This article is the eighth in a series by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani high commissioner to the UK, exploring how a litany of volatile centre/periphery conflicts with deep historical roots were interpreted after 9/11 in the new global paradigm of anti-terrorism – with profound and often violent consequences. Incorporating in-depth case studies from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Ambassador Ahmed will ultimately argue that the inability for Muslim and non-Muslim states alike to either incorporate minority groups into a liberal and tolerant society or resolve the “centre vs periphery” conflict is emblematic of a systemic failure of the modern state – a breakdown which, more often than not, leads to widespread violence and destruction. The violence generated from these conflicts will become the focus, in the remainder of the 21st century, of all those dealing with issues of national integration, law and order, human rights and justice
Washington, DC – In James Fenimore Cooper’s famous novel The Last of the Mohicans, the warrior Chingachgook emerges as the final member of his proud tribe. Although we had believed this to be a literary device from a novel, it is today a reality for the little known Circassian people, who are originally from the Caucasus.
Recently, we interviewed some of the leading figures in the Circassian community for our project on centre/periphery relations: Iyad Youghar, chairman of the International Circassian Council, and Zakaria Barsaqua, president of the Circassian Cultural Institute and member of the Council. Both organisations are based in New Jersey, where most of America’s 5,000 Circassians reside.
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Barsaqua is not unlike Chingachgook. He is among the last of the Ubykh, a Circassian tribe that inhabited the Black Sea coast and once numbered a quarter million people.
Today, the Ubykh no longer exist in their homeland, with around 40,000 living in Turkey and a handful of families in other countries. Their language is extinct, with the last remaining Ubykh speaker dying in 1992. Barsaqua and Youghar voiced concern that in the coming decades, the Circassian culture and identity may be completely “exterminated”.
First modern genocide
The predicament of the Circassians – a mostly Muslim people who self-identify as Adyghe – originates in the 19th century, when an expanding Imperial Russia coveted their mountainous homeland. The Circassians fought so tenaciously that the Russians decided to remove them, either by death or deportation. The Circassians describe this operation as the first modern genocide and the figures cited to us were almost unbelievable.
Of a population of 2.5-3 million Circassians, the Circassians told us, around 1.5 million were killed and roughly the same number expelled, of which around half died within months of famine and disease. These figures were corroborated by many scholars from around the world.
Only a very small number of Circassians survived in the Caucasus and today, 90 per cent of the world’s 5-6 million Circassians live in the global diaspora, while around 700,000 are split between three Russian republics.
The Circassians have been outraged by the selection of Sochi, a Russian resort city on the Black Sea, to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Sochi was the site of the Circassian capital and the area where the Ubykh tribe made the Circassian “last stand” in 1864. The Olympics will be held on the 150th anniversary of these mass killings.
Youghar told us that the corpses of hundreds of thousands of people lie just beneath the ground and those digging in the area are finding human remains. He described Sochi as “the land of the shaheed“, an honoured designation for those martyred in the cause of Islam. The Sochi Olympics, in other words, will be played on a gigantic graveyard with profound religious significance.
The Russian government, said Youghar, does not recognise that a genocide occurred. Nor does it appear to recognise that Circassians even lived in Sochi. When President Vladimir Putin gave his speech to the International Olympic Committee in 2007 to secure Russia’s bid, he described Sochi as a place inhabited by ancient Greeks with no mention of the Circassians. The Olympics, noted Youghar with pain and sorrow in his voice, represented the “final nail in the coffin” of his people.
It was not always like this. The Circassians were once world-famous, the dominant force in the region and the fountainhead of Caucasian culture. They were recognised as having an ancient heritage even by the Greeks, who ironically competed with Circassians in the original Olympic Games. Circassian gods and mythology, as recounted in heroic tales known as the Nart sagas, also resemble those of the Greeks.
The traditionally nomadic Circassians were organised into tribes and clans and lived by a code of behaviour known as khabza, which stressed honour, hospitality, respect for elders, egalitarianism and liberty. This ethos helped the Circassians, renowned for their warrior prowess, to successfully defeat every major power that passed through their mountainous region, including the armies of Attila the Hun and the Mongols. Khabza would also allow the Circassians to preserve their identity through the anguish and turmoil of exile.
Proud of Muslim identity
The Circassians are also proud of their identity as Muslims and the central role they played in the history of Islam. Circassians dominated the ranks of the Mamluks, a caste of elite soldiers who were taken from the Caucasus and dispatched across the Muslim world. The Mamluks gained control of Egypt in the 13th century and played a key role in the architectural and cultural development of much of the Middle East and North Africa.
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Under the famous Circassian Sultan Baibars, the Mamluks defeated both the Mongols and the remaining Crusaders in the Middle East. Baibars’ victory over the Mongols was a major turning point in world history and has contributed to his heroic legacy across the Muslim world.
In the 18th century, Russia acted to exert direct control over Circassia by military conquest and was met with fierce resistance. Over time, the Circassian tribes began to more efficiently organise and formally declared Circassian independence, which was recognised by Britain in 1838.
By the 1860s, however, the Circassians proved unable to hold out any longer against Russia. One by one, the Circassian tribes were decimated with thousands killed, their lands settled by Cossacks, Slavs and others.
