Struggling to Speak

by Jessica Shor:

Recent reforms ended the longtime ban on the Kurdish language in Turkey. But some Kurds continue the struggle to gain full language rights.

Though only steps from Taksim Square, the bustling heart of modern Istanbul, the office of the Kurdish Culture and Research Foundation feels grim, empty, vaguely threatening. The ground floor consists of a single  dusty, unfurnished room. The white walls display not Kurdish art, but photographs of Kurdish refugees fleeing Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks, mutilated corpses of Kurdish children killed by the Turkish military, and grinning Kurdish guerrillas clutching machine guns.

The foundation’s walls are a testament to the Kurds’ violent past in Turkey. Kurds, who comprise nearly a fifth of the population of Turkey, are an ethnic group of Iranian descent who speak an Indo-European language related to Persian. In Turkey, they are concentrated in the southeastern region, and their traditional homeland also spans nearby areas in Iraq, Syria, and Iran. During Ottoman times, Kurds intermittently governed semi-autonomous states, but when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the Turkish Republic in 1923, he based it on an ideology of a singular Turkish ethnic identity and a staunchly secular state. This alienated Kurds, a devoutly Muslim group who wanted the right of self-determination, and marked the start of the Kurds’ longtime struggle against Turkey—a struggle that continues today. In their effort to “Turkify” the state, different regimes have denied the existence of the Kurds as a distinct ethnic group An estimated 378,000 Kurds have been forcibly relocated and the Kurdistan Worker’s Movement (PKK), which has been deemed a terrorist organization by the United States, European Union, and Turkey, has faced violent suppression. To reinforce Ataturk’s united Turkey, the state also enacted a policy prohibiting the use of Kurdish language in business, government, and education.


While oppression of Kurds has waxed and waned, the prohibition of Kurdish language has remained as a constant obstacle to the preservation of Kurdish culture. Though the majority of Kurds in Turkey can speak their language to varying degrees of fluency, as a consequence of the longtime ban, most are illiterate in Kurdish, unable to read the X’s, W’s, and Q’s that set their language apart from Turkish. This prevents them from understanding works of Kurdish literature or news published by Kurdish media organizations and also hampers communication between Kurds in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, each of whom uses a different written script.

That history, and its immense challenges, hits close to home for Rengin Elci, a Kurdish author who works at the Kurdish Research and Culture Foundation. In the foundation’s ominous Taksim Square office, surrounded by photos of his people suffering, he sat in a plastic lawn chair with a cup of tea in hand. He took a sip and leaned back.

“In 1995, I was in Ankara working as a bodyguard for a Kurdish politician,” he began. “We went to a cafe and started speaking Kurdish, but someone came up and asked what language we were speaking. He said, ‘You can’t speak that here. This is Turkey, and the only language here is Turkish. There’s no such thing as a Kurdish language.’ We fought. It was two versus seven, but I had a knife. I never wrote in Turkish again after that.”

For nine years after that incident, Elci went underground with his writing. With the threat of imprisonment or worse looming for publishing in Kurdish, Elci only shared his work with a group of close Kurdish friends. But things changed in 2004. In 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept into power with a populist and religious agenda. Largely prompted by pressure to improve Turkey’s human rights record in order to be considered for E.U. membership, the AKP government in Ankara has worked to bring greater freedoms to Kurds in Turkey. This process included the 2004 reforms that reversed a decades-old ban on Kurdish language, legalizing broadcasting and writing in Kurdish, as well as Kurdish language lessons.


The reforms were heralded as groundbreaking. The international media waxed poetic about the sweeping changes for Kurds, and human rights watchers cautiously posited that the language reforms would begin a new, freer, more peaceful chapter of Kurdish history. Today, few Kurds would dispute that language rights have indeed improved. Several TV channels broadcast in Kurdish, Kurdish-language newspapers are available at convenience stores in predominantly Kurdish neighborhoods across the country, and a few universities in Istanbul, Ankara, and southeastern Turkey have begun offering Kurdish language courses for credit. Last year, Mardin University, in southeastern Turkey, unveiled a Master’s degree program in Kurdish language and literature. Michael Gunter, professor of Political Science at Tennessee Tech University and an expert on Kurdish politics, described these developments as “inconceivable 10 years ago”.

