MUSTAFA AKYOL > Kurdish as official language for Turkey


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I am in Finland for a few days, as a guest of the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for talks and meetings on the “Turkish model” and its meaning for the Middle East. Yet I am also trying to be an observer of this five million-strong Scandinavian nation, which seems to have many aspects that deserve admiration. (Helsinki is not only the world’s “design capital,” for example, but it is one of the most likely places on earth that you could find your wallet safe and sound if you dropped it even in the busiest street.)

But one thing that struck me particularly is the pluralism here that can give my unity-obsessed county, Turkey, some ideas: Here in Finland, there is not only one official language, there are two. On street signs or official documents, in other words, there is not only Finnish, the main language, but also Swedish.

When I was intrigued by this fact and asked about the percentage of Swedish-speakers in Finland, I got an even more intriguing answer: It was a mere 7 percent.

This, inevitably, reminded me of the debates around the status of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens, which make up some 15 percent of the population. For decades, our paranoid state, whose fear of “division” overshadowed its already-fragile commitments to human rights, had banned the use of the Kurdish language. There were times that Kurdish-speakers on the street were fined and harassed, and Kurdish-language songs were criminalized as “separatist propaganda.”

Thank God, things got less insane since the early ‘90s, when the visionary Turkish leader Turgut Özal broke the taboos and lifted at least some of the bans. Reforms continued under the current AKP (Justice and Development Party) government, and private courses for and broadcasts in Kurdish were allowed. Three years ago, the government even launched an official television channel in Kurdish.

However, none of these moves are enough, at least for the millions of Kurds who are proud of their language and want to see it even more established.

So, here is my heretical idea: Why does not the Turkish government take a bold step and consider making Kurdish a second official language for Turkey? Why don’t we use Kurdish in official documents and street signs, restaurant menus and TV channels, and courthouses and Parliament sessions?

I call this a heretical idea for I am sure that many Turkish nationalists – the bulk of Turkish society – will find it disturbing and dangerous. And their reaction will come from not only an emotional distaste for anything other than Turkish, but also a fear that more Kurdishness will divide Turkey and pave the way for an independent Kurdistan in the southeast.

But I think that this fear is based on a totally mistaken notion: that a more Kurdish-friendly Turkey will end up being torn into two. The truth, I believe, is quite the opposite: Turkey will be saved from ethnic partition only when it becomes more Kurdish-friendly.

This is the case, because, besides the totalitarian ambitions of the PKK (the outlawed and terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party), the real Kurdish political aspiration in Turkey is to have a homeland. The Turkish Republic as we know it has never been this homeland, for it always suppressed Kurdish identity. So, either the Kurds will keep on hoping (and fighting) for a Kurdistan in the southeast, or the rest of Turkey will become a bit Kurdistan-like.

Turkish nationalists, in other words, need to understand that they can’t have their cake and eat it too. They can’t keep Turkey fully Turkish and intact at the same time. They need to make a decision, and they had better make it soon


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Ronse Frederik

6/3/2012 11:47:42 AM

Having road signs in two languages might look cute to the tourist, but they already become less funny when you actually have to follow them to find a place and the name of the city changes along the road, like in Belgium (where I live) where Rijsel becomes Lille, Mons becomes Bergen and so on. But this is really the least of all the troubles having multiple official languages bring. Belgium ended up with a nightmarishly complicated and costly state structure with a federal state [next post]


6/2/2012 6:40:41 PM

Biggest mistake Ecevit did was not to complete the full liberation of Cyprus. These people are still fighting Ottomans, maybe they should be dealt with as Ottomans would. Small people with big chips on their shoulders who have survived to this millenium at the mercy of a great empire. They bring disaster and meyhem everywhere they go.


6/2/2012 6:05:05 PM

just kurdish you mean, who is gonna protect the other nations right, we are as turkey united nations, there are many different nationalists living in turkey

john albay

5/29/2012 7:20:45 PM

@cyprus is greek. your pen name says it all! you greek cypriots lie all the time and twist the truth. I know what happened I was there when mobs of fanatic greek cypriots burned down our houses and pushed us out of our village.You all shouled for ENOSIS and we will push the last turk into the sea forgotten that!?pushing us into 3% of the island at gun point is NOT self segregation! The T R N C will be still here long after you and I are gone! you have your puppet state and we have our republic.


5/29/2012 6:54:07 PM

May I point out the pointlessness of engaging in any kind of discussion with someone called "Cyprus is Greek"?

Birol A

5/29/2012 10:50:52 AM

A lesson we can learn from the Finn's is that they were serfs or second class to the Swedes in years gone by. For them to have Swedish as a second language speaks wonders for the powers of forgiveness and their ability to 'move on'. For me, I grew up never seeing Turki/Kurd divide. We were always brothers/neighbours. I hope that past injustices can be forgiven (Turkish/Kurdish alike).

john albay

5/29/2012 8:38:17 AM

@greek cypriot posters. In your zone greek is the offical language in the TRNC turkish is the offical language. You greek cypriots tried very hard to kill out the Turkish language when you wanted(and still do!) ENOSIS by killing us and putting us Turkish cypriots into 3% of the island. So your wish has come true you have in the puppet state of greek occupied cyprus greek as a language and we have Turkish in our republic. And lastly if you love the kurds so much you can have them all free

Birol A

5/29/2012 5:10:25 AM

I can't see this happening anytime soon. The question to ask is how many official languages should Turkey have? For example in central Anatolia, you will find Kurdish, Laz (Greek Pontian extraction), Armenian, Circassion, Georgian, Tatar and ofcourse Turkish being spoken. In the southeast, there is Assyrian, Zaza and Arabic. Turkey in many respects is a bit like India with Turkish as the unifying language. Kurds are the largest minority, but not the only ones.

Turk down under

5/28/2012 3:18:35 PM

Israels 2nd language is Arabic and I read in this newspaper the other day that Hamas in Gaza had re-introduced learning of Hebrew in their schools- now that's something!

parwez ahmed

5/28/2012 3:14:50 AM

I agree with more freedom and liberty to kurds bruthers and sisters,
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