly from the Soviet Union. In 1951, Turkey accepted several hundred Kazakhs fleeing China. Cypriot Turks trickled in from the mid-1960s on.
The tradition continues today and includes numbers large and small. In 1982, 355 Kirghiz tribesmen from Afghanistan resettled near Van, in eastern Anatolia. The Bulgarian campaign of assimilation of the late 1980s, intended to make Bulgarian Turks lose their identity, prompted 320,000 of its Turkish population-including a world champion weight-lifter-to take refuge in Turkey. (With the fall of the communist regime, however, half of these returned to Bulgaria.) In 1992, the Turkish assembly unanimously voted to accept 50,000 Meskhetian Turks from southern Georgia and indicated a readiness to take in the Akhista (or Akhaltsikhe ) Turks of Kyrgyzstan.
Turkey plays a role for Turkic speakers akin to that the Federal Republic of Germany does for Germans: in both cases, ethnic kin are welcome to the motherland, even those whose ancestors left centuries earlier, or who never even had lived there. Turkey also resembles Israel in that it has a "law of return" on the books ; Turkic speakers like Jews are assured of a place to turn.
But not all immigrants speak Turkic languages. A broad range of "Ottoman Muslims," peoples who either converted to Islam under the aegis of the Ottoman Empire or tied closely to the Empire, have also moved to Turkey in substantial numbers. Circassians, Abkhaz, Chechens, Avars, Karachays , and many other Muslims emptied out of their homelands in the northern Caucasus during the mid-nineteenth century and went to Turkey. As the Ottomans lost ground in Europe, Muslim emigrants known as muhajirs took refuge in Anatolia. Albanians moved there around the turn of this century, mainly for economic reasons. Half a million Muslims, mostly Greek-speaking, arrived in Turkey from Greece between 1912 and 1930. Bosnian emigration to what is today Turkey began in the 1870s and revived in the 1990s. By November 1992, 15,000 Bosnians had newly arrived in Turkey , of which fully 14,000 settled with near relatives. Tens of thousands of Kurds fled Iraq after the end of the Iraq-Iran war in 1988, and they continue to arrive.
Non-Muslims of many descriptions have also sought refuge or opportunity in Turkey. Sephardic Jews fleeing Spain after 1492 headed for Istanbul, as did Ashkenazi Jews four and a half centuries later fleeing Hitler. Christian Levantines in the nineteenth century arrived seeking to expand their horizons. On occasion, even Christian Europeans in need of political haven found a welcome, including Hungarian nationalists in 1848 and Germans escaping Nazi rule. Though small in number, these political refugees had an important impact both in their home countries and in Turkey.
Immigration has left Turkey with a strikingly diverse population. In this century alone, substantial numbers of immigrants have come from Bosnia, Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Iraq, Iran , the Russian Empire/Soviet Union, Afghanistan, and China. With only a touch of exaggeration, Nur Vergin of Bilkent University points to Turkey as ethnically "a microcosm of the Ottoman Empire." Numbers are hard to come by and are probably exaggerated: Turks of Azeri origins, for example, are said to number six million while nearly ten million Turks trace their origins to the Balkans. In all, the descendants of these immigrants probably number about twelve million, or one-fifth of the Turkish population.
To complete the picture of Turkey's ethnic diversity, one also has to remember the many peoples who antedate the Turks both Muslim (Kurds, Arabs, Laz, Georgians, et al.) and non-Muslim (Greeks, Armenians).
From the point of view of immigration, Turkey resembles France in important ways. Both are major countries with a long but non-ideological tradition of offering refuge and opportunity to a wide range of peoples. Both have powerful assimilationist cultures which discourage ethnic affiliation. The fact that both incorporated large numbers of foreign peoples without the outside world paying much attention testifies to the success of their operations. As in France, immigrants to Turkey have faced few obstacles to advancement; indeed, a number of prominent Turks trace their ancestry to outside Turkey. The mother of former prime minister Mesut Yilmaz, for example, came from Bosnia. Turks, in short, have not inflicted on others the sort of treatment they themselves have experienced in Germany.
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