Unprecedented as they may be, the 2004 language reforms are not enough for many Kurds. For the reform-minded, mother tongue education—that is, public school conducted primarily in Kurdish—is still the ultimate goal. When language lessons take place during their precious free time or when tuition for private lessons is high, young Kurds often must choose between English, the language of the future, and Kurdish, the language of their ancestors. To the chagrin of many older Kurds, enrollment in Kurdish language lessons has shown that many young Kurds are trading their ethnicity, with its troubled past, for the possibility of a prosperous future. Mother tongue education, their parents hope, will eliminate that trade-off and preserve Kurdish culture in a quickly modernizing world.

For Elci, mother tongue education is not only about maintaining Kurdish identity in the age of globalization, but also about fortifying it against the government’s stealthy yet continuing attempts at integration. Elci conceded that the AKP’s language reforms have made it easier for him to publish his writings and teach Kurdish language lessons. The government shuttered the Kurdish Foundation for conducting illegal lessons before the ban on Kurdish was lifted, but the foundation has remained open since 2004, and Elci claimed police intimidation and surveillance has decreased. Still, in late 2010, Elci resigned in protest from his job at TRT6, the state-run Kurdish TV channel established after the language reforms. He claims that the channel banned the use of some 60 Kurdish words, ranging from ‘êrîs’(army) to ‘wêje’ (literature). TRT6 declined to comment on Elci’s resignation or allegations of censorship, but Elci had plenty to say.

“They want to kill Kurdish language by Kurdish language,” he claimed bitterly. “If you forbid one word, you forbid them all. All of the AKP’s solutions are double-edged swords. There are things hiding behind their faces. They wear a good mask, but we Kurds know what’s behind it… That’s why we need mother tongue education, but they won’t give it to us.”


For Elci, the so-called “mask” of the AKP is the series of policies that have won the party widespread support across Turkey and persuaded many Kurds to give up the fight for independence. In Southeastern Turkey, economic development has done the most to bolster AKP approval ratings among both Turks and Kurds. Through the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), the government has invested heavily in infrastructure and irrigation, to the tune of more than U.S. $13 billion. GAP has come under fire from a number of Kurdish, Turkish, and foreign human rights organizations for its displacement of rural families, who are mostly Kurdish, and the destruction of Kurdish historical and religious sites as the reservoirs fill. Nevertheless, numbers show that unemployment is down in southeastern Turkey, and opportunities for education and job training are increasing. This is significant when 40 percent of Kurds cite unemployment as the most important problem currently facing Turkey, according to a survey by Turkey’s Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research.

“Kurdish opinion is not monolithic. Some Kurds think it’s more important to push for economic rights,” Professor Gunter explained. “They’d rather have that than greater [human] rights that you can’t eat off the table.” Gunter believes that many Kurds choose to support the AKP for its broad-reaching agenda, rather than vote for the staunchly pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which focuses almost exclusively on political autonomy as a way to bring greater social and political rights for Kurds.

Still, not all AKP supporters have traded Kurdish rights for economic development. Many believe that each right Kurds secure from the AKP-led government brings them closer to full language freedom, which bolsters their hopes that that the final change, mothertongue education is within reach. This gives rise to what Gunter described as a “revolution of rising expectations.” He summarized, “Although the Turkish government has made some reforms, they have also whetted the Kurdish appetite for greater reforms.” This desire for greater freedoms has united Kurds from across the political spectrum, from radicals like Elci to self-proclaimed “well-integrated” Kurds like Nevzat Keskin.

Keskin is a producer at Dunya TV, a privately run Kurdish-language channel that, like TRT6, began broadcasting after the 2004 legalization of Kurdish television programming. The Dunya offices occupy a large, modern building in Gaziantep, a predominantly Kurdish city 50 kilometers from the Syrian border. Its cavernous studio holds four sets, from which Dunya broadcasts talk shows, music, soap operas, and Kurdish language lessons. The channel is headed by Remzi Ketenci, the ethnically Turkish general director, who spoke grandly of the channel’s programming and mission.

