Kurdish as official language for Turkey

Kurdish as official language for Turkey

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