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.