This article seeks to discuss Turkey’s linguistic policies which have oppressed the Kurds throughout the twentieth century. It also briefly describes the reforms and reasons for the same, concluding that these reforms have been half-hearted and slow; failing to produce real change in their daily lives.
THE EARLY YEARS
A “one nation–one language” policy has often been perceived as important in developing a common ideology. This view was shared by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who even stated that “A person who says that he belongs to the Turkish nation, should, primarily and absolutely, speak Turkish. If a man who does not speak Turkish claims his loyalty to the Turkish culture and community, it will not be correct to believe him.”
Language Politics has always been controversial in Turkey’s tryst with minorities, especially the Kurds, who are “the largest people without a state.” This statement rings true ever since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, under which they had a distinct identity. However, after its formation, the Turkish Republic sought to ‘redefine national identity’ in terms of language and ethnic identity. Turkey was soon dominated by an ideology which preached secularism and ‘oneness of the nation.’ Turkish language and culture were to be the focus of this new Republic. Turkey suppressed any form of Kurdish expression, soon refusing to even accept their existence.
Since its emergence, Turkey’s position on minority languages is rooted in linguistic homogenization, which supports establishing Turkish as the lingua franca and eliminating other languages. Ataturk’s ideology, Kemalism, was founded upon two pillars: Turkish Nationalism and Secularism, both representing a break from the nation’s Ottoman history. The Kemalist Ideology soon spread across the country seeking the transformation of Turkey into a secular, western Nation. Ziya Gökalp, who laid the theoretical foundations of Turkish nationalism, propagated a belief that was popular among nationalists – that only those European States based on a single language could have a future. Thus, language played a highly important role in the development of national identity.
The Republic, founded through The Lausanne Treaty of 1923, annulled any prior acknowledgement of Kurdish cultural or political rights. The denial of ‘minority’ status and the linguistic genocide in Turkey resulted in Kurds being denied their right to receiving education in their mother tongue. As Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and Sertaç Bucak have stated, “To kill a language you have to either kill the individuals speaking it or make these individuals change their mother tongue. Turkey tries to change the mother tongue of the Kurds and make Turkish their mother tongue.” This denial of the Kurdish language and identity shaped Turkey’s policies that dealt with its Kurdish population.
LANGUAGE REFORM IN THE 1920s & 30s
Language was the main focus of Turkey’s construction of a national identity. In 1928, the Language Revolution (Dil Devrimi) sought to unite Turkey with the rest of the West. Turkish was Latinized by replacing the Arabic Alphabet. This, and policies like the Surname Law, which only permitted Turkish surnames while banning Kurdish ones, led to visible Turkish dominance. Although repealed in 2003, the law prohibited children’s names with “q, w and x”– which are common in Kurdish. Therefore, despite “reforms”, Kurds are still restricted from using names that contain those letters. The “Citizen Speak Turkish!” campaign during this period involved public declarations and demonstrations, along with signs and posters advocating the use of Turkish. The Turkish Language Association, founded in 1932, sought to construct a ‘purified’ Turkish, free from its Persian and Arabic influences by eliminating its Ottoman influence and introducing European words. Through this and other State institutions, the Republic could control knowledge production and the creation of a new nationalist history of the Turks.
The “Sun-Language Theory” of 1935 propagated the idea that Turkish was the “mother of all languages.” This theory placed the Turkish language and civilization on a pedestal and introduced the notion that Kurds were merely a Turkish tribe that had forgotten their origins. Until 1979, Kurds were defined as “a group/society who are ethnically Turkish but, having changed their language, (now) speak a degenerate form of Persian and inhabit Turkey, Iraq and Iran; the name of anyone belonging to this group”. Kurds were termed as “Mountain Turks” who deviated from their origins linguistically. This terminology and reconstruction of their history, therefore, denied their very existence. The State tried to “Turkify” the Kurds by forcibly making them accept the Kemalist ideology and the Turkish language. Kurdish oppression was evident in the State’s policies that made it nearly impossible for the Kurds to communicate in their mother tongue or pass it on to future generations, causing many to ultimately be separated from their true identity and culture.
