Turkey's forbidden tongue

ISTANBUL — A politician’s illegal use of Kurdish during a speech in the parliament has stirred a debate on minority rights in Turkey, a nation that has worked to keep a tight grip on its Kurdish population.

Ahmet Turk, who heads the Democratic Society Party, or DTP, Turkey’s largest pro-Kurdish party, began his speech in Turkish but then switched to his native Kurdish, violating laws that bar the language in official settings and causing Turkey’s state television to cut off the live broadcast.

“Kurds have long been oppressed because they did not know any other language. I promised myself that I would speak in my mother tongue at an official meeting one day,” he said to a standing ovation from his party, which holds 21 of the 550 seats in Parliament.

Others were less receptive of Turk’s message, labeling the speech a stunt to drum up support ahead of local elections on March 29.

"The official language is Turkish," the parliament speaker, Koksal Toptan, said after Turk spoke. "This meeting should have been conducted in Turkish."

Turk said he gave the speech in Kurdish in recognition of UNESCO world languages week.

It is unclear whether Turk will face charges. Recent history shows his status as a member of parliament is no guarantee of diplomatic immunity.

In 1991, Leyla Zana, the first Kurdish woman elected to the Turkish parliament, spoke the last line of her oath in Kurdish. She was later stripped of her immunity and charged with subversion and having links to the militant Kurdish Worker’s Party, or PKK. She served 10 years in jail.

Under law, only Turkish can be spoken in political addresses. However, on a recent trip to the southeast to promote the launch of a Kurdish-language channel on Turkish television, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke a few words of Kurdish.

“When [Kurdish party] members salute someone in their own language, they are prosecuted or investigated. When a mayor speaks to his people in their own language, he is prosecuted,” Turk said. “But when the prime minister speaks Kurdish, nobody says anything. We don’t think this is right. This is a two-faced approach.”

The use of Kurdish can be a powerful political tool in the predominately Kurdish southeast region, where a substantial portion of the population does not speak Turkish.

Until 1991, the use of Kurdish was considered an act of treason under Turkish law. Today, Kurdish is no longer banned as a language, although it is still barred in schools, the parliament and other official settings on the grounds that it might divide the country along ethnic lines. Kurds are the most numerous and densely populated non-Turkish people in the country, making up roughly one-fifth of Turkey’s 70 million people.

“The language ban is a violation of people’s basic human rights,” said Mustafa Gundogdu, a Turkey specialist at the London-based Kurdish Human Rights Project. “The fact that they cannot speak their own language bars them from fully participating in social, political and economic life.”

Turk's speech was seen as a bold challenge to Turkey’s policy toward its minority populations.

“Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage,” said Muveddet Farrell, a research assistant for the UN in Ankara.

“If you ban a native language, it becomes degraded to a simple vocabulary of pre-school knowledge. Literature, political debates, translations of foreign sources becomes almost impossible,” said Ekrem Eddy Guzeldere, an analyst for the European Stability Initiative.

Turk’s speech was just the latest episode in a tit-for-tat battle between Turk’s party, the DTP, and the ruling AK Party for support in the southeast.

“There is a controversy between the two parties, with AKP stressing the economy, stability, security, and DTP stressing cultural and political rights, identity politics and a regionalizing of the political system," Guzeldere said.

In the parliamentary elections of July 2007, the AKP doubled its vote from about 26 percent to about 53 percent, surpassing Turk’s party in many parts of the region. The vote suggested that improvements in human rights and democracy during the first AKP government may have stripped Kurdish nationalism of its popular support.

“A liberal approach to the Kurdish issue is the only way forward,” said Berdal Aral, a professor of international law at Fatih University in Istanbul. “The current government has taken useful steps in the right direction.”

In November, however, while Erdogan was giving a speech in the largely Kurdish eastern province of Hakkari, 3,000 DTP supporters massed on the streets shouting “Murderer Erdogan!”

Erdogan struck back, charging DTP with helping terrorists: “Terror and democracy can not coexist. (DTP) Deputies backed by terrorism are in Parliament,” he said.

The Constitutional Court has been reviewing a court file against the DTP, accusing it of being connected to the PKK. The Turkish military fought a war with the miltant Kurdish group in the southeast throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The violence had largely tapered off but since 2006 there has been an increase in PKK terror attacks.

As local elections draw closer, relations between the DTP and AKP have grown increasingly tense. Kurdish nationalists are working to shape an image of the AKP as a part of the state establishment, and in particular the military, while the court case against the DTP still threatens to shut down the party.

“I think it was a brave act by a Kurdish politician who was trying to demonstrate that AKP’s stance towards the Kurdish issue is not a genuine one,” said Gundogdu, in defense of Turk’s speech. “I think he succeeded in his attempt to show that.”

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