Turkey’s main political problem is the Kurdish issue as it affects every area ranging from daily politics to the country’s regional relations. For instance, the most recent state crisis, which lasted two weeks, was based on disputes concerning the Kurdish issue. The Kurdish issue is the mother of many other problems, and the Kurdish issue itself is a Kurdish language issue. In other words, today, i.e., International Mother Language Day, is particularly important for Turkey.
The mother tongue of Kurds living in Turkey falls into the Indo-Iranian language group. While the Sorani language is spoken widely in northern Iraq and western Iran, Kurds in Turkey predominantly speak Kurmanji with a much smaller number speaking Zazaki. Except for their mother tongue, Kurds and Turks have intermingled both culturally and historically. Kurds and Turks are loyal to Sunni Islam and nomadic values that date back to thousands of years ago. They lived together without any problem in the same country for 50 years. The only difference between them is their mother tongues. This difference was not a serious problem until the establishment of the republic, more specifically until the coup generals of the Sept. 12, 1980 coup passed, as a parting shot, a bill to ban the use of Kurdish language.
The republic, established in 1923, tried to assimilate Kurds into the nation-state of Turkey. Language was the sole tool that could be used for assimilation. The Turkish language was supported while the Kurdish language was discouraged, and on Nov. 6, 1983, the coup generals passed a bill to ban it altogether. This bill defined the use of the Kurdish language in all sorts of public communication as a crime. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) started to launch terrorist attacks in 1984 citing this law as a reason. The ban on the Kurdish language became the central theme of the Kurdish issue. The Kurdish armed rebellion sought popular support against this ban and it was considerably successful. Although the said law was abolished eight years after it was passed, the Kurdish issue had fed on the Kurdish language ban and became politicized.
The state launching a Kurdish language TV channel called TRT 6 in early 2009 was a turning point in the mother tongue issue. Although the ban on the Kurdish language continued in many areas, the official state TV channel’s broadcasts in Kurdish brought about big change. The use of the Kurdish issue became acceptable. The public authorities started allowing Kurds to give Kurdish names to their children. Restoring the names of geographical locations to their original Kurdish designations came to be accepted as normal. There was no problem related to the use of the Kurdish language. Yet, using Kurdish in education is still one of the hottest debates in politics and represents a major cleavage.
One of the most biting debates in the process of drafting a new constitution is the position of Kurdish with respect to Turkish as an official language. The most effective cure to this problem is to accept Kurdish being used in education. The new constitution should ensure this or at least should not impose any ban on this matter. The problem concerning education in Kurdish can be solved with a bilingual education model as is the case elsewhere around the world. However, except for the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), no one is warm to this solution and this applies even to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). Education in the Kurdish language is a red line for many parties.
A prominent AK Party politician Bülent Arınç said the Kurdish language is not a language of a civilization, which was interpreted as the AK Party’s stance on education in the Kurdish language. What would happen if constitutional guarantees were introduced for the right to education in Kurdish? There would probably not be serious demand for being taught in Kurdish, but it would certainly solve the problem. Kurdish is undoubtedly a language of a civilization, but it is not a language of economy.
Today is International Mother Language Day. Turkey continues to suffer from its most significant problem without being aware of this day.