News / Europe

Turkish Government Allows Kurdish Language Classes

A man reads a Kurdish newspaper in southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey, March 22, 2009.
A man reads a Kurdish newspaper in southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey, March 22, 2009.
Dorian Jones
Years of Turkish state policies of assimilation have put the Kurdish language under threat. But now the government is allowing Kurdish classes as part of the government's policy to ease restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language.

Halil Cecem is giving an elementary lesson in Kurdish to university medical students at Diyarbakir's Dicle University.

Until the late 1980s, the Kurdish language did not officially exist and speaking it was a serious offense. But Kurdish classes are part of the government's policy to ease restrictions on its use.

'Groundbreaking move'

Cecem welcomes the move. He says it is a beautiful feeling because the people had so many expectations, and the government responded. He says unfortunately it has taken many years - 50 to 60 - and it is only just being implemented.

Deputy Rector Sabri Eyigun, who is Kurdish, is behind the introduction of the classes. He sees the move as groundbreaking and part of the government's drive to improve democracy in the country.

He says with the government's democratic initiative, many taboos have been broken, and life has begun to become normal. The Kurdish language was one of those taboos, he says.

Analysts say years of state policies of assimilation have put the language under threat. Mazlum Ozer, one of the students who signed up for the class, admits he only speaks a little Kurdish. He welcomes the classes but sees it only as a beginning.

He says it is a big step, but it would be better if the classes were compulsory, especially in health education. He says it would be even more successful if Kurdish classes were at the primary and secondary education levels.

Just a few hours down the road in Syria, children are learning Kurdish as a mother tongue, after Syrian Kurds seized control of their region from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces earlier this year. Neighboring Iraqi Kurds have had this right for years.

But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this month ruled out Kurdish education in the mother tongue.

He says there is no such thing as education in the mother tongue. He says the country's official language is Turkish, and the government has done its duty with Kurdish classes in schools and universities.

Erdogan dismissed the demand as a terrorist demand of the PKK, a Kurdish rebel group fighting the Turkish state.

Fighting language war

Kurdish politicians challenging state restrictions on Kurdish are also facing increasing pressure.

Local Diyarbakir Mayor Abdullah Demirbas shows the latest court cases he is facing. Among the offenses are publishing information in Kurdish on services and even children's books. Thousands of Demirbas' party colleagues have been detained this year, under anti-terror laws.

Demirbas says with Kurds across the region gaining more rights, the government will have to make a decision.

How will the government live with its Kurdish citizens, he asks. Will it treat them as free and equal citizens, or will it treat them as slaves?  He says Kurds want fraternity. He says if there is no fraternity, then they will be neighbors. 

At the nearby Dicle Firat Cultural Center, Kurdish songs are freely sung. The language and culture are increasingly making their presence felt. Next month, the city will see a production of Hamlet in Kurdish.

Local singer Farqin believes there is a growing momentum across the region for Kurds to secure their rights.

He says the demands of Kurds in Iraq and in Syria will push the demands of Kurds in Turkey. He says any freedom struggle there will definitely affect the people in Turkey. He says Turkey is definitely under the shadow of the struggles in those countries and cannot be isolated.

A "Kurdish Spring" is an expression increasingly being heard in Diyarbakir. The question being asked is will Ankara embrace or resist the winds of change sweeping the region?

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