Interview: My father was a Circassian / Cem Ozdemir
Questions: Akanda Taştekin
As a member of the Bundestag (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen), your political identity is known. Your exact ethnicity is rarely mentioned other than being referred to as “Turkish”. Can you tell us a bit about your Circassian side?
My father was a Circassian from Turkey. With the German-Turkish recruitment agreement, Circassians came to Germany from Turkey from 1961. So my father came to Germany in 1963 and met my mother here. Unfortunately for a long time my father had practically no one with whom he could speak his mother tongue. He was only able to speak Circassian on vacation, when we went to his village. Only later, through my political involvement and through my contacts in Circassian clubs that we visited together, did he find people to talk to.
Has Circassian culture been kept alive in your family?
In the small German town where I was born and grew up there was unfortunately no one with whom we could speak Circassian or cultivate the culture. So everything was limited to the fact that I tried with great curiosity during the holidays in my father’s village to understand as much as possible about the Circassians. I was wondering why we shouldn’t play Circassian music when entering Turkey by car at the border. Only later did I understand that the Circassians, like all other minorities in Turkey, should be reduced to folklore. During my school days there was a Turkish school twice a week in the afternoons organized by the Turkish consulate. There I once heard something about a “Çerkez Ethem” who was supposed to have been a traitor. Later I understood that in Turkey a minority is only recognized when something negative is involved. The Circassians, without whom there would never have been a successful war of liberation, were Turks. Only Ethem became Circassian after breaking with Ataturk.
Are you personally interested in Circassian culture and identity?
During my time in the European Parliament, I organized a very successful “Circassian Day” every year with the Association of Circassians in Europe. We not only brought Circassians from many European countries together, but above all informed my colleagues in the European Parliament about the Circassians and their problems and concerns. As a Green MP, of course, I have always been very interested in the endangered nature in the Republic of Adygea. That’s why I worked very closely with the Nature Conservation Association in Germany, which has also opened an office in the capital Maykop. During my travels to Israel and Jordan, I also met and visited Circassians there. In Israel, I was particularly impressed by the village of Kfar Kama, because the Circassians are allowed to cultivate their language there and the state enables extra language lessons for the two Circassian villages and allows the culture to be cultivated. In Germany, too, I visited many of the Circassian clubs and of course took part in some festivals. I wish I could dance Circassian too. But maybe that will come.
We know that you are committed to human rights and universal values. Did your Circassian roots influence you in this way?
In addition to the aspects already mentioned, I try very hard to ensure that the knowledge of the Circassians and their history of displacement, suffering and assimilation politics is also better known in German society. In Hamburg, for example, thanks to a great director, we were able to hold a large exhibition about the Circassians in the ethnographic museum there. The Winter Olympics in Sochi were also an important occasion to point out the fate of the original residents.
Unfortunately, it is now the case that the instrumental relationship between the governments in Moscow and Ankara and “their” Circassians has made it increasingly difficult for them to be active here, as the Circassian community has also become involved in the radicalization of Putin and Erdogan is drawn into it. I very much regret that, because every normal person knows that Putin cares about the Caucasus peoples as long as he can play the Abkhazian card against Georgia, and Georgia is interested in the fate of the Circassians and others in the North Caucasus as long as it is against them the threat from Moscow helps. Erdogan sometimes campaigns for minorities, sometimes – currently – he discovers Turkish ultra-nationalism for himself as a salvation. It is very difficult for the respective Circassians to develop an independent position.
Is the Caucasus part of your personal conception of home? Did you each have the opportunity to visit the Caucasus and learn your mother tongue?
I had promised my father and am glad that I was able to keep my promise to travel to the Republic of Adygeja at least once with him and the friends of the German Nature Conservation Association. What can I say? I will never forget it in my life. Whether the dancers of the Nalmes Ensemble, whom I was allowed to watch rehearsing, or the excursion into the mountains and forests. Greed for money and mafia-like structures in today’s Russia unfortunately pose a massive threat to this unique beauty.
What can be said about the Circassian diaspora in Europe and their activities?
In Germany, the Circassian community comprises more than 10,000 people. In 1968 their first club was founded. Today there are clubs in Wuppertal, Cologne, Munich, Nuremberg, Hamburg and of course in my constituency in Stuttgart. For many Circassians, democracy and diversity in Germany were the reason to publicly see themselves as a minority and to celebrate their culture. Therefore, there are more and more North Caucasian cultural associations or Circassian associations in Germany. It is their concern to convey their culture and language to their own children, but also to their new home. The Circassians want to be perceived in Germany not only through their impressive folklore dances, but also as an endangered, old culture that can only survive if it is supported and the connection to the original home in the Caucasus does not tear.
