Speaking Kurdish in Turkey

On August 2, the Turkish parliament passed a reform bill that introduced a number of remarkable changes in the letter of the nation's law. The bill reversed several longstanding policies: the death penalty was abolished in peacetime, non-Muslim religious groups were given the right to purchase property, and Kurdish-language private schools, television, and radio broadcasts were legalized.

The laws are the most significant step to date in Turkey's concerted effort to polish its democratic credentials, in hope of eventual admission to the European Union. As such, the reforms were clearly drafted as a pointed response to criticism by European Union officials of Turkey's abysmal human rights record. The Turkish minister for European Union relations, Volkan Vural, has said the bill reflects a resolve to "recognize cultural diversity and undertake to respect that diversity.”

Regardless of what ulterior motives may lie behind them, on the surface the new laws constitute a profound shift in the government's position on the cultural rights of the country's largest minority, the 12 million indigenous Kurds. A mere decade ago, the simple act of speaking Kurdish could expose one to criminal charges of being a "separatist," and as recently as June the National Security Court handed four musicians three- to nine-year prison sentences for singing in Kurdish at a wedding reception.

The reforms have been hailed by many Kurds and human rights advocates as a major step toward greater recognition of Kurds' cultural rights and more equitable treatment for an ethnic group that has long faced institutionalized discrimination in the Muslim world's only "secular democracy." Entrepreneurs are applying in droves for permission to set up private schools for Kurdish language instruction, and Kurdish radio and television broadcasts are now legal on privately owned stations.

Yet Turkey still does not officially recognize the Kurds or any other ethnic group as minorities. And critics can still point to a host of contradictions in government regulation of rights relating to cultural expression. Article Three of Turkey's constitution–"The language of the country is Turkish and there can be no changes made to this article"–is one example of the many laws that threaten to trump, and perhaps eviscerate, the new legislation. Businesses seeking to answer the overwhelming demand for Kurdish language courses are already running into a tangle of bureaucratic stipulations and delays: The new "Regulation on the teaching of traditional languages and dialects used by Turkish Citizens in their daily lives" requires schools to open up new locations and hire new staff if they want to start Kurdish language programs, requiring capital investments that are not financially feasible for many operations.

For these and many other reasons, the reforms have elicited a mix of cautious hope and heavy skepticism from Kurds in Turkey and abroad. Despite the sweeping scope of the reforms, there are few signs the status quo will change. Parents, such as Berdan Acun, are still forbidden from giving their children Kurdish names. Acun was repeatedly denied permission to name his son Hejar Pola ("silent child" in Kurdish), and is now appealing to the European Court of Human Rights. Students from several universities who petitioned before the reforms were passed to have classes taught in Kurdish were jailed, and some still await trial. The fact that the cases of most Kurdish prisoners of conscience do not fall within the scope of the new wave of benevolence lends the greatest weight to arguments that the reforms are merely window-dressing and do not reflect any deep change in the government's attitudes toward Kurds. A new provision opens Turkish court verdicts to review by the European Court of Human Rights, but it is not retroactive. This legal nicety effectively seals the 15-year sentences of the four Kurdish parliamentarians jailed since 1994 under "anti-terror" laws as alleged members of an illegal armed rebel group. In 2001 the European Court ruled that the prisoners had not received a fair trial, but Turkey has taken no action in response to calls for a retrial.

Many Kurds worry that the security laws that enable the government to shut down pro-Kurdish newspapers and radio stations will severely limit the effectiveness of the new reforms. What is needed instead, they say, is a fundamental change in Turkish attitudes toward the Kurdish minority. These critics contend the language measure will do little to improve the lives of Kurds, as it does not alter the public school system, does not allow the use of Kurdish as a teaching medium, and leaves private institutions vulnerable to arbitrary crackdowns under the perilously broad "anti-terror" legislation. Kani Xulam, director of the American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN), has said the reforms are "very very very wanting," and characterizes them as "reluctant steps to offer some lukewarm acceptance to the Kurds.” In a statement on AKIN's website, he comments: "People of shallow understanding have hailed these moves as revolutionary in nature and have begun cautioning the Kurds to wait. They would do better to join the Kurds to free another people from the clutches of tyranny for the cause of liberty."

Fierce political opposition to the reforms remains, as nationalist politicians are considering an appeal to Turkey's high court, and have vowed to make the measures an issue in November election campaigns. Their vehemence testifies to the extent of the reforms' departure from past policy. Some hard-line members of parliament argue that the reforms are concessions to "separatist" elements, touching on wounds still fresh from the 15-year civil war with the outlawed secessionist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The war ended with a ceasefire in 1999, but not before nearly 37,000 people–mostly Kurds–were killed.

Despite the legislation's shortcomings, and Turkey's checkered record on implementing past reforms, the bill has led to progress that few would have expected just a few months ago. Judges, bolstered by the new laws, have recently issued convictions for police officers accused of torture, after years of stonewalling. Twenty-eight children indicted on charges of "aiding a separatist movement" by shouting slogans at a rally for Kurdish language education were recently acquitted. Members of the Democratic People's Party (DEHAP), the lone pro-Kurdish group fielding candidates in upcoming elections, have welcomed the new laws as "truly a revolution." And in September, Education Minister Necdet Tekin announced the completion of new regulations intended to pave the way for the opening of Kurdish language schools.

The European Union has balked at setting a firm date to commence negotiations on Turkey's membership, citing continuing human rights abuses such as torture and heavy restrictions that remain in place on freedom of expression and association.

But Leyla Zana, the most prominent of the four jailed parliamentarians and recipient of the European Parliament's human rights award in 1995, has called on the European Union to schedule negotiations to take place at its summit in December. In an August 29 letter to senior European Union officials, she praised the reforms as "historical," and noted that delay in the application process could make it "impossible to put into practice the recent legal arrangements and to speed up the pace of democratization." Having served slightly more than half of her 15-year sentence, and perhaps more entitled to a cynical view of Turkey's actions than most, Zana hailed the reforms as an affirmation of the "brotherhood between Turks and Kurds." On this view, the reforms might be a cause for measured optimism, a qualified victory in the Kurds' long and ongoing struggle for recognition by their Turkish neighbors.
Jonathan Mingle is the news manager for Cultural Survival Indigenous News.
References and further reading
Agence France Presse. (2002, Sept 6). Jailed Kurdish politician urges EU to open doors to Turkey.
Agence France Presse. (2002, Sept 10). Turkish court acquits Kurdish children over language campaign.
Agence France Presse. (2002, Sept 18). Turkey gives the go-ahead to courses in Kurdish.
Akinci, B. (2002, Sept 18). Pro-Kurdish party fears democratic reforms will be slow to take hold. Agence France Presse.
Associated Press. (2002, Aug 3). Turkish Parliament, Looking to Europe, Passes Reforms.
The Economist (U.S. Edition). (2002, Aug 10). Great - If They Really Happen.
Kurd, R. (2002, Oct 9). An example of how Turkey intentionally fails to implement reforms. KurdishMedia.com. http://www.kurdmedia.com /news.asp?id=2972
Penketh, A. (2002, Aug 8). Reforms for EU Will Not Help Jailed Kurdish MPs. The Independent (London).
Xulam, K. (2002, Oct 6). The Prostitution of Freedom and the Kurds. American Kurdish Information Network. http://kurdistan.org/Our_Views_and_Iraq/wolfowitz.html

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