Turkey Addresses PKK Challenge with Kurdish Language Reforms

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 6 Issue: 1

For many years the Turkish state has insisted that no ethnic minority problems exist in Turkey. According to the official discourse, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan – PKK) is a manifestation of terrorism and Kurdish unrest, resulting from poverty and underdevelopment, in the predominantly Kurdish southeast region of Turkey. For decades, successive governments in Ankara promised to fight insurgency in the southeast via economic development programs, thereby “drying the swamp that produces terrorism” (Hurriyet, November 18, 1997). Most of the southeast remains impoverished, however, and even outside the southeast, many Kurds in Istanbul, in other western Turkish cities, in Europe, and in PKK camps in northern Iraq continue to oppose the Turkish state.

In an encouraging sign that the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AKP) intends on going beyond sputtering economic development initiatives, the government launched a new 24-hour Kurdish language television station. TRT-6 began its broadcasts on January 1, accompanied by prepared messages from Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan and President Abdulah Gul. President Gul expressed his hopes that the new television station would “further solidify the unity and fraternity of the people,” while Prime Minister Erdogan declared "This is a step which will strengthen our democracy." Erdogan then went on to offer a phrase of encouragement in Kurdish: “TRT Ses bi xer be” (“may TRT-6 be prosperous”). Well known Kurdish singer Rojin added that “The station is an important step towards peace.” The station features “news, films, soaps, and talk shows, dubbed in Kurdish, as well as video clips by Kurdish artists” (trt.net.tr, January 1).

It now seems difficult to believe that, until 1991, Ankara refused to even officially admit that any Kurds lived in Turkey (Kurds account for some 20% of Turkey’s 72 million people), and official discourse refused to acknowledge that a Kurdish language existed. The Prime Minister’s ability and willingness to offer, in Kurdish, his best wishes to a new state-sponsored Kurdish language television station, attests to the opening created by recent Turkish democratic and liberalizing reforms. Writing for the pro-AKP daily Today’s Zaman, columnist Ihsan Dagi describes the importance of TRT-6: “Given the way Kurdish has been treated by the Turkish state over the decades, the establishment of a Kurdish TV channel by the state is a true revolution. Moreover, I think it is an apology from the state to its Kurdish citizens” (Today’s Zaman, January 5).

Reform in Turkey does not come easily, however, and still faces a difficult road ahead. The recent amends by the Turkish government have come as a result of a long-running and bloody PKK-led Kurdish insurgency. Another important factor for the transformation of Ankara’s policy was a demand from the European Union for Turkey to recognize and respect its Kurdish citizens as a prerequisite for accession into the EU.. The main opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi – CHP) and National Movement Party (Milliyetci Hareket Partisi –MHP) opposed the opening of TRT-6. Pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (Demokratik Toplum Partisi – DTP) leader Ahmet Turk expressed a cautious attitude about the move, declaring that “There is a need for a broadcasting policy that understands Kurds and meets their demands. We are carefully observing the process. We will see in time whether this is something that was initiated with the elections in mind” (trt.net.tr). If the opening of TRT-6 garners more Kurdish support for the ruling AKP, the DTP could expect to suffer a corresponding loss in voters, which naturally makes the DTP cautious about Kurdish reforms for which it can not take credit. In a visit to Turkey’s southeast less than a year ago, Prime Minister Erdogan rejected calls for more Kurdish-language education and broadcasting. Thus, DTP leaders may be correct – a revised short-term electoral calculus may have influenced the AKP’s thinking on the issue (The Economist, January 31, 2008).

Now that Turkish state television will be broadcasting Kurdish 24 hours a day, it will be more difficult for the state to forbid the use of Kurdish in other venues. The Turkish Board of Higher Education (Yuksekogretim Kurulu – YOK) has already announced its intention of allowing Turkish universities to offer courses in Kurdish language and culture. State attorneys will also find it more difficult to prosecute Kurdish politicians for communicating in Kurdish to their constituents – an act which until now attracted charges of fomenting ethnic hatred, threatening the territorial unity of the republic, or aiding a terrorist organization. Columnist Ihsan Dagi goes so far as to argue:

From now on nothing will be the same, not just concerning restrictions on the Kurdish language, but also the overall Kurdish question. It will now be impossible to argue that the Turkish state is an ethnically homogenous nation state. We will, in time, discover post nation-state political models of coexistence within a recognized multiethnic social community (Today’s Zaman, January 5).
Although Turkey has engaged in a number of reforms during the past ten years, many of them appeared insincere or designed more to meet European demands than the needs and wants of the Kurdish minority. Kurdish television broadcasting was permitted on TRT a few years ago, for instance, but for only 30 minutes a week at odd times of the early morning. As part of the European Union Copenhagen Criteria, parents were given the right to give Kurdish names to their children, but names deemed “subversive” (a designation that gave anti-Kurdish civil servants great latitude in what they could forbid) or containing the letters q, w, and x were forbidden. (Although present on every keyboard and in every washroom in Turkey, letters such as ‘w’ do not officially form part of the Turkish alphabet, but appear often in Kurdish). Permission for private Kurdish language education was likewise granted recently, but hamstrung with a host of limitations and regulations. For instance, there is a requirement that Kurdish teachers be native Turkish speakers, that students pay a significant sum for the courses, and that the buildings in which the courses are taught undergo code and fire inspections (that are particularly meticulous and demanding). As a result, the half-dozen private courses that attempted to function all failed,, thus leading Kurdish activists to collect 300,000 signatures on a petition for public Kurdish language education (Christian Science Monitor, October 5, 2005).

TRT-6 and a possible new policy allowing Turkish universities to offer courses on Kurdish culture and language may represent more substantive and sincere openings for Kurds in the country. If such changes actually indicate a nascent process of truly moving beyond a mono-nationalist, exclusively Turkish nation-state model, a very positive dynamic may take hold in the country. A key and often overlooked component of counter-insurgency strategy centers on opening the system to the demands and participation of alienated groups. The more Kurds in Turkey feel recognized and free to live as Kurds – with their culture, language and traditions – the less justification groups like the PKK will have for resorting to violence. Ankara’s challenge thus centers on liberalizing Turkish democracy.