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Kurdish: A different language

Zaman –

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 enough.

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 “crime.”

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.

Joost Lagendijk – Cochairman of the Turkey-EU Joint Parliamentary Commission