Last week, Turkey passed a hotly debated law to allow Kurdish defendants to speak their own language in court. These defendants are now on trial for terrorism for their ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party. At one point during the debate, nationalist legislators had to be physically separated from pro-Kurdish representatives. An opposition party member called it “legitimizing the sovereignty of terror.” The question of Kurdish language rights in Turkey and throughout the region is an explosive one.
The Kurds number about 35 million and inhabit the highlands of Turkey, Iraq and Iran. The desire for self-determination among these independent-minded mountaineers has led to frequent cycles of revolt and flatlander repression by Middle Eastern flatlanders for centuries. The fight continues today, and militants dream of a united Kurdistan stretching from Turkey and Syria to Iran and Iraq.
Members of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) facing Turkish charges will now be able to speak Kurdish in court, even if they know Turkish, thanks to the new law. But questions will still be asked in Turkish and those who know Turkish will have to pay their own translation fees if they choose to respond in Kurdish. This law passed after 64 Kurdish political prisoners went on a hunger strike to demand Kurdish language rights.
Despite its multi-ethnic history at the heart of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish state has been unwilling to acknowledge Kurdish ethnicity as distinct from Turkish identity, even though Kurds account for 10% of the population of the country. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Young Turks built a state founded on Turkish ethnic identity. Kurdish separatism in any form is a problem for their descendants. The Kurds are on the ethnic fence in all the countries they inhabit.
In Iraq, the US-led effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein has led to a partial autonomy for Iraqi Kurds, right now locked in bitter dispute with the central government (over oil revenue, of all things). Now, Syrian Kurds are in a precarious position with the outbreak of a Civil War forming on ethnic lines in Syria. In Iran, where Kurds also account for a significant slice of the population, Kurdish-language educational materials are banned and a Persian-only policy has led to widespread native-tongue illiteracy for many Kurdish Iranians.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch, even non-educational Kurdish-language books and publications are targeted in Iran. Since 2005, six Kurdish newspapers have been banned, and journalists have been prosecuted for “disturbing the public opinion by publishing lies and articles aimed at stirring trouble and ethnic and racial conflict.”
Today, news of an Iranian crack-down on Persian-language journalists also stirring up trouble. After all, it’s election season.
For more background on the Turkish trial, click here for the Guardian story.