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Diaspora and Exile

By:
Joseph A. Kéchichian
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Diaspora and Exile

The terms diaspora and exile are sometimes used interchangeably to refer to people forced to leave traditional homelands or otherwise violently dispersed. Diaspora was used by Greeks to refer to citizens who migrated to a conquered land to colonize it. In the Old Testament, the word referred to Jewish populations exiled from Judea in 586 B.C. by the Babylonians, and from Jerusalem in 136 AD by the Romans.

Exile was a form of punishment that preceded the establishment of a diaspora. It explicitly banned the exile from his homeland and threatened him with prison or death for any attempt to return. Internal exile is forced resettlement within oneʾs country of origin, and external exile is deportation outside that country. Self-exile is often practiced as a form of protest against authority or to avoid persecution.

From Exile to Diaspora.

Jews were exiled to Babylon, and ancient Greeks used exile as a legal sentence. In democratic Athens, ostracism was a process by which citizens could vote to banish without prejudice for a decade anyone considered a threat. Yet, exile was used chiefly against the political opponents of those in power, presumably because it prevented an exile from organizing opposition in his native land or becoming a martyr. Among famous modern Muslims who have been exiled are Nawaz Sharif (from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia), Shahbaz Sharif (from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia), Idi Amin Dada (from Uganda to Libya to Saudi Arabia), Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (from Iran to Turkey to Iraq to Kuwait to France), Muhammad Zāhir Shāh (from Afghanistan to Italy), and Khaleda Zia (from Bangladesh to Saudi Arabia).

When large groups, or occasionally a whole nation, were exiled, that nation was in diaspora. A diaspora was thus a transnational community that defined itself as a singular ethnic group. In modern cases, this migration can be historically documented and the diaspora associated with a certain territory. Those who identified themselves as part of a diaspora placed great importance on their homeland because of their ethnic and cultural association with it, especially if the loss or conquest was violent. It was rare for diaspora populations to return to their homelands, as such communities were typically assimilated in their new lands, even while maintaining strong emotional attachments to their homelands. Diasporas were thus perceived as transnational political entities, operating on behalf of their people, and capable of acting independently of nation-states.

From Jews to Armenians.

After the destruction of Judea by the Romans, Jews were enslaved and dispersed. During the reign of Emperor Hadrian (135 CE), Rabbinic authority emerged to preserve Jewish traditions—especially among European Jews (the Ashkenazi)—including the quest for an eventual return. Sephardic Jews in Spain, the Mediterranean, and throughout the Middle East fared better, although both groups shared persecutions and forced expulsions until 1948, when the modern state of Israel was created. An estimated 700,000 Jews living throughout the Arab world were exiled, expelled, or moved to Israel after 1948. Approximately 750,000 Arabs fled Palestine, though whether they were forcibly expelled or encouraged to leave remains a subject of intense controversy. Ilan Pappe, an Israeli political scientist, argues that Jews recently arrived from Europe engaged in a well-planned “ethnic cleansing” campaign, but this view is contested. Israel was established as the national homeland of the Jewish people, whereas the Palestinians—for whom 1948 became known as a cataclysm (nakbah)—became refugees.

The exodus of the Palestinian population created one of the most enduring refugee situations of the twentieth century. Generations of Palestinians in refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon were prohibited from returning to their homes and from settling permanently in the Arab countries where they lived. According to the United Nations Conciliation Commission, the original 750,000 Palestinian refugees swelled into several million, and by December 2005, the World Refugee Survey of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants estimated the total number of Palestinian refugees at about three million. While many Palestinians in 2007 lived in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (together sometimes known as the Occupied Territories) or in Israel, more than half of all Palestinians lived elsewhere as refugees or emigrants. An estimated 10 million Palestinians were divided approximately as follows: 4 million in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, 2 million in Jordan, 1.3 million in Israel, 400,000 each in Syria and Lebanon, and the rest dispersed around the world.

