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Turkey's Kurdish Language Policy: Learning from Europe

Soner Cagaptay and Tyler Evans write that Turkey need not recognize the Kurdish language in a new constitution, but over time could develop a provision for public services in Kurdish.
Demonstrators wave pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party flags during a rally to celebrate the spring festival of Newroz in Istanbul March 17, 2013. REUTERS/Murad Sezer (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTR3F4BU

The European Union’s (EU) February 28th decision to restart membership talks with Ankara breathed life into Turkey’s EU accession prospects. And this mood of cautious optimism has only blossomed as Turkey’s government moves forward on its negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). As a precursor to the talks, Ankara has demonstrated its seriousness by pushing through a number of reforms allowing the Kurdish language into the public sphere: last month a court decision removed restrictions on using Kurdish in political campaigns, and Turkish courts have begun allowing testimony in the Kurdish language. To get back on the road toward peace, democratization, and perhaps even EU membership, Turkey’s leaders will need to forge ahead on these reforms. But it won’t be easy.

Turkey is a multi-ethnic, predominantly Muslim nation that is home to Muslims of Turkish and Kurdish ethnicity. And, unbeknownst to many outsiders, it is also a tapestry of many other ethno-linguistic groups. Featured in the mix are millions of descendants of émigrés from the Ottoman Balkans, such as the Bosnians, and from the Black Sea basin, such as the Circassians. Because Ottoman rulers classified their subjects based on religious affiliation, rather than ethnicity, these Muslim groups fused into a single political entity, coalescing around the Turkish nation, as the empire collapsed. Hence, the old joke that “if you scratch a Turk, you’ll find a Circassian.”

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