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MUSTAFA AKYOL > At last: Kurdish classes in Turkish schools

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It was only thirty years ago when uttering the very word “Kurdish” was a felony in Turkey: Şerafettin Elçi, a left wing politician, was sentenced to a prison term in 1982 simply for declaring, “There are Kurds in Turkey, and I am a Kurd as well.” The military junta of the time regarded this statement as “separatist propaganda.”

Those insane days of Turkey are luckily gone, and now Kurds, the largest non-Turkish ethnic group in the country, can publicly be proud of their identity, thanks to various reforms of the past two decades. And just yesterday, a new step was taken when Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan announced that Turkey’s public schools would be offering classes to teach the Kurdish language.

“Our students ... will now be able to learn Kurdish as optional courses if there is a sufficient number (of students),” Erdoğan said in Parliament. “This is a historic step.”

Like other reforms of the AKP, this “historic step” is likely to be too much for Turkish nationalists and too little for their Kurdish counterparts. On the former front, there is the die-hard Turkist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which has been denouncing all such reforms of the AKP as “high treason.” With a mindset very similar to the military junta of the early 80s, this far-right party, which appeals to 12-13 percent of the electorate, believes in a strictly homogenous Turkey where every non-Turkish identity is fully assimilated.

The Kurdish nationalists, on the other hand, have a tendency to see AKP reforms as limited and insincere gestures to “fool” the Kurds and win their votes. No wonder their initial reactions were full of such dismissing attitudes. “What we need is education in our own language,” one reader angrily told me on Twitter, “not just a few classes of Kurdish within a Turkish curriculum!”

The distinction between those two demands -- education of Kurdish versus education in Kurdish -- has been discussed in Turkey for some time. The latter, of course, is a more radical departure from Turkey’s classical education system, for it implies a new school system in which all classes, from history to science, will be in the Kurdish language. Its defenders -- which include not just Kurdish nationalists but also some liberals -- insist that “education in the mother tongue” is a “basic human right” that the state should provide.

My take, however, is a little different. I believe firmly in “negative rights” but less so in “positive rights,” in line with classical liberalism. Therefore, the state should not ban or block education in Kurdish, but it does not have to provide it either. In other words, if Kurdish nationalists want to have full-Kurdish schools, let them open them as private schools. (And let the market show whether Kurdish families are willing to send their kids to these schools, whose prospects for job opportunities might be limited in a Turkey whose predominant language will continue to be Turkish.)

However, even that step -- allowing private Kurdish-language schools -- is hard to take, for it needs nothing less than a constitutional amendment. Article 42 of the current constitution, devised by the junta of the early 80s, clearly states:

“No language other than Turkish shall be taught as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institutions of training or education.”

The junta, apparently, knew what it was doing: Imposing a military-tailored straitjacket on the whole society. Luckily, though, we have been unraveling their doomed legacy. And Kurdish classes in Turkish schools will be yet another step forward.

June/13/2012

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READER COMMENTS

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mara mcglothin

6/14/2012 7:01:37 PM

TURK UZAN Robert College in Istanbul taught majority Turks all their college courses in English and I believe it was the oldest English high school outside of English speaking countires. I had always dreamed of my son moving to Istanbul for high school and then they changed the law and only English was taught in English now.

ismail demir

6/14/2012 4:19:44 PM

@cyprus, precedent was set by greeks not turks. Turkish cypriots were happy with british rule in island, greeks started terorism and seperatism in the island.So turks did not have to accept new regime and found their state. If kurds follow the greek cypriots way they will face same consequences greeks faced at 1974.

B Medic

6/14/2012 10:25:17 AM

@Turk Uzan: I work in Belgium. The country is NOT ON THE BRINK OF SEPARATION as you and many other Turkish hardcore nationalists claim whenever the issue of more than one official language comes up. Belgium has had its problems over the years, but the country works rather well overall. Most Belgians actually like the idea of being two people within the same borders and do not want to split up.

Begum

6/14/2012 8:35:41 AM

The BDP will again cause trouble, but this step as a whole is really good for a more liberal and plural Turkey.

john albay

6/14/2012 12:23:39 AM

kurdish is in Turkey a foriegn language the language of Turkey is Turkish.Just think if the USA was asked to have kurdish as a second language . If the greek posters here love the kurds and the pkk so much take them all and then after 5 years let us know your opinon,i wonder if you would chang your mind.

Turk Uzan

6/13/2012 7:57:55 PM

I can come up with a million reasons, but my main point is, no one wants to be like Belgium on the brink of separation. No one will deliberately do this or let this happen. This is Turkey, there are Turks, Laz, Rums, Syriac's, Kurds, Arabs etc. But we are all Turkish, we are all citizens of Turkey. We all have equal rights. We can all live, work, eat, drink, study where we want. Our shared language is that of the majority (Turks) This won't change because 15%/20% of a single minority wants this

Turk Uzan

6/13/2012 7:53:29 PM

Some American cities have Spanish speaking majorities and were even later annexed should the US give Spanish as a primary language?! Of course they won't, NO country would. Giving 1/3 of your country another official language is like governmental suicide, this will stir nationalism on both sides, push the people apart. The city with most Kurds is Istanbul, (still a minority). Millions of Kurds live all over Turkey what about them? This will bar Kurds from studying in Turkey's best institutions!

Turk Uzan

6/13/2012 7:49:28 PM

Again, the comments are completely ridiculous The BDP, asks to force Kurdish as the main/primary language upon the east, where millions of ethnic Turks also live. This will mean most of the east won't speak proper Turkish or Turkish at all in 30 years. This will bar Kurds from working in Turkish companies, living in Turkish cities etc. It will create a huge divide, will be really bad for economy etc. It's the BDP's way to separate Kurd from Turks in the hope of creating a state on TR soil

Turk Uzan

6/13/2012 7:43:59 PM

@ Blue dotterel, all Armenian, Greek etc. Schools give Turkish as their primary language and teach Armenian, Greek etc. next to it. It's ridiculous for a state to allow primary, elementary, and high schools where the primary language it other then it's official language. Schools who don't have Turkish as it's primary language aren't schools that have Turkish citizens, like the American high school at Incirlik airbase, for children of US soldiers stationed there.

MR Somalia

6/13/2012 6:22:34 PM

It's not a development at all. As you know many schools teach Italian, French or English as an elective languages. Kurdish will just be a new addition to that list. Still treated like foreigners.
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