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Turkey’s Kurds revive fight for language rights

Many Kurdish groups have joined forces to promote the Kurdish language and press Ankara for greater language rights.
ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP via Getty Images

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — Kurdish language rights have been a steadfast demand of the Kurdish political movement in Turkey, where many Kurds, especially young people in urban areas, remain alienated from their heritage language. Ankara, which banned Kurds from even speaking their native language until the early 1990s, relaxed the restrictions in the ensuing years, but key demands such as education in Kurdish and the recognition of Kurdish as an official language remain unanswered. Kurdish parties and civic groups have revived efforts on the issue in recent months while encouraging Kurds to learn their heritage language, a cause that has united Kurds of various stripes, from conservatives to secular leftists.

In mid-October, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the standard-bearer of the Kurdish movement in Turkey, held ceremonies at its head office in Ankara and elsewhere for an unusual purpose – to award certificates to party members who had graduated from Kurdish language courses launched as part of the recent campaign.

The campaign was announced in February in Diyarbakir, the central city of Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast, at a meeting attended by diverse Kurdish groups and activists. The participants issued an appeal to Ankara to recognize Kurdish as a language of education and an official language.

The campaign prompted new initiatives by the HDP, which has come under fire by some Kurds for not doing enough to promote the Kurdish language and culture. The party set up a special commission to work on language rights, and the first thing the commission did was to organize Kurdish courses for some 400 HDP members, including figures in leadership positions. 

One of them was Salim Kaplan, a deputy co-chair of the party who wanted to hone his reading and writing skills. “I’m a Kurd, but I never had the opportunity of formal education in my mother tongue due to the century-old assimilation campaign against the Kurdish language,” Kaplan told Al-Monitor. “I had difficulties in writing, which I managed to overcome at the course. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to write in Kurdish. I’m now taking notes and preparing my speeches in Kurdish,” he said.

The two co-chairs of the HDP, Mithat Sancar and Pervin Buldan, are also participating in the initiative, but in private lessons due to their busy schedules.

Ordinary Kurds have also flocked to the classes, which teach the Kurmanji dialect of the Kurdish language and were initially offered online because of restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Al-Monitor attended one of the classes, which had about 20 students of various ages and professions, including three Kurdish migrants residing in European countries.

During the 40-minute class, the teacher focused on grammar rules and did exercises with the participants, among them Devrim Zeyrek, an occupational safety specialist in his 30s. Zeyrek said many Kurds like him spoke Kurdish well but struggled with reading and writing. “Before I started the classes, I was trying to read books and realized that my vocabulary was very poor. I was incredibly bad [at reading], which was so demoralizing,” he told Al-Monitor. “I applied to enroll as soon as I heard of the classes. Many members of my family have enrolled as well,” he said.

For university student Safa Nur Boyu, the motivation came from social media. “My friends would share poems and other writing in Kurdish. I realized I was unable to do the same, which upset me,” said Boyu, who has been attending the classes since March. “I didn’t start from zero but I learned to write correctly. I became more familiar with my language and learned to be more attentive to it,” she added.

Bayram Bozyel, deputy chair of the Kurdistan Socialist Party, which also supports the campaign, stressed that language rights are a joint demand of the Kurds. “We want Kurds to embrace this demand … and put pressure on the government and the state to move forward,” Bozyel told Al-Monitor. “First, however, we need to raise awareness on the issue,” he noted.

The campaign also involves a petition that will be submitted to the government, political parties and perhaps international institutions, Bozyel explained. Ankara’s approach on the issue, he stressed, has been perfunctory and many reforms introduced in previous years have produced no real progress. “There are university programs to train Kurdish language teachers, for instance. But only a couple of teachers are appointed [to public schools] per year, which shows that those programs have become meaningless,” he said.

The Kurds have made notable gains amid Turkey’s now-stalled bid to join the European Union and Ankara’s peace talks with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought the Turkish state since 1984. Restrictions on the Kurdish language were largely relaxed, including the introduction of Kurdish as an elective course in schools. 

Kurdish-held local administrations made further strides, launching Kurdish-language cultural programs and kindergartens. The Kurdish names of villages and streets appeared on road signs. Many of the changes lacked a legal basis, but the Kurdish language enjoyed greater freedom in almost every realm as Ankara showed an unprecedented tolerance.

The tide turned abruptly after the collapse of the peace talks in 2015, with Ankara launching a ferocious crackdown on the PKK, its urban offshoots and the Kurdish political movement. The Kurdish language programs in universities have dwindled amid administrative hurdles, while Kurdish parents have widely complained of pressure not to enroll their children in elective Kurdish courses. Most of the Kurdish-language services and activities created by local administrations have been terminated by government-appointed trustees who replaced dozens of Kurdish mayors ousted by Ankara for alleged links to the PKK. Many of the ousted mayors and other leading Kurdish politicians remain behind bars.

The PKK’s armed campaign has long overshadowed the Kurdish struggle for language freedoms. Many in the Turkish state establishment have associated such demands with separatism and collaboration with the PKK, which Ankara lists as a terrorist group. Today, however, the call for broader language rights is embraced by diverse Kurdish groups, the majority of which have never been involved in violence.

Serefhan Ciziri, spokesperson for the Kurdish Language Platform, expressed apprehension that many Kurds are losing touch with their heritage language. “When you look at some cities with Kurdish populations, you see that [many people] have forgotten their language and do not speak Kurdish. There is a risk of extinction,” Ciziri said. “We are not asking for anything extraordinary — we just want our language.”

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