Even before the significant displacement of the Palestinian population, millions of Armenians had been displaced in the early years of the twentieth century. Some say there were over 1.5 million casualties, but the statistics are disputed. In the sixteenth century, eastern Armenia was conquered by the Persian Safavid Empire, while western Armenia fell under Ottoman rule. Parts of historic Armenia under Persian control around Yerevan were incorporated into Russia in the early 1800s. During these tumultuous times, Armenians depended on religious institutions to preserve their unique identity. The deportation of the Armenians in 1915–1916, during the final years of the Ottoman Empire, is widely considered a holocaust, although successive Turkish governments have consistently rejected charges of genocide, typically arguing that those Armenians who died were simply enemies of the Ottoman Empire.

Remarkably, small Armenian trading communities—in self-imposed diasporas—existed outside of Armenia for centuries. For example, a community flourished for over a millennium in Jerusalem, where one of the four quarters of the walled old city is known as the Armenian Quarter. There were also remnants of formerly populous communities in India but, after 1915, the Armenian diaspora looked West. In 2007, the Armenian population was estimated at 10 million, with 3 million in independent Armenia (that became independent in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union), 1.1 million in Russia, 1 million in the United States, 500,000 in France, and the rest scattered in dozens of countries. Less than 50,000 lived in Turkey.

Religious Minorities in the Muslim World.

Throughout the twentieth century, significant refugee populations lived in misery, as clashing governments expelled parts of their populations. Though Christians were granted protections in Iran after 1979, millions of other Iranians fled the Islamic revolution; Bahāʿīs, in particular, were brutally persecuted. Millions elsewhere in Muslim societies were expelled or fled their homes.

Afghanistan.

The war that followed the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan (which began on December 25, 1979) lasted over a decade and caused more than 6 million refugees to flee to neighboring Pakistan and Iran, making Afghanistan the greatest source of refugees in modern times. Thousands more fled after the 1996 takeover by the extremist Taliban, and after the American invasion in 2001, reprisals worsened the displacement problem. In 2007, over 2 million Afghan refugees were still living in Pakistan, with another million in Iran, while more than 500,000 Afghans migrated to Europe, 250,000 went to the United States and Canada, and about 50,000 settled in Australia.

Europe.

Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo suffered an intensive ethnic cleansing campaign in the late 1990s, when millions were forced out of their homes and an estimated 100,000 murdered. Bosniaʾs Muslim population was persecuted between 1991 and 1995; some Bosnian Croats, Serbs, and others were also displaced. In Chechnya, after the 1990s insurrection against Russia, a majority of the defenseless population fled to Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia.

Asia.

In 1947, the Indian Subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan, and one of the largest human movements in history followed. More than 18 million Hindus and Sikhs left Pakistan as an equal number of Muslims immigrated from India. This tragedy was exacerbated after the 1971 war, when Bangladesh came into being and another 10 million Bengalis fled to India as massacres in East Pakistan escalated. In 2007, close to 150,000 Biharis (Muslim emigrants from the Indian state of Bihar) were still living in camps in Bangladesh because Pakistan refused to accept them.

Africa.

Since the 1950s, several African nations have fallen into civil war and ethnic strife, generating a huge number of refugees of many different nationalities and religions. The total number of refugees in Africa reached 6.8 million by 1992. While the number had dropped to approximately 2.8 million refugees by the end of 2004, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated the number of internally displaced refugees at millions more. The largest number of refugees from a Muslim country were from Sudan, victims of the civil war and the ongoing Darfur conflict. Refugees fled to Chad, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Millions of North Africans—especially Algerians, Moroccans, and Tunisians—moved to European countries like France and Germany in search of employment or to escape political repression.

Kurds.

The Kurds were conquered by Arabs around the tenth century, and the majority converted to Islam. This ethnic group considered itself indigenous to the region often referred to as Kurdistan, which includes adjacent parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Kurdish communities could also be found in Lebanon and, in recent decades, some European countries and the United States. The total Kurdish population was estimated at about 40 million, with 15 million in Turkey, 6 million each in Iran and Iraq, up to 3 million in Syria, a million in Germany, and the rest dispersed throughout the world, including Lebanon, Europe, and the United States.

