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PKK's Kurdish Education Demands Spark Debate in Turkey

Turkey continues to fear that education in languages other than Turkish will divide the nation, despite a growing demand for mother-tongue instruction and regional success stories.
Ferhat Savun aged 11, works on his homework in his home in town of  Cizre in Sirnak province, near the border with Syria March 23, 2013. Turkey's fledgling peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group is all over the headlines. After three decades of war, 40,000 deaths and a devastating impact on the local economy, everybody seems ready for peace. Pro-Kurdish politicians are focused on boosting minority rights and stronger local government for the Kurds, who make up about 20 percent o

Post-Ottoman Turkey holds the distinction of being the only country that made Circassians forget their mother tongue. After the 1864 Circassian exodus scattered the community across alien lands, members of Circassian associations would grumble in closed-door meetings, “Turkey, a country we fought for, made us forget our language, but Russia, the country that exiled us, let our language live on.”

I saw what they meant when I first traveled to the Caucasus. In the media house in Cherkessk, the capital of the Russian Federation’s Karachay-Cherkess Republic, a separate newspaper was published on each floor: in Russian, Adyghe, in Karachay, Nogai and Abaza. I visited all of them and listened to their stories. The signs on public buildings were posted in five languages. In an autonomous republic of fewer than 500,000 people, the languages of the autochthonous peoples were all officially recognized, alongside the predominantly spoken Russian. The same goes for the other autonomous republics. In the Kabardino-Balkar Republic, for instance, the languages of the three major communities — Kabardian (Adyghe), Balkar and Russian — have official status. For each community, there is even a state-funded theater performing in its respective language.

For Turkish-born generations like us, raised with the motto of “one language, one nation,” those practices were a great lesson. Education in the mother tongues of those communities had not divided the country, as we had been indoctrinated into believing by school teachers and political leaders. On the contrary, it had unified the country.

Certainly, Turkey has made significant headway in recent years in democratization and recognizing the rights of ethnic minorities, driven by its bid to join the European Union. Most notably, state broadcasting has inaugurated Kurdish and Arabic-language TV channels as well as brief programs in other languages. But, unfortunately, we remain more than 90 years behind even the Russian Federation.

Kurdish boycott

In Turkey, schools this year opened with a squandered opportunity for education in the students' mother tongues. In southeastern cities like Diyarbakir, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and the Democratic Society Congress (DTK) called for a one-week boycott of the schools. Participation in the boycott varied by region. A series of other events was organized to draw attention to mother-tongue education, such as an outdoor Kurdish-language math class, held in Diyarbakir by the Egitim-Sen teachers union, and a march organized in Adiyaman by the Kurdi-Der association.

A major aspect of the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was that it opened the door to the right to education in one's mother tongue. But despite expectations, no legal arrangement was made to accomplish this over the summer. Moreover, a new reform package, expected to be unveiled in late September, is likely to result in another disappointment.

The elective courses teaching minority languages in schools are no more than a cosmetic measure in the eyes of the communities seeking their rights. The Education Ministry inaugurated those courses last year under the name “Living Languages and Dialects.” Under the arrangement, the Kurdish, Adyghe and Abaza languages were taught as elective courses, starting in the fifth grade. This year, the Laz language was added to the list. The courses, however, are opened only if a certain number of students wish to attend and only if a competent teacher is available. To start a given course, applications are required from at least 10 students. Interest in these elective courses is being discouraged by meager infrastructure as well as taboos over ethnic identities, concerns of alienation, inadequate incentives and boycotts, mainly among the Kurds, who insist that a class for students on their mother tongue does not amount to education in that language. Last year, 18,847 students in only 28 out of 81 provinces chose to take the Kurdish language classes. Even in Diyarbakir, the center of the language debates, only 10% of the students took the courses.

Wide political rift

The most serious impasse in the debates on mother-tongue education stems from the issue emerging as a PKK demand rather than a problem of fundamental rights. As a result, the resistance of nationalist and statist quarters in particular has become impossible to overcome. Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, sees the demand as “a part of the of the project to break up the state,” while Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the main opposition Republican People’s Party leader who claims to support the Kurds, appears stuck in the argument that contends education in different mother tongues will divide society.

The government, meanwhile, is perusing a policy of double standards and completely mismanaging the process. In recent remarks on the issue, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc countered detractors by saying that “Education in mother tongue is as natural as mother’s milk,” but then took refuge in the excuse of technical shortcomings and even showed the door to proponents of Kurdish-language education.

“Let’s assume that the constitution has been amended to make mother-tongue education possible. Is Kurdish the only mother tongue? There are other mother tongues, too. If we are to speak in the context of Kurdish alone, then do we have people with adequate training to teach in this language? Do we currently have the skills to teach physics, mathematics and geography in this language? The only example they are able to give us are certain schools in Northern Iraq. Well, why don’t you send your kids there to study?” he said. Arinc similarly suggested that the government was little impressed by the BDP-DTK boycott. “I’m happy to say that the boycott had a certain degree of intensity only in two provinces. In other provinces, the statistics from the first day of the boycott indicate that, unlike their expectations, participation stood between 3% and 5%. The bomb exploded in their hands,” Arinc said.

This article began with the language freedom available in the Russian Federation. In Europe, too, many countries have introduced major arrangements in line with the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, in addition to those who acted even earlier.

Belgium tops the list of countries that have gone the farthest in this area. With Flemish, French and German recognized as Belgium’s official languages, education in any given region is conducted in the language of the local population. In Finland, education is available in the languages of the four officially recognized minorities, in addition to the national Finnish and Swedish languages. In Norway, the Saami people have had education in their mother tongue since 1985. In France, French is the only official language, but regional languages such as Basque, Catalan and Breton have been taught in local schools since 1951. Germany has no legal restrictions on the language of education, granting federal states the authority to regulate the issue.

In the United Kingdom, English is the de facto official language, but Welsh and Scottish are the second languages of education. In Spain, Spanish is the official language of the state, while Catalan and Basque are second official languages in the respective regions of Basque and Catalonia. German, French and Slovenian hold the status of official regional languages in Italy, where education in regional languages is compulsory on the primary-school level, depending on local demand, and is sometimes also available in secondary schools.

Fehim Taştekin is a columnist and chief editor of foreign news at the Turkish newspaper Radikal, based in Istanbul. He is the host of a fortnightly program called Dogu Divanı on IMC TV. He is an analyst specializing in Turkish foreign policy and Caucasus, Middle East and EU affairs. He was founding editor of Agency Caucasus.

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