Since word of my connection to the Circassians got around, I have increasingly come across friends and acquaintances from public life who come out with their Circassian roots, including Shermin Langhoff, the well-known director of the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin.
How do you assess the Circassian relationship with their homeland?
For Circassians all over the world, May 21st is a day of sad memory of genocide and displacement in 1864. It is a day that reminds of all the suffering that followed the defeat of the Russians in the Caucasian Original home began. But it also reminds them that to this day they have managed to preserve the memory of their culture and history, despite all difficult circumstances. Circassians quickly became loyal citizens in the diaspora and in all the countries in which they found protection, acceptance and a new home, without forgetting their origins and culture. That impresses me.
What is the Federal Government’s policy towards minorities in terms of language, identity and self-organization)? Do you find this policy successful?
Germany now defines itself as a country of immigration and has liberal citizenship law. In our liberal democracy, any group can actually organize itself as it wants. In contrast to Turkey, the problem here is not a ban, but a lack of support structures for volunteer Circassians who, in addition to family and work, are supposed to maintain culture in their free time.
In Germany everyone can build their house of worship for whatever religion or, of course, refuse religion altogether. Every language can also be freely spoken and taught. If the language is not taught in a state school, everyone is free to set up a private school based on our constitution and laws. But here, too, the problems are not in the laws, but in the lack of resources. Volunteering costs a lot of time, energy and money. Something that is not unlimited.
Unfortunately, fanaticism and racism have now also reached our parliaments. The ultra-nationalist Alternative for Germany AFD is also in the Bundestag and is poisoning the climate in our country and widening the rifts in our country. It is exciting that this party has no problem with Putin and his politics. In a speech in the Bundestag, in addition to Putin and Trump, I naturally also included Erdogan in this coalition of hatred and fanaticism.
The Circassian diaspora sees itself threatened by cultural genocide. What is your recommendation on this?
Since the Circassians are now spread across many countries around the world and no longer share a common language, their culture is often reduced to the famous dances and the legendary Circassian weddings. It is therefore a demanding task to wrest the Circassians from oblivion and to make their entire history and culture known internationally.
In the diaspora, language and culture are even more acutely threatened with disappearing. The diaspora tries to promote its language and culture through various activities. This is easier where the state values the diversity of its cultures; where an ideology of fanatical nationalism and a policy of assimilation dominate, it is very difficult.
What are the proposals of Alliance 90 / The Greens with regard to diaspora policy?
My party is a party that actively promotes and welcomes cultural diversity. In addition to the official German language, which as far as possible everyone should and must learn, our country is enriched when other languages are learned and spoken. Politicians can and must do significantly more here in order not to let the languages of immigrant people and refugees get lost.
The limit for tolerance is defined by our constitution. Oppression of women, violence in upbringing and religious intolerance towards other religions, other denominations or non-believers as well as sexual minorities are not to be accepted under any circumstances or by anyone.
What are the options for Circassian children to receive lessons in their mother tongue? Is there a demand here? Are associations or foundations working on it?
As I said earlier, unlike Turkey, our laws do not prohibit languages. Here the problem is more practical. Above all: Are there enough children for a Circassian class? Where do the teachers come from? Who makes the books? Who is funding it? Even for the much larger group of Kurds in Germany, the opportunity to communicate their mother tongue often fails because of these practical problems. Often there is also the fact that there is not only one “mother tongue” at home, as with my parents. Which mother tongue do you teach? It’s strange, we think we are educated and urbane, but we often forget that it used to be normal in the villages to speak several languages. In addition to his mother tongue, Circassian, my father naturally spoke the official language Turkish. But also reasonably good Kurdish. Multilingualism is not only not a problem, but it is also enriching.
One often hears that children whose mother tongue is not German have difficulties learning German, that they experience discrimination and that their learning difficulties are not recognized. If these claims are correct, is this topic on the Greens agenda?
You have to be careful not to accept the Putin-Erdogan propaganda uncritically. I sometimes wonder about Germany and Europe when I take a look at Russia Today or the Turkish edition TRT for fun and curiosity.
Education policy in Germany is the competence of the 16 federal states. There are very different educational systems there. The traditional model separates the children after the fourth or sixth grade, depending on their performance, into secondary schools that lead to different degrees. This model is criticized primarily by my party, but also by many experts, as it often sorts out children according to their social origin. Children from families in which parents cannot help with homework because they either lack the knowledge or the language skills to do so are disadvantaged in this model. Academic children, on the other hand, whether German or non-German, have easier access to grammar school, which later opens the way to university. Wherever we sit in coalition governments with other parties, we try to develop schools in such a way that they are more inclusive for all children, regardless of income, social class or origin of the parents. But unfortunately this is still a long and rocky road.
The interview was originally published in Turkish and Circassian.