Kurdish: a different language

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu Jun 28 13:21:50 UTC 2007

   ** * Kurdish: A different language
JOOST LAGENDIJK** Without a doubt, the Kurdish issue is one of the most
important political problems in Turkey.  The problem is not only a bloody
political issue involving the deaths of more than 30,000 people, but at the
same time a crisis felt at all the layers of the system from local
governments to the Parliament. Although the former policy of the republic,
which was founded on the practice of denying Kurds, is about to completely
rot, the "Kurdish reality" as articulated by politicians such as Demirel,
Özal, Erdoğan and others cannot be said to have been appreciated well

The most recent example of this is a decision reached by the Eighth Chamber
of the Council of the State on June 14, 2007 to remove the mayor of the Sur
district of Diyarbakır, Abdullah Demirbaş, and the members of the municipal
council. Endorsing the decision made by the interior minister, the high
court ruled in October 2006 that giving information on various municipal
services such as culture, art, environment, city cleaning and health in
languages other than Turkish is against the Constitution, removing the
people in question from office. However, the above-mentioned municipality
conducted research and discovered that 24 percent of people spoke Turkish in
their daily lives, 72 percent Kurdish, 1 percent Arabic and 3 percent Syrian
and Armenian, resulting in the decision to give services in these languages
to reach all the people benefiting from them. As a matter of fact, even
though one wouldn't need to conduct a study to find out that the majority of
people in Diyarbakır speak Kurdish -- not Turkish -- it turned out a useful
one in terms of revealing the exact figures.

The Interior Ministry described this decision as a political one and
determined that Article 222 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) was violated.
The high court agreed with the ministry's view and also came to the opinion
that "a quality has formed that exceeds the exercising of the fundamental
rights and liberties defined and secured by the Constitution and
international conventions and that is against the purpose and implications
of these rules" and decided to remove the mayor from office and depose the
municipal council. This decision of the Council of the State indubitably
reflects the laws in Turkey and the constitutional realities and also
clearly defines the boundaries of Kurdish. While it is a necessity to be
respectful toward the decisions of the high court, doing so is giving rise
to dismaying results. The mayor and the members of the municipal council
will not be able to stand for the elections to be renewed in two months'
time and, what's more, they will stand trial because they committed a

The mayor of the Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality, Osman Baydemir, is
being subjected to a similar set of interrogations and judicial process.
Most of these issues taken to court relate to using Kurdish, as was the case
with the problematic celebration cards used in 2006 and 2007. These cards,
containing nothing more than good wishes for the new year in Turkish,
English and Kurdish, were taken by the prosecutor as enough evidence to
launch an investigation. The prosecutor, who seems to have spent little time
on the indictment, cut it very short and wrote: "It was determined that the
suspect used a Kurdish sentence in the celebration card, 'Sersela We Piroz
Be' (Happy New Year). I, on behalf of the public, demand that he be punished
under Article 222/1 of the Turkish Penal Code." So, it will benefit us to
look at this article of the penal code a bit closer.

*Law on protection of the Turkish alphabet *

Article 222 of the TCK was put into effect in the 1920s. The young republic,
which decided to stop using Arabic letters and write Turkish with the Latin
alphabet, made a very radical move in regard to written communication. The
scholars who oversaw judicial and religious matters in the society -- and
whose command of Arabic was perfect -- were not only divested of their
positions in the state with this move, but were also thrust outside the
chain of communication between people and the state. Through crash courses
on the new alphabet, the founders tried to generate new "elites" and made it
an obligation to use the Latin alphabet. This article, as well as the law
that obliged the wearing of the felt hat by every male citizen and the ban
on wearing the fez and similar "old" clothes outside mosques, bluntly
illustrates the purpose of the lawmaker. With this article, the scholars all
over Turkey were reduced to invisibility in society.

