Turkish Official Breaks Language Taboo

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu Feb 26 01:31:34 UTC 2009

Kurd’s Speech Defies Turkish Taboo


ISTANBUL — A prominent Kurdish lawmaker gave a speech in his native
Kurdish in Turkey’s Parliament on Tuesday, breaking taboos and also
the law in Turkey, a country that has long repressed its Kurdish
minority for fear it would try to secede. Turkey’s state television
cut off the live broadcast of the official, Ahmet Turk, as he spoke to
members of his political party, the Democratic Society Party, known by
its Turkish initials, D.T.P.  It was the second time in recent history
that a speech was delivered in Kurdish in Parliament. In 1991, Leyla
Zana spoke in Kurdish, her native language, when she was sworn in as a
deputy. She had immunity as a lawmaker, but it was later stripped and
she served 10 years in prison on other charges.

Turkey has a troubled past with its Kurds, who make up at least a
fifth of its population. The Turkish military fought a war with a
Kurdish militant group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., in
the predominantly Kurdish southeast in the 1980s and 1990s. The area
was subsequently governed by martial law, and speaking Kurdish was
prohibited. The violence has decreased drastically, and Kurdish is no
longer banned as a language, but its public use at events like
Tuesday’s speech, or at rallies, on fliers or in advertisements, is
still illegal. Kurdish officials like Mr. Turk have been trying to
push the boundaries of those rules.

“Being multilingual is a richness,” Mr. Turk said in Turkish, before
he switched to Kurdish. “Protecting this richness, keeping it alive,
is a requirement of this era.” He said he wanted to speak his native
language in honor of a United Nations holiday celebrating world
languages, and because of “meaningless oppression and prohibitions on
Kurdish persist.”  Mr. Turk has diplomatic immunity as a lawmaker, but
he still took a risk by speaking Kurdish publicly. At least three
court cases are pending against him, and his political party is under
threat of being shut down after prosecutors opened a case against it
last year, accusing it of separatism.

Nationalists were horrified by Mr. Turk’s use of Kurdish, saying that
languages other than Turkish threatened the unity of the country.
“The most important quality of a society that makes it a nation is
language,” said Cihan Pacaci, the general secretary of the National
Action Party, according to Turkey’s state-run Anatolian News Agency.
Though the speech was presented as a rights struggle by Mr. Turk — who
has been in Parliament for a year and a half but had never before
spoken Kurdish — some here saw it as an attempt by the Kurdish party
to win votes in the southeast.

Turkey will hold municipal elections nationwide on March 29, and Prime
Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party
have competed aggressively with Mr. Turk’s party for the Kurdish vote.
“This looks like a move for the local election,” said Rusen Cakir, a
political analyst speaking on NTV, a private television network. He
said that the Kurdish party seemed threatened by the government’s
efforts to increase language freedoms.

On a recent trip to the region, Mr. Erdogan spoke some words in
Kurdish, promoting the fact that his administration had allowed
Kurdish programming on Turkish television, a point not missed by Mr.
Turk, who asked why he should be barred, if Mr. Erdogan had not been.
Mithat Sancar, a law professor at Ankara University, defended Mr.
Turk, arguing that Mr. Erdogan had also been using the Kurdish issue
to profit politically. Raising culture issues is “a perfectly
legitimate way to contribute to an election campaign,” he said by
telephone from Ankara, Turkey’s capital. He said Mr. Erdogan’s party’s
practice of giving out free refrigerators to win votes was more

Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting.


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