Kurds led by Mustafā Barzānī fought successive Iraqi regimes from 1960 to 1975. In March 1970, Iraq announced a peace plan providing for Kurdish autonomy, although this was accompanied with an Arabization program in the oil-rich regions of Kirkuk and Khānaqīn. By 1974, Baghdad launched a new offensive against the Kurds and, in March 1975, Iraq and Iran signed the Algiers Pact, under which Iran cut supplies to Iraqi Kurds. Another wave of Arabization followed as Arabs moved to the oil fields in Kurdistan. Between 1975 and 1978, 200,000 Kurds were deported to other parts of Iraq. During the 1980s, the regime implemented anti-Kurdish policies as a civil war broke out. The wholesale destruction of thousands of villages and the deportation of thousands of Kurds to southern and central Iraq ensued. The campaign of the Iraqi government against Kurds in 1988, called in Arabic Anfāl (spoils of war), resulted in the death of 50,000 to 100,000 Kurds. After the 1991 Kurdish uprising, Iraqi troops recaptured the Kurdish areas, and hundreds of thousand of Kurds fled to the borders. To alleviate the situation, a “safe haven” was established by the United Nations Security Council as the autonomous Kurdish area fell under indigenous control.

The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres between the Allies and the Ottoman Empire stipulated the creation of an autonomous Kurdish state, although the subsequent 1923 Lausanne accord failed to mention the Kurds. Turkey suppressed Kurdish revolts in the following years and officially denied that Kurds existed as a separate ethnic group. Until 1991, the use of the Kurdish language, though widespread, was illegal in Turkey. Recent reforms, inspired by Turkeyʾs hope for membership in the European Union, allowed music, radio, and television broadcasts in Kurdish, albeit with severe time restrictions. Education in Kurdish was permitted only in private institutions, and Kurdish representatives in Turkeyʾs parliament were prohibited from making “separatist speeches.” The Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK) was considered a terrorist organization dedicated to creating an independent Kurdistan. Between 1984 and 1999, the PKK and the Turkish military engaged in open war, and much of the countryside in the southeast was depopulated, with Kurdish civilians moving to defensible local centers such as Diyarbakır and Van. An estimated 3,000 Kurdish villages in Turkey, representing more than 378,000 people, were wiped from the map.

To escape persecution in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, approximately 1.3 million Kurds migrated to the West, most settling in Germany, Austria, Britain, and France. An estimated 100,000 lived in the United States.

See also AFGHANISTAN; IRAQ; KURDS; MIGRATION; PAKISTAN; and PALESTINE.]

Bibliography

  • Dufoix, Stephane. Diasporas. University of California Press, 2008.
  • Herzig, Edmund, ed. The Armenians: A Handbook—Past and Present in the Making of National Identity. London, 2004. Explores perceptions of exile and diaspora in one of the worldʾs oldest nations.
  • Lesch, Ann Mosely, and Ian S. Lustick, eds.Exile and Return: Predicaments of Palestinians and Jews. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.
  • Moghissi, Haideh, ed. The Muslim Diaspora: Gender, Culture and Identity. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. An examination of Muslim consciousness in non-Muslim societies.
  • Salhi, Zahia Smail, and Ian Richard Netton. The Arab Diaspora: Voices of an Anguished Scream. London: Routledge, 2006. A comprehensive effort that looks at otherness, exile, and dispossession through literary texts, music, dance, painting, film, and the Internet.
  • Schulz, Helena L.The Palestinian Diaspora: Formation of Identities and Politics of Homeland. London and New York: Routledge, 2003. Identity formation through constant longing for a lost homeland.
  • Wahlbeck, Östen. Kurdish Diasporas: A Comparative Study of Kurdish Refugee Communities. New York: St. Martinʾs Press, 1999. A comparative study of Kurds in Turkey, Armenia, Iran, and Iraq.
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