“With this TV channel, we want to display Kurdish rights and show the rich Kurdish culture to the world… Because of the ban on language, they were speaking Kurdish as a street language, so they can’t read or write. Now, they want to increase literacy, and we help them. This channel shows the world that the Kurds are not just about violence,” he proclaimed.

But for Keskin, who has achieved success in both Turkish and Kurdish media, a TV channel is not enough. When Ketenci finished his speech and left the conference room, Keskin opened up: “Mother tongue education, without any discussion, is an inevitable right for everyone, and of course for Kurds as well. Without it, it is domination of a nation over another. Here, it is domination of Turks over Kurds. This is unjust, and it has gone over for years.”


In their quest for greater rights, the Kurds who choose to work within the Turkish political system have pinned their hopes on constitutional amendments, promised during the campaigns in the lead-up to the June 12, 2011 general elections. What currently stands in their way is Article 42 of the Turkish constitution, which forbids using any language besides Turkish as the primary language of instruction in public schools. This article has been on the books since 1923, but after nearly 90 years, change appeared to be in sight. Summarizing the dreams of many Kurds, Gunter explained, “There is real hope that after the elections the AKP will have a serious process of constitutional revision… But even if we don’t have a new constitution, we will have a number of new amendments.”

The AKP received nearly 50 percent of the vote in June, as expected. Among those ballots was Keskin’s, who said his vote was swayed by the AKP’s willingness to support constitutional reforms. In Turkey’s Kurdish areas, BDP-supported independent candidates won 36 seats, more than expected. Unfortunately, what was initially a Kurdish triumph quickly became a renewed fight, as the government barred Hatip Dicle, one of the BDP-backed winners, from taking his seat, and the other Kurdish winners boycotted the assembly. They have yet to enter the parliament, and tensions are rising. The leader of the PKK has announced that he will no longer negotiate with Turkey, and on July 14 a Kurdish youth set himself on fire to protest Kurdish oppression, dying in the hospital several weeks later.

It now appears that two solutions remain, neither of which involve cooperation with the Turkish state. In mid-July, the Kurdish Democratic Society Congress (DTK) unilaterally proclaimed democratic autonomy for Kurds in southeastern Turkey. However, nobody is sure how such a system would work, or whether the proclamation will bring about changes at all. Turkey is a highly centralized state, and many Turks still hold tightly to Ataturk’s ideal of a “Turkish” identity. Although democratic autonomy within Turkey has been on the agenda of Kurdish activists for years, it is unlikely that the central government will permit it.

With political routes to Kurdish rights blocked, a more sinister solution waits in the wings. The Kurds who support mother tongue education include many extremists, like Elci. Out of other options, these pro-independence, radical Kurds are now willing to turn to violence. Elci explained, “I am Kurdish, and for Kurds our language and our culture are like religion… I am willing to die and to fight for that.” Although the PKK has yet to embark on the “all-out war” it pledged to wage against the Turkish state if reforms were not forthcoming, violence has increased since the elections. In one of the deadliest attacks in years, the PKK killed 13 Turkish soldiers in July. In its August 8 edition of its weekly press release, the PKK declared that Kurds who support a ceasefire or negotiated solution are “not supporting the success and unity of the Kurdish people but instead the annihilation policies of the AKP government.” The only thing left, they say, is for “all the patriot-militant youth of Kurdistan to join the guerrilla forces and develop a form of struggle that is fit for success and victory.”

The Kurdish situation in Turkey is at a tipping point, one that could prove explosive. Underneath the surface of the highly touted 2004 language liberalization policies, reform-minded Kurds have not only refused to give up on mother tongue education, but also become more vocal as that right increasingly seems within reach. The question that remains is whether this group of Kurds can bring the fight back into the political system before the armed struggle intensifies further.

Jessica Shor ’13 is an Anthropology major in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at