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Recognizing the rights of minorities in Türkiye – Q&A with Dr Yasemin Oral

23 November 2023

Türkiye’s compliance with international human rights norms has worsened significantly over the past 5 years. The international community has largely overlooked the human rights challenges faced by minorities, especially the intersectional effects of conflict and a deteriorating civil space. A Minority Rights Group programme called ‘Minorities, Accountability, Rights, Collaboration (MARC)’ aims to address this by promoting the rights of ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities in Türkiye.

Dr Yasemin Oral is a participant of MARC and Vice President of the Federation of Caucasian Associations (KAFFED). She is a strong advocate for minority rights in Türkiye and a loud voice for the 56 active Caucasian associations that KAFFED represents. During the OSCE Warsaw Human Dimension Conference last month, MRG’s Anna Alboth sat down with Dr Oral to learn more about her work and the situation of minority communities in Türkiye.

Anna: Yasemin, you are not only Vice-President of the Federation of Caucasian Associations and an activist, but also a Circassian. This is not a well-known minority in Turkey.

Dr Oral: Right. I am actually Abkhaz but I also use Circassian for identification since the Abkhaz and Abaza communities are generally considered to be part of the larger Northern Caucasian diaspora, together with the Circassians, in Turkey. Circassians are Northern Caucasian people who were exiled to the Ottoman Empire during and after the Caucasian-Russian war, which ended in 1864. They were dispersed across the Ottoman Empire and later found themselves in different nation-states. Today, the largest Circassian community resides in Turkey, estimated at around 4 million people, which is larger than the population in their historical homeland.

Anna: How has the Circassian community’s experience in Turkey evolved over the years, particularly in relation to language and culture?

Dr Oral: With the foundation of the Republic of Turkey, there were decades-long state assimilation policies, including the obligation to adopt Turkish names and only use the Turkish language. This significantly affected our cultural identity and language transmission, alongside the later rapid urbanization which accelerated the language shift towards Turkish. While it initially maintained its cultural identity, the Circassian community has faced challenges in preserving its heritage.

Anna: Circassians are not the only minority community in Turkey facing such challenges, right?

Dr Oral: No, Circassians are just one of many minority communities in Turkey. The issue of minority rights in Turkey is complex, given the diverse ethnic, religious and linguistic groups in the country, including Arabs, Armenians, Kurds, Laz, Jews and others. Although the total number of these minority populations is estimated to be around 30 million, they largely remain officially unrecognized, leading to discrimination in various aspects of life.

Anna: What about minority policies?

Dr Oral: Primarily, the Turkish legal framework relies on the Treaty of Lausanne, which asserts that only three non-Muslim communities – Armenian, Greek and Jewish – are considered minorities

and thus granted the right to language and education. In other words, most of the minority communities in Turkey are officially unrecognised, which brings about a de jure and de facto linguistic, cultural, ethnic and religious discrimination.

The policymakers of the early times in the newly established Turkish state focused on the ethnic and linguistic dominance of Turks over other ethnic identities. Monolingual language policies which officially favour Turkish over other languages have prevailed since the early Republican days. As a member of the UN and OSCE, Turkey should comply with these bodies’ minority rights standards. However, it continues to rely on a very restrictive application of the term ‘minority’ and denying rights. Combined with the current anti-democratic realities and injustices in Turkey, the situation of minority communities is a matter of major concern.

Anna: How have the February 2023 earthquakes impacted these minority communities?

Dr Oral: Earthquakes often expose and exacerbate existing inequalities and vulnerabilities within societies. After the earthquakes, minority communities such as Alevi, Kurds, Rom, Dom and Abdals faced renewed discrimination and marginalization. Reports indicate that these communities had difficulties accessing aid and experienced ill-treatment, hate speech and discrimination.

Anna: What about the Circassian community specifically? How did they fare in the aftermath of the earthquakes?

Dr Oral: The Circassian community in the earthquake-affected region faced challenges related to search and rescue efforts and relief activities by public authorities, which were late and inadequate, especially in rural areas.

However, with the support of various civil society organizations, the Circassian community initiated their own relief efforts promptly, providing aid, shelter and support to those in need. They mobilized quickly to provide immediate assistance, establishing a call centre to collect information about individuals under the rubble and coordinate with authorities. They also collected and distributed in-kind aid, offered shelter and provided both psychological and legal assistance.

Anna: What would you say were the major challenges faced by minority communities in Turkey in the aftermath of the earthquakes?

Dr Oral: The major challenges following the earthquakes were displacement and discrimination. The loss of human life was significantly felt and displacement disrupted community ties. This experience highlighted the importance of minority organizations and solidarity in addressing these challenges.

Anna: Turkey officially recognizes only three non-Muslim communities as minorities, leaving others’ rights unrecognized. What rights are denied to these minority groups and how does this impact them?

Dr Oral: They are denied very basic minority rights, such as the right to education in their own language. This can have a significant impact on their ability to preserve their culture and heritage. Some minority groups are portrayed negatively in media and most of them are still afraid of stigmatization. In Turkey, warm hospitality towards foreigners is selective and often depends on

their ethnicity and socio-economic status. For instance, Syrian refugees face discrimination and abuse, especially those with lower socio-economic status.

Credit: Zsofia Farkas/Minority Rights Group

Anna: You mentioned a common misperception that all people with Turkish origins abroad are ethnically Turkish, which is not accurate. How does this misconception affect these diverse minority communities?

Dr Oral: This misconception is problematic as it overlooks the diversity of minority communities within Turkey. People from these various minority groups abroad are often grouped under the broad label of “Turkish,” even though they come from different ethnic backgrounds. Recognizing this diversity is crucial to address the specific needs of these communities and ensure their well-being.

Anna: You talked about the importance of reestablishing trust in the rule of law and reviving democratic values. How is trust in the rule of law being eroded, and what steps should be taken to rebuild it?

Dr Oral: Trust in the rule of law is eroded due to the arbitrary arrests, mistreatment and mistrials, which are fuelled by the oppressive political climate in Turkey. To rebuild trust, it’s essential to reintroduce democratic values and ensure that laws are applied fairly. This will require changes in legislation and a commitment to media freedom, freedom of expression and civil society involvement.

Anna: You also mentioned the need for mutual integration, rather than assimilation, regarding education and diversity in Turkish schools. What do you mean by mutual integration and its significance?

Dr Oral: Mutual integration means that both host and guest communities work together to foster understanding and inclusion. Instead of imposing assimilation and homogenization, this approach promotes a sense of belonging for all students, allowing them to retain their cultural identities while learning about and respecting others. It’s essential for creating inclusive educational environments.

Credit: Zsofia Farkas/Minority Rights Group

Anna: Final question. What are three immediate changes you wish to immediately see in action, to feel that we are on track towards positive change for Circassians?

Dr Oral: Inclusive policies on language within education. Equity and equality between majority and minority communities. A commitment from all to fundamental human rights and a healthy civic space. These changes are essential to the survival of not only the Circassians but all the minority communities in Turkey, but also for the peace and survival of humankind.

Photo: Dr Yasemin Oral delivering a presentation during an MRG-organized event at the 2023 OSCE Warsaw Human Dimension Conference. Credit: Zsofia Farkas/Minority Rights Group.