Struggle for the Kurdish Language: Turkish Armed Forces against a bilingual Nation

At the beginning of this education year, some Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) members staged demonstrations to get Kurdish education in schools. Most recently, a debate over use of Kurdish began following a statement by BDP members that the Kurdish language should be usable in all aspects of life – including in the official sphere – and heated up when the parliament speaker, president and the military reacted strongly against a bilingual Turkey.

The bilingual debate over using Kurdish in public places fueled a dispute last week, prompting some to accuse pro-Kurdish parties of toying with election prospects while others blame the government for moving too slowly in the Kurdish initiative.

What complicated the discussion was the involvement of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), which issued a written statement criticizing the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). BDP Co-chairman Selahattin Demirtaş said in Diyarbakır that they would start the bilingual system de facto, adding, “a Kurd’s failure to speak Turkish in Turkey is not his or her fault.

“ It is the guilt and shame of a system that has been trying to assimilate Kurds for 80 years.” Demirtaş said there was an opportunity for the state to rid itself of this shame and pave the way for education in Kurdish. He also suggested that shop owners be allowed to use Kurdish, name their shops Kurdish and talk to their customers in Kurdish, adding that there is no obstacle to this.

“We will have bilingual signboards. Our friends are making preparations for the restoration of the Kurdish names of villages and neighborhoods. In every area of life, particularly in this region, the two languages should be used,” he said.

According to Sedat Laçiner from the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), the BDP is not acting in good faith.

“The BDP does not want a solution because they were created by the problem. They aim to create a tense atmosphere in the political arena, then the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK] will apply real terror. There was a relaxed atmosphere regarding the Kurdish language, but the BDP destroyed it,” he said.

He recalled that a state-run TV channel broadcasting in Kurdish has been launched and the Ministry of Culture recently started to publish books in Kurdish. Some governor’s offices also took the initiative and started to use Kurdish in their public services.

“The BDP was not happy about these developments, and they initiated this discussion with the aim of increasing their votes. Their actions will benefit the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP], which most probably would not have been able to pass the election threshold, but after these discussions, it probably will,” he told Sunday’s Zaman and added that the BDP knows very well that these discussions on the Kurdish language will benefit ultra nationalists.

Laçiner also said that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) is trying to use this opportunity to save its image, which was damaged by recent military coup allegations and plans.

Another BDP deputy, Sevahir Bayındır, who had broken her hip several months ago during a skirmish between security forces and Kurdish protesters, attended Parliament on crutches. She started by saying in English, “To be or not to be,” and she repeated the same phrase in Kurdish and Turkish.

But even before that, during trials of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), the alleged urban extension of the outlawed PKK, suspects, among them some BDP mayors, asked to be able to defend themselves in Kurdish, a demand rejected by the court. When some of the suspects submitted their defenses in Kurdish, the president of the court said that the suspects spoke in an unknown language. In order to protest this, the BDP holds its parliamentary group meetings partially in Kurdish.

At that time, Speaker of Parliament Mehmet Ali Şahin recalled that to speak in another language in Parliament is cause to disband a political party. This week, Şahin urged public prosecutors to take action against the BDP, causing debates to heat up even more. The TSK issued a statement in which it indicated that because the debate is against the founding philosophy of the Turkish Republic, it creates great concern.

“The Turkish Armed Forces have always and will continue to stand for the protection of the united, secular nation state that is indicated in the Constitution,” the statement suggested.

It recalled that, according to the Constitution, the official language of the state is Turkish, which is among the unchangeable articles of the Constitution. “Language, culture and unity are the indispensable aspects of being a nation. The results of the lack of linguistic unity have been portrayed in many painful examples in history,” the statement claimed.

Before the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) statement, President Abdullah Gül and other politicians from the ruling Justice and Development party (AK Party), such as Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, who addressed the deputies at Parliament in Kurdish by saying, “May God be pleased with you,” warned that insisting on speaking in Kurdish might harm advancements relating to the Kurdish language and that everybody should act with common sense and wisdom.

Ümit Kardaş a retired military judge and prominent intellectual, stated that the TSK’s statement should be dedicated to those who think that military tutelage over politics has come to an end. “This is a political issue and should be discussed by politicians. It is not the TSK’s business. The government should force the chief of general staff to retire, but when it comes to Kurdish, the government has adopted an attitude similar to that of the TSK,” he told Sunday’s Zaman.

Kardaş said there are many countries that have adopted more than one official language or use second languages as regional official languages, adding that these kinds of decisions are the responsibility of the politicians, not the army.

Mehmet Kaya, a prominent businessman from Diyarbakır and former chairman of the Diyarbakır Trade and Industry Chamber (DTSO), said that if the government would remove the obstacles facing the Kurdish language more rapidly the situation would not be as it is now.

“Problems are arising as there are delays in taking the necessary steps. If these steps are taken, the public will not oppose them,” he said, adding that despite some improvements it is still not possible to use the original Kurdish place names or to incorporate Kurdish into the education system.

He added that since these steps are taking place rapidly the social distance between Kurdish and Turkish society is deepening.

A recent survey conducted by Mersin University indicated that the social distance between Kurds and Turks living in urban areas is rapidly widening and the number of Kurds and Turks who are willingly to marry into the other ethnicity, as well as a desire for being neighbors and close friends with them, is dropping. However, they are still willing to be coworkers with other ethnicities.

But according to Laçiner, this survey does not reflect the reality. He claims that there is social distance only among the lower classes, but that their reaction, more than being to ethnic origins, is a reaction to the system itself, which excludes this class.

Ayşe Karabat, Ankara

Today’s Zaman, 19 December 2010.

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