Turkey seems to be loosening its harsh policies on non-Turkish languages, while also casting itself as the patron and protector of other Turkic languages. This is not all good news.
Turkey has long been touchy about national identity. The ideological primacy of “Turkishness” versus the rights of ethnic minorities is a long-standing, sometimes violent, conflict in Turkish society and politics. The infamous Article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code, making it a crime to “insult the Turkish nation” (before its 2008 amendment, article 301 prohibited “insulting Turkishness”), is used to harass, for example, journalists who label the mass murder of Armenians in 1915 a genocide.
Since language is intimately bound up with ethnic identity, Turkey has suppressed the Kurdish language in order to suppress Kurdish nationalism. The Kurds, who were promised their own state after World War I, are the largest ethnic minority in Turkey. Kurdish nationalism terrifies Turkey, which has responded by suppressing Kurdish culture, including the language. But the situation may be changing.
The change may be in part the result of outside pressure. On January 22, the European Court of Human Rights fined Turkey for violating the European Declaration of Human Rights. The court considered that Turkey had violated the free expression rights of politicians who were fined and imprisoned for campaigning in the Kurdish language.
On the other hand, the Human Rights court’s judgment had something of the character of shooting a dead horse. Turkey’s Constitutional Court had already struck down the law under which the Kurdish politicians had been convicted. That decision came into force on February 7.
Further movement can be seen in the realm of religion. The government announced the lifting of the ban on mosque sermons in languages other than Turkish—now Kurdish and Arabic speakers are allowed to hear sermons they can understand. (Any Muslim congregation fluent only some fourth tongue is still out of luck.) Oddly, Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate head Mehmet Görmez denied that such a ban had existed: “The representatives of religion can preach with comfort in the language understood by the people coming into the mosque, especially in rural areas. It is sad to treat such an ongoing practice as if it just appeared today.”
And in the area of criminal procedure, on January 25 the Turkish Parliament enacted a revision to the Criminal Code permitting Kurdish defendants to defend themselves in their mother tongue. The first use of the law is in the ongoing trial of members of the Kurdistan Communities’ Union, founded by Kurdish terrorist leader Abdullah Öcalan and considered by Turkey to be a front organization for the banned terrorist group the PKK.
Because the Kurds are the dominant minority, Kurdish issues dominate Turkish language politics. But changing demographics may bring new issues to the fore.
For example, despite the long history of Greek-Turkish hostility, the Greek economy has crashed so thoroughly that Greeks—most with family roots in Turkey—are moving to Turkey. Istanbul Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew notes: “Although Prime Minister (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) invites (the Greeks of Istanbul origin), it is not easy for them to return. But I wish they would return. In Athens, there is a federation for those who are of Istanbul origin. This federation demands the return of their citizenship from the Turkish government.” Depending on the size of the influx, Turkey may need to formulate or reformulate a Greek language policy.
A smaller Orthodox Christian group, the Assyrians, is trickling back from Europe. The children all speak German; there is interest in the community in reviving Aramaic, the Assyrians’ former vernacular. Will the Turkish government help, or hinder?
This seems quite positive. But while Turkey works through becoming more accepting of non-Turkish languages and cultures internally, it continues to promote pan-Turkism abroad. One element of this policy is the protection of other Turkic languages.
Consider the Crimean Tatars. The Tatars were among the peoples devastated by Stalin—the entire community was hastily deported in May 1944, with an estimated 45% dying in exile. Today some 250,000 Tatars again live in the Crimean Penninsula, now part of Ukraine. But only 15 schools offer instruction in the Tatar language. Turkey is providing support for the revival of Tatar. Safure Kadzhametova, head of the Maarifchi Association of Crimean Tatar Educators and a Deputy of the Crimean Parliament, said: “After our schools are established and our education system has started functioning, we want to switch to the Latin alphabet and unite with the Turkish World.”
The “Turkish World” Turkey is creating is one it would inevitably dominate, because of its superior economic and military strength. Look where this hegemony is headed. The creation of a Turkic-speaking free trade zone has begun. Recently there was a meeting of the heads of state agencies responsible for the diaspora affairs of the members of the Cooperation Council of Turkic-speaking countries (an organization created in 2009 and consisting of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan). And on January 23, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia formed the Armed Forces of Turkic States.
Maybe these Turkic initiatives will amount to something, and maybe they won't. And of course, Turkic countries drawing closer together under Turkey’s leadership isn’t necessarily alarming. It depends on the character of the nations involved, and the character of the institutions they’re creating. Unfortunately, Turkey is far down the road of Islamism, while none of its Turkic partners is a liberal democracy. For this reason, Turkey’s turn to the east is worrisome, even as its internal language policies become more liberal.