Turks and Others (as seen in March 1990)

Turks and Others

By Gwydion M. Williams

Speakers of Turkic languages have lived in various parts of Central Asia for as long as anyone can trace such things. One group came west, beat the Byzantine Roman Empire and established themselves in Asia Minor. This same group, as the Turkish Empire, later conquered large chunks of Europe, getting as far as the gates of Vienna until the Austrians and Poles stopped them. This same empire was gradually pushed back, losing territories where the majority did not regard themselves as Turks. Naturally, it was an untidy business, with minorities left behind in the modern nation- states.

[It was actually the Seljuk Empire in the 11th and 12th centuries (Latin-Christian calendar.)  Followed by the Sultanate of Rum, and then from the 14th century the Ottoman Empire.  All of these spoke some form of Turkish and were reckoned as Turks by Westerners, but also used Persian and had quite a complex cultural heritage.  And of course they had assimilated many peoples into the Turkish Anatolian identity.]

Further east, other Turkic speakers were conquered by the Persian Empire, most of which was later taken over by the Tsars, and finally incorporated in the Soviet Union. Azeris were left partly in Iran and partly in the USSR. There are even some in Turkey, and these have expressed a wish to join an independent Azerbaijan if it should ever be established.

There are many different Turkic groups, and they do not necessarily like each other. Azeris are mostly Shi’ites, the rest are mostly Sunni. They have a more liberal understanding of Islam than the Shi’ite extremism favoured in Iran, and they will probably not be interested in joining in the Iranian ‘Islamic Revolution’, which in any case seems past its prime.

If this part of the world starts to untangle into nation-states, it is likely to be a bloody and prolonged process. The various Turkic peoples do not necessarily like each other, the Meshketian Turks were last year driven out in race riots by other rival Turkic peoples. A great variety of ethnic groups are scattered throughout the region, the proper boundaries for all · the possible nation-states could and would be disputed. There are the Christian Armenians and Georgians, the Muslim but non-Turkic Kurds. To talk of the ‘rights of nations’ is all very well, but each nation tends to see its rights as more important than those of its neighbours. Hindu India will not give up its chunk of Muslim Kashmir. Iran would not be happy to lose its Azeris and the Kurds would have to carve a nation for themselves out of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. None of these states are likely to quietly accept such a thing. I foresee decades of misery and warfare in that part of the world.

[I did not foresee the rise and spread of Sunni Islamism.  Some of it fighting a global war with the West, and in a more moderate form the elected government of Turkey.]

This was an item in Notes on the News for March 1990.  It appeared in Issue 16 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.