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Friday, 8 February 2019

Fragmented communities: Diaspora politics in the Turkish-speaking community

The seminar on 6 February, on ‘Fragmented Communities: Diaspora Politics in the Turkish-speaking community’, focused on the current dynamics of the Turkish-speaking diaspora and their political engagement, viewed from a historical perspective in the UK context. Dr Mustafa Cakmak (Keele University) also offered a view of the new ways in which a new diaspora is generated via exclusionary political practices. Reflecting on the dramatic increase in the number of migrants and asylum seekers from Turkey since the failed coup in 2016, he discussed the new diaspora in the making. He also explained how long-distance nationalism functions, providing several examples of political engagement of major political groups among the Turkish-speaking diaspora. The other dimension he focused on was how the Turkish state tries to mobilise the diaspora in order to strengthen its power both at home and with its European and international counterparts.

His analysis was based on empirical data gathered through ethnographic fieldwork and in-depth interviews of civil society leaders, activists and volunteers in community centres, political associations, and religious centres of the Turkish-speaking communities in the UK.
The presentation, which was based on a research paper, dealt only with the major political movements among the Turkish-speaking diaspora in the UK. After analysing the historical context of the migration from Turkey and Cyprus to the UK, and describing the different waves of contemporary immigration patterns of Turkish-speaking people coming to the UK, he focused on their political engagement. The political activities of the Turkish-speaking diaspora include voting in Turkey’s general elections and referendums, campaigning for Turkish political parties, organising rallies, marches, demonstrations and boycotting, and lobbying local politicians. He argued that, through these activities, the fragmented diaspora community aims to contribute to the democratisation of Turkey and the strengthening of human rights and the rule of law, to increase the recognition of Northern Cyprus, or to establish an independent Kurdish state.He also stressed the importance of long-distance nationalism as a factor behind the political engagement of the Turkish-speaking diaspora in the UK, arguing that political leaders in the home countries may encourage long-distance nationalism from their dispersed populations for various reasons, including: economic resources derived from remittances; the votes of diasporas during elections; their value as informal diplomatic representatives; or even as leverage when negotiating with the host country’s government.

He also pointed to the pro-Kurdish or Kurdish nationalist organisations and associations in the UK that are active in political life; they promote Kurdish nationalism or national identity through cultural activities such as Kurdish language courses and the celebration of national days.

Turning to other diasporic groups, such as the Turkish Nationalists (Grey Wolves) and Political Islamists (National Vision), he argued that the Turkish-speaking diaspora in the UK is dominated by left-wing movements, in contrast to the diaspora elsewhere in Europe, which is generally conservative, motivated by right-wing ideologies. In analysing lobbying by different groups, including: the Turkish-Cypriot diaspora in Britain, which led protests and pressed international policy-makers to protect Turkish Cypriots’ rights in Cyprus; the Kurdish diaspora, which is the most politically active group among the Turkish-speaking communities in the UK; and the Alevi religious community, which lobbies for the recognition of their faith in the UK and the recognition of their rights in Turkey. He also spoke of opposition groups to the current government, principally the Gülenists.

In concluding his analysis, he focused on the Turkish state’s involvement with its diaspora, referring to the common practice of migrant-sending countries to seek direct involvement with their diaspora groups in order to keep them politically interested, sustain financial flows, and encourage political or religious propaganda in the interests of the countries concerned. He explained that state diasporic practices had a negative effect on intra-community cohesion among the Turkish-speaking diaspora in the UK, and that their engagement in Turkey’s domestic politics reduces the sense of belonging to Britain for members of the diaspora. He also spoke of the direct and indirect connection of the Turkish government with various organisations and institutions that engage with the Turkish-speaking communities in the UK. He cited examples such as the Embassy and Consulate General of Turkey, the Turkish Religious Foundation, the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (PTA), the Yunus Emre Institute, and the UETD (Union of European Turkish Democrats).

Discussion in the Q&A session revolved around theoretical and methodological issues, such as the definition of the particular group under scrutiny in the context of the relationship between identity and political action, and the profile and process of the interviews. There were also questions regarding Turkish-speaking diasporas elsewhere in Europe and the world (i.e. U.S. and Canada), indicating the emerging interest in Turkish diasporas in academia and the need for a comparative and comprehensive study. There was also discussion about the fragmentation of the diasporic communities and, in some cases, such as the Kurdish community, the contradictory relationship with Turkey. Cakmak stressed the point that the diversity of the communities was bridged only by their shared common characteristic - the linguistic factor.

Foteini Kalantzi (A. G. Leventic Research Officer)

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