However legally surprising it may be to see this article used against
communication in Kurdish, the practice fits with the article's history and
purpose. The Latin alphabet is also used to write Kurdish in Turkey, but it
has letters like "î" and "w," which are not used in Turkish. Legally
speaking, the penal code's article in question should have been directed
against using these extra letters, which are not used in Turkish. The
prosecutor did not even take the trouble to find a link between this article
and the "crime." According to him, Mayor Baydemir used a Kurdish sentence to
celebrate the new year and therefore committed a "crime." Maybe the
prosecutor did not want to delve into details as the English version of the
celebration, Happy New Year, also contains the letter "w." In fact the
letter "w" constituting a crime in Kurdish but not in English would be
pushing it a little in the legal and political sense.

*Kurdish still a forbidden language*

Similar things happened and are still happening to Kurdish names. These
letters used to write Kurdish names are still not accepted in Turkey, and
families are forced to write such names using the Turkish alphabet. The
increasingly widespread execution of laws against speaking Kurdish similar
to Article 222 in recent years makes the issue politically significant.
Human rights defenders perceive this development as a new means of pressure
against Kurdish people. In election campaigns, the investigations launched
into the use of Kurdish did not produce any results and, to reach voters,
the courts that settled the matters defined the use of local tongues as a
fundamental right to be exercised and did not see any element of guilt. The
newly launched investigations and lawsuits filed give the impression that a
political will has come into the play to prevent Kurdish from being spoken
as a language of communication. The purpose appears to be the prevention of
using Kurdish in communication between institutions and associations. What
is feared, perhaps, is that Kurdish may gradually become a normal means of
daily communication in provinces like Diyarbakır where the majority of
people speak Kurdish.

Looking at the matter from a broader perspective tells us that the decisions
made by the local government of the Sur district and similar places to use
Kurdish as a means of social communication also has a political dimension to
it, thus it would be naïve to overlook the fact that the issue goes beyond
being merely linguistics. However, the base of the problem is still whether
the Kurdish language should be used for communication or not. After issuing
a press release, the mayors went into details in their statements and
stressed that they would continue using Kurdish whether or not it
constituted a crime. The high-tension line in Turkey related to the Kurdish
issue is thus laid down. This line is dividing people into two parties based
on a question of whether using a simple Kurdish sentence like "Sersela We
Piroz Be" means separatism -- therefore constituting a "crime" -- and the
opinion that Kurdish is a very normal means of communication in a city
comprising predominantly Kurds.

There are strong legal grounds supporting our view. As part of reforms made
in harmonization with the EU, it has become possible to use "languages other
than Turkish," thanks to a change in Article 26 of the Constitution. These
reforms include the right to learn Kurdish and broadcast and publish in this
language. If these reforms have any meaning at all, Kurdish should allowed
use in Diyarbakır. We see that the mayors, who must be listened to, also put
forward strong arguments.

The Turkish Law on Municipalities, just as with all democratic countries,
charges municipal administrations with being the first to give various
information and services, envisaging that people will participate in the
decision-making process when it comes to cultural, environmental, health and
other local issues. The mayors in return state that to be able to give those
services, they must use Kurdish as it is spoken by the majority. They also
point out that a certain segment of the population either doesn't know
Turkish at a necessary level or can't speak it at all. It will probably be
beneficial to allow the use of Kurdish in order to reach as much of society
as possible for important issues such as, say, cleanliness. We deem it
unnecessary to stress once again that the language is indispensable to
cultural matters. Moreover, the European Human Rights Bill -- very
applicable considering Turkey is a founding member of the European Council
-- declares it a fundamental right of individuals to use their mother
language and receive information in that language, making it compulsory to
respect to this right.

As a consequence, we believe it is high time that Turkey starts implementing
a truly modern democracy and leave behind the practice of finding an element
of guilt in every Kurdish sentence written on a simple celebration card.
Unless a line can be drawn between violence and terrorism and the exercising
of fundamental rights such as communicating in one's native tongue, people's
rights and the law will continue being vague concepts. Finding a lasting
solution to the Kurdish issue is only possible with the supremacy of rights
and law.

**Cochairman of the Turkey-EU Joint Parliamentary Commission *

 28.06.2007  Op-Ed

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