The supremacy of Turks

Türkçe yazı için buraya tıklayınız.
Ji bo nivîsa Kurdî li vir xînin.

Bread crumbs. That’s how I define the measures Prime Minister Erdogan took for Kurds in the democratization package he announced a week ago. I picture the man in power throwing the letters Q, W and X to the Kurds, expecting them to be grateful for it. It is a whole crust he is throwing when he allows them to make political propaganda in Kurdish. A whole crust! And you still want more?

Let’s first look into the measures that Erdogan announced concerning Kurds.

First, Kurds are now allowed to make political propaganda in Kurdish. It is a measure that in July 2012 the government was ordered by the Constitutional Court to implement within half a year. It concerns article 81 of the law on political parties, which makes political activities in any language other than Turkish illegal, and article 117, which stipulates the punishments. The Constitutional Court ruled that article 117 is against the constitution. Article 38 of the constitution states that only individuals can be held liable for criminal offences: since article 81 holds the political party responsible for violations, it is therefore unconstitutional to punish a person for something he or she cannot be held legally responsible for.
The government had