On International Mother Language Day, 21 February, Aren Yıldırım penned an article on the policy of denial and assimilation towards the Kurdish language implemented by the Republic of Turkey from its foundation to the present day.
With the foundation of the Republic of Turkey there came a desire within the state to solidify their newly-acquired power by the creation of a pure Turkish “nation”, which to succeed, required the assimilation or removal of all other ethnic groups and languages…
The following is a translation of the article, published in Bianet.
A century, a regime and mother language
With the Turkish Republic’s policy of creating a new “nation”, a new identity began to be built, and the concept also characterised the language policy of the so-called Republic. In this context, the existence of languages other than Turkish was ignored, assimilationist policies were produced and a monolingual policy was pursued. Throughout the history of the Republic this language policy has led to languages other than the one selected by the state gradually being removed from public life, and some languages have disappeared completely or become threatened with extinction.
This language policy was produced as a state policy to be applied to all areas of social life throughout the history of the Republic. The practices continue today.
The widely used letters X, W, Q, Î, Û and Ê from the Kurdish alphabet, have been banned since 1928. Many people who have used these letters have stood trial or been sentenced to imprisonment under Article 222 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK).
In April 2022, the Constitutional Court did not consider the banning of a name containing the letter W to be a rights violation, ruling that the name was not accordance with the “Law on Acceptance and Application of Turkish Letters”.
Denial and assimilation policies
In the pre-Republican period, there had been certain Kurdish institutions that had arisen from within their own historical processes. In the period between 1890 and 1919, several Kurdish newspapers and magazines such as Kurdistan, the Kurd Teavün ve Terakki Newspaper, Amid-i Sevda, Peyman, Rojî Kurd, Yekbûn, Hetawî Kurd and Jîn were published. Most of these periodicals were based in Istanbul. In addition, there were newspapers being published and also associations working on the Kurdish language in Diyarbakır (Amed). And in the period in question, the educational institutions of the Kurds were theological schools. Education in these schools was in Kurdish.
Formed by Kurdish intellectuals, these institutions emerged out of the relatively liberal environment of the last period of the Ottoman Empire, however, they were liquidated after the proclamation of the Turkish Republic.
The Republic was proclaimed on 29 October 1923. With the proclamation came the insistence that there were no such people as the Kurds and no such language as Kurdish, that the Kurds were actually of Turkish origin and that the language known as Kurdish was in fact a mountain dialect of the Turkish language, and finally, that the origin of the word “Kurd” was based on the ‘kart-kurt‘ crunching sound of footsteps trudging through mountain snow. All these claims were systematically defended until the 1990s.
Apart from the Kurds, this policy also saw as a threat the existence of other peoples who lived with their own languages all over the land. It destroyed the linguistic, cultural, social, and even physical existence of these peoples. Many of them were forcefully displaced and Turkicised. These policies still continue to this day.
Linguist J.B. Rudnyckyj considers effective evidence of “linguistic genocide” the implementation with the aim of destroying a language, in whole or in part, or of hindering its natural development, of any of the following actions:
- Imposing repressive measures with the aim of preventing the natural, organic development of a language
- Forcing the conditions of cultural development of a bilingual community with the aim of transforming it into a monolingual group
- Denying an ethnic group speaking a distinct language, despite their desires, the right to have their language taught in public schools and to use it in the mass media
- Refusing to financially and morally support the cultural efforts of a distinct language-speaking ethnic group and its efforts to keep its language alive.
All the above actions that Rudnyckyj lists have been used and continue to be used against the Kurdish language throughout the history of the Republic.
Orient Reform Decree still in force
All Kurdish place names were translated into Turkish and the speaking of Kurdish was completely banned with the parliament’s approval of the Law of the Maintenance of Order on 3 March 1925, and the Orient Reform Plan Decree on 24 September 1925.
Also, many intellectuals, journalists, writers and academics who wrote in Kurdish were either exiled or imprisoned in the post-Republic period.