Those who survived the battles in the mountains were forced into camps on the Black Sea coast where they were held before being loaded on ships and cast into the frigid waters towards Turkey. Many boats sank and their passengers drowned.
Adolph Petrovich Berzhe, a Russian scholar, was an eyewitness to the suffering of the Circassians in the grim Black Sea camps:
I shall never forget the overwhelming impression made on me by the mountaineers in Novorossiisk Bay, where about seventeen thousand of them were gathered on the shore. The late, inclement and cold time of year, the almost complete absence of means of subsistence and the epidemic of typhus and smallpox raging among them made their situation desperate. And indeed, whose heart would not be touched on seeing, for example, the already stiff corpse of a young Circassian woman lying in rags on the damp ground under the open sky with two infants, one struggling in his death-throws while the other sought to assuage his hunger at his dead mother’s breast? And I saw not a few such scenes.
Those who arrived at the shores of the Ottoman Empire did not find Lady Liberty waiting to welcome the tired, poor and huddled masses. Instead, most of the men were given orders to march to the frontiers of the Empire and fight on its behalf, while the women were sent into different harems. Many preferred suicide to the fate that awaited them.
While Circassians went on to play important roles in post-Ottoman nations, often excelling in the military, they faced harsh assimilationist policies in countries like Turkey, which came to deny the Circassians existed at all.
Youghar and Barsaqua told us that the country that gives the most rights to Circassians is Israel, where they are allowed to preserve “every single aspect of our identity”. Perhaps, they remember with gratitude the protection the Circassians gave their Jewish communities during the Second World War when Hitler’s Nazis hunted them down.
The other country that has been warmest to the Circassians according to Youghar and Barsaqua is Georgia. It has given Circassians refugee status and has officially recognised that the Russian actions in the 19th century constituted genocide. Georgia will be the first country to build a commemorative monument to the Circassian genocide to be unveiled this May at the anniversary of the Sochi massacre.
It is ironic that the staunchest friends of the Circassians have been a Jewish and a Christian nation, while Muslim nations have contributed to the destruction of their culture or ignored their plight.
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Circassian identity was severely threatened by the Soviets who banned Islamic practice and cultural expression. Rather than unite the remaining Circassians into one province, the Soviets grouped them in republics with unrelated peoples to keep the ethnic nations weak and divided.
The collapse of the Soviet Union led to rejoicing among Circassians who once again tasted freedom and autonomy. In 1991, the Circassian language was declared official in all three republics. Circassians started to return from abroad, although the war in Chechnya made this difficult.
While President Boris Yeltsin permitted varying degrees of autonomy for the Caucasian republics, the ascendency of President Vladimir Putin brought a recentralisation of government authority. Putin assumed direct control and in 2004 began to select governors by presidential decree rather than elections. This exacerbated the problem of corrupt elites who were accountable not to the people but only to Moscow, resulting in chronic underdevelopment and marginalisation.
Russia renewed policies to curb the expression of Circassian culture, prohibiting schools from teaching the language and restricting Circassian language media. Circassians also faced restrictions on travel between the republics, which required permits that were often difficult to obtain. Racial prejudice against Circassians and others from the Caucasus remained pervasive, while the actions of the notoriously brutal security forces elicited anger and protest.
These factors led to the development of an Islamic insurgency that has worsened over the last few years with constant killings, abductions and reports of widespread torture as “militants” battle security forces and those associated with the government.
The deteriorating security situation in the Caucasus, in addition to the renewed efforts of Circassians to promote awareness of their situation, has made the 2014 Sochi Olympics a crucial test for Putin and Russia. At best, the Russian decision to hold the games on the site of a human tragedy of such proportions is a case of gross ignorance and at worst, a deliberate attempt at heavy-handed cultural humiliation.
Nations which have behaved abominably with their indigenous populations, like the United States with the Native Americans and Australia with the Aborigines, have formally apologised. A Russian decision along these lines would begin the process of healing. Russia can also build trust and save lives by allowing the many Circassians now attempting to flee Syria and return to their homeland a chance to do so.
Moscow should understand well the consequences of treating peoples on the periphery with brutality and denying their identities. The plethora of states that broke away from the Soviet Union, including Estonia, Ukraine and Georgia, attest to the results of these policies. Using crude brutality in peripheral regions like Siberia or the Caucasus will not serve to stabilise Russia, but may well have the opposite effect. The old methods of Imperial Russia and the Stalinist era will not stand in the 21st century.
If Putin is to promote the modern and multiethnic “new Russia” he has cited as his vision, he must extend human rights, dignity with full respect for identity, democratic representation and economic opportunities to all citizens. This is the only way to ensure a progressive, secure and stable Russia. Such a vision would be in the tradition of the Russian humanist writers Putin admires, including Pushkin, Turgenev and Tolstoy.
How Putin treats the Circassians and the issue of Sochi will indicate which direction Russia will take. By examining and helping to rectify the errors and tragedies of history, Russia can decide its status as a major 21st century world power and at the same time, help avert the extinction of an entire people. Putin must decide if he is to be Putin the Terrible or Putin the Enlightened.
Professor Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington DC and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.
Frankie Martin is an Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University’s School of International Service and is assisting Professor Ahmed on Ahmed’s forthcoming study, Journey into Tribal Islam: America and the Conflict between Center and Periphery in the Muslim World, to be published by Brookings Press.