Kurdish: silenced minority

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Mon Jul 29 16:12:54 UTC 2002

>>From the Chronicle of Higher Education:
>>From the issue dated July 19, 2002


Silenced Minority

In Turkey, Kurds are arrested for trying to study their own language


Diyarbakir, Turkey

The police here in southeastern Turkey will no longer arrest someone
simply for speaking Kurdish. But when university students across the
country circulated petitions, requesting optional courses on the Kurdish
language, the authorities clamped down hard. More than 1,300 students have
been detained by police -- often while trying to present the signed
petitions to the rectors of the universities they attend. According to
human-rights activists, more than 200 students have been accused of
violating anti-terrorist laws. Often the formal charge is supporting an
illegal organization, in this case the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.

Three years ago, after the PKK's leader, Abdullah calan, was captured and
sentenced to death -- a sentence not yet carried out -- the group called
off a bloody 15-year rebellion for self-rule for the Kurdish-populated
southeastern region of the country. But the Kurds, who make up about 20
percent of Turkey's 65 million people, continue pressing for more rights.
The students who have been arrested recently are being tried at special
state-security courts across Turkey and face a maximum prison sentence of
seven and a half years. In separate university disciplinary actions, about
300 students have been expelled or suspended from their studies.

"I can speak Kurdish, but I can't read Kurdish poetry or literature," says
Harun Ece, a student of archival science, at Marmara University, in
Istanbul. The university suspended Mr. Ece for a year for circulating a
petition favoring Kurdish courses. Mr. Ece is also one of 28 students
being tried together in a state security court in Istanbul for their role
in the petition drive. "Unless we can study it," he says, "Kurdish
language and culture will disappear."

History of Oppression

Since the founding of the modern Turkish republic, in 1923, the
authorities have tried to wipe out the distinct identity of the Kurds,
Turkey's largest minority. Until a change in legislation, in 1991, the use
of Kurdish was totally banned in numerous situations, such as speaking or
singing in public, and publishing. Kurds live in neighboring parts of
Iran, Iraq, and Syria, where they have also suffered repression, with the
exception of a portion of Iraq that Kurds control with the help of the
United Nations.  Yet only Turkey, home to the largest Kurdish population,
has gone to great lengths to eradicate the Kurds' culture.

Today officials sometimes try to justify the ban on the use of Kurdish in
education by claiming the language is too primitive. According to Nurset
Aras, a professor of medicine and rector of the University of Ankara,
"Kurdish is not a true language. It is not adequate for academic
education." Linguists dismiss the notion. Indeed, Kurdish has a literary
tradition that goes back at least three and a half centuries. Mem Zn, the
names of two lovers, is an epic story of tragic love written by the
Kurdish poet and Muslim scholar Ehmed Xan at the end of the 17th century.
It is considered one of the greatest classics of Kurdish literature.

Kurdish is closely related to Persian, the language of Iran, but unrelated
to Turkish. The language is taught today at several European universities.
In the last few years, the harshest restrictions on speaking and
publishing in Kurdish have been relaxed, and something of a cultural
renaissance is under way. Young people gather in Kurdish cafes to drink
strong tea and listen to a blend of modern and traditional Kurdish music
and discuss the growing number of Kurdish books sold legally.

The petition campaign began last fall, shortly after a key change to
Turkey's Constitution. In October, in response to urging by the European
Union, Turkey amended its Constitution to end a ban on broadcasting in
languages other than Turkish. So far, however the government has
authorized very little Kurdish-language programming. In November, a group
of students at Istanbul University started collecting signatures from
their classmates on an appeal for optional Kurdish courses. Within weeks,
students at about half of Turkey's 53 public universities did the same.
Despite the threat of expulsion, about 12,000 students across Turkey have
signed a petition.

A few students subsequently withdrew their names under pressure from the
authorities. At the same time, some parents circulated petitions asking
for Kurdish lessons in their children's public schools. Some of the
parents have also been arrested. Mistreatment of students in police
custody appears to have been widespread, especially outside the largest
city, Istanbul. Many complain of having been blindfolded during
questioning, and of being hit by police demanding that they admit they
were following the orders of the PKK.

According to Amnesty International, Mrsel Sargut, a 19-year-old literature
student at Istanbul University who was arrested last November 30, was
tortured while in police custody. He was allegedly stripped and sprayed
with pressurized water and then raped with a nightstick by police after he
refused to "confess" to being a member of the PKK.

Orhan Tung, press counselor at the Turkish Embassy in London, says that
"80 to 90 percent" of allegations of mistreatment are fabrications. Yet he
admits that the Turkish security forces have a history of abusing
prisoners. "There has been steady improvement over the last five or six
years," he says. "We admit we still have a long way to go." Indicted
students in Diyarbakir and Istanbul questioned recently by a reporter said
they circulated the petitions on their own initiative and had no contact
with the PKK. "It is not important who organized it," says Tahir Eli, a
human-rights lawyer representing three of the charged students in
Diyarbakir. "The right to petition the government is guaranteed by the

Accusations of Terrorism

Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit set the tone of the response to the petition
drive earlier this year when he denounced demands for Kurdish study at
schools and universities as "aimed at dividing Turkey." He added, "We
cannot accept it. It's impossible." The authorities justify the crackdown
on students by saying it is necessary to prevent moves toward a breakup of
Turkey. A government-sponsored declaration that the rectors of all 77
public and private universities were required to sign in February claims
the petitions represent a continuation of the PKK's rebellion by
nonmilitary means. "The right of petition is being exploited as an
insidious substitute for murder and terror," it says.

The declaration goes on to state that if students cannot be persuaded to
withdraw their support for the petition, they will be considered
"accomplices within our universities of the terrorist network." Only a
handful of faculty members have protested the policy. Those who have
spoken out are generally academics with domestic or international
reputations big enough to provide a degree of protection from dismissal or
prosecution. Mehmet Altan, a professor of economics at Istanbul University
and a frequent commentator on Turkish television, rejects the authorities'
argument that repression is needed to keep Turkey from being torn apart.
"It's just the opposite," he says.

"Only democracy can maintain the integrity of the country."

The decision to deal with the petition drive so harshly has disappointed
those calling for conciliatory steps to end the threat of renewed fighting
in the southeast. Human-rights activists, trade unionists, and other
political moderates favor a more democratic and less militaristic approach
to the Kurds. The Turkish government's harsh approach to the petitioners
has also placed additional embarrassing obstacles in the way of its
efforts to join the European Union. Before the European Union will invite
Turkey to join, it is demanding "respect and protection of minorities,
including the right to have education and broadcasting in their own
language," says Jean-Christophe Filori, the spokesman on enlargement
issues for the European Commission, the executive body of the European
Union. But Turkey has shown "no flexibility on the education issue," he

The European Union's 15 members have a checkered history of policies
toward the languages of their own minority groups. Until a few decades
ago, some countries -- France is a prime example -- were hostile toward
minority languages and banned their use in public schools. But "in the
last 20 years in Europe there has been a great flowering of support for
minority languages," says Robert Dunbar, a lecturer in law at the
University of Glasgow, in Scotland, and a specialist in language rights.
French public schools in regions with minority populations now provide
optional lessons in the local regional language, like Basque, Breton, or

Banned Lessons

In Turkey, however, even private Kurdish lessons remain illegal. "Turkey
appears to be the only European state which prohibits teaching in a
minority language," says Mr. Dunbar. In February he took part in an
eight-day fact-finding visit to Turkey organized by the Kurdish Human
Rights Project, an independent, London-based group. The resulting report,
which he co-wrote, is highly critical of Turkey's language policy.

No Turkish university has been allowed to teach or carry out research into
Kurdish language, literature, or culture. The Kurdish Institute, a small
independent research center established in Istanbul in 1992, is legal but
is constantly harassed by the authorities. The police sealed the
institute's offices for four months this year after prosecutors charged
the institute's managers with the criminal offense of providing
Kurdish-language lessons.  A judge recently exonerated them.

Hasan Kaya, a former schoolteacher dismissed for promoting the Kurdish
language, is chairman of the institute. He says "no Turkish academics are
allowed to participate in Kurdish-language research, but a few foreign
scholars come here regularly and quietly carry out their research." Sefa
Ozturk was suspended for three months from her studies at Yildiz Technical
University, in Istanbul, for supporting the petition campaign. University
administrators informed her that she was being punished for "threatening
the indivisible unity of the country," the reason given many of the other
suspended students.

But unlike most of the other students who have been punished, Ms. Ozturk
is an ethnic Turk. After she was charged with the criminal offense of
supporting an illegal organization, her parents broke off relations with
her. But Ms. Ozturk says she does not regret her actions. "For me the idea
that a person should have the right to an education in their mother tongue
is fundamental," she says. "I did what was right, and my conscience is

Section: International
Page: A34

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