In 1959, a Kurdish language article and a poem called “Qimil”, both by Musa Anter, were published in the İleri Yurt Newspaper in Diyarbakır, for which he was tried.
The Roja Welat Newspaper, which started publication in Kurdish in 1977, was closed under martial law.
A more recent example of the suppression of Kurdish was the law numbered 2932, which was enacted with the military coup of 12 September 1980, and repealed on 25 January 1991. However, it became clear by the end of 1991 that the repeal of this law remained was in name only and that the belief in the singular path that had started with the Republic was still in the collective mind. With complete disregard for her parliamentary immunity Social Democrat Party (SHP) MP Leyla Zana was arrested at the opening of the parliament and spent years in prison for speaking Kurdish during the swearing-in ceremony. (Even today, when Kurdish MPs speak Kurdish in the parliament, the Kurdish records are noted down as an “unknown language”.)
Oppression, arrests, exiles and prohibitions relating to the Kurdish language reached a peak in the 1990s. It was almost impossible to broadcast in Kurdish. There was also great pressure on the arts in Kurdish. Those working in the arts in Kurdish established associations where they could carry out their activities, and these associations were faced with either both as a matter of general oppression or under state of emergency laws.
An example of this is the exile of Kurdish singer-songwriter Ahmet Kaya from the country in 1999 after he announced that he would sing and release a music video in Kurdish at a Magazin Journalists Association evening event.
There were the Regional Boarding Primary Schools, known as strongholds of assimilation, and the thousands of Kurdish students who were forced to study in them and who were faced with being assimilated…
We witnessed what is perhaps the most severe and bitter example of the policies of ignoring the Kurdish language in the recent past: Azadiya Welat Newspaper, which started broadcasting in 1992, was temporarily closed on 16 August 2016 on the grounds of “spreading terrorist propaganda”. Then on 29 October 2016, it was completely closed by decree. When no printing house agreed to print the newspaper in 2018, the workers photocopied the newspapers to distribute to their readers.
The post-2000 period
With the approval of the Kurdish Language and Literature department by the Higher Education Institution on 26 January 2011, Kurdish Language and Literature departments were opened in Mardin Artuklu, Muş Alparslan and Bingöl universities, and Zaza Language and Literature departments were opened in Bingöl and Dersim. Approximately 100 students graduate from these departments every year since the opening of the departments.
While 20,000 lecturers were appointed throughout Turkey in 2022, only three Kurdish lecturers were appointed in the Living Languages and Dialects department, two of whom were specialists in the Kurmanci dialect and one in the Zazaki dialect. There are thousands of Kurdish language educators waiting to be appointed in the country where more than 20 million Kurds live.
In 2022, dozens of Kurdish concerts were banned. Provincial governorates, municipalities and district governorates denied the halls permission to hold these concerts.
In the centennial of the Republic, the demand of the Kurds for education in the mother tongue has still not been met. Monolingual policies remain to date.
Linguistic rights, on the other hand, have emerged as a result of the struggle of individuals, groups and peoples to maintain their linguistic existence against the destructive effects of these assimilationist strategies. Linguistic rights are defined in order to respond to the needs as a social being of the individual to live a meaningful life with his/her own identity, and to belong, in the face of the language policies of the state. Therefore, the importance and meaning of the mother tongue directly determine the importance of linguistic rights. As an element embedded in the subconscious, considered the cornerstone of the identity and forming the strongest ties with society, the mother tongue of any individual is one of the most essential tools for him/her to be able to develop him/herself as a human being.
As we leave behind the 100th anniversary of the Republic and enter a new century, the Kurds are still deprived of these tools. The policies to be developed for the linguistic rights of the Kurds will determine how the character of the Republic will be in the new century.
- Aren Yıldırım is the editor of Bianet Kurdi, a graduate of Kurdish literature and Language and the author of Kurdish language teaching books