FORCED RELOCATIONS AS A FORM OF KURDISH OPPRESSION
From 1925 to 1938, there were many Kurdish uprisings due to Turkey’s oppressive policies, but all were brutally suppressed. According to the France-Kurdistan Association, between 1925 and 39, nearly 1.5 million Kurds, i.e., one-third of the Kurdish population were deported and massacred. The names of various towns and cities were changed from Kurdish to Turkish. Soon all Kurdish provinces were under Turkish military control to suppress revolts. Under the Resettlement Act of 1934, the Kurds were forcibly relocated to cities with Turkish majorities to decrease their population density. The law resulted in large population transfers – Kurds were shifted from the densely populated south-east to other regions and Turkish immigrants from Europe settled in the Kurdish areas. Through this, the Kurds were unwillingly exposed to Turkish and had fewer outlets where they could exclusively speak their own language. Thus, such active relocation efforts deliberately prohibited the development of Kurdish identity.
FURTHER OPPRESSION DURING THE LATTER HALF OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
The Anti-Kurdish policies worsened during the military coups in the late 20th Century. When the third coup (1982) was largely due to the perceived Kurdish threat and resulted in the brutal suppression of Kurdish through legislations such as the infamous Law 2932, which placed a ban on Kurdish not only in public but also in private. Turkish hegemony was reinforced by constitutionally prohibiting the language without actually using the word “Kurdish”. Article 2 of Law number 2932 of 1983 states, “It is forbidden to express, promote or publish thoughts in any language apart from the primary official language of states recognized by the Turkish State.” The ban was beyond Turkish boundaries as evidenced by the Turkish embassy’s attempt at stopping a course that trained Kurdish teachers in Denmark, stating that Turkish citizens couldn’t break Turkish Law in any country. Therefore, any struggles for Kurdish language rights were crushed, resulting in many facing imprisonment and persecution. Despite this, the violence of the coups led to a new era in Kurdish history. The intellectuals and activists who fled to Europe educated themselves in their mother tongue, producing Kurdish literature ranging across genres, including dictionaries, poetry, novels, and political texts. The Motherland party won the 1983 general elections and introduced favourable reforms, including a repeal of the law banning Kurdish. This meant that people could legally speak Kurdish, listen to Kurdish music, and publish Kurdish newspapers. However, the Anti-Terror Law passed in 1991 has often been used to target those who promoted the Kurdish Language and identity, and voiced their dissent.
THE LATE 1990s AND THE 21stCENTURY
Forced displacement resumed in the late 90s, severely impacting the development of the Kurdish language and culture. Kurds were forcefully expelled from their homes, arbitrarily arrested and tortured, more than 3000 Kurdish villages were destroyed, and nearly 3-4 million Kurdish peasants were subsequently displaced. This brought many displaced Kurds to metropolitan areas, making way for politically engaged institutes that educated many Kurds in fields like journalism and literature, strengthening their struggle for their linguistic rights. However, in the political sphere, pro-Kurdish politicians were continually harassed, as evidenced by Leyla Zana’s arrest, the first Kurdish woman to be elected, who spoke in Kurdish during her swearing-in ceremony.
In the late 90s however, Turkey’s bid for accession to the European Union and promise to meet the EU’s standards introduced slow changes in its Anti-Kurdish policies. But politicians and activists are prosecuted even today and the reforms are often contradictory. For example, the 2003 Law on “Teaching in Different Languages and Dialects Traditionally Used by Turkish Citizens in their Daily Lives” permitted private Kurdish courses but had strict regulations. They could only run for a limited time, required prior approval from the State and would receive no government funding. This is a clear illustration of the antithetical nature of the reforms – they were introduced to comply with the EU’s demands but without an actual intent to fill the gap between statute and implementation. Turkey continues to increasingly restrict Kurdish. In 2018, the administration removed bilingual Turkish-Kurdish Street signs in Diyarbakır which has a Kurdish majority. Additionally, a Kurdish-language audio-library for differently-abled children was recently shut down.
A NEED FOR CHANGE
Kurds in Turkey still have to face severe human rights violations and those fighting for their language rights are relentlessly harassed. The perception of the Kurdish identity as a threat to homogeneity and the “oneness” of the nation still pervades society, preventing true progress. The limited reforms undertaken to meet the EU’s criteria have been ineffectual due to the fact that other legislations that muzzle dissent are still in force. Kurds are persecuted merely for speaking their language and expressing their identity. Half-hearted reforms are no longer acceptable. The Kurds need clear policies and laws protecting their culture and identity. The State must provide the Kurds their basic rights. They must be given the freedom to express their ethnicity, to speak their language and to fully embrace their culture. Unless Turkey completely does away with its oppressive linguistic policies, and protects their rights and freedoms, the looming Kurdish Question will continue to torment the nation.
 M. Heper, The State and Kurds in Turkey: The Question of Assimilation, 163, (2007).
This article has been authored by Kiara Dsouza, a second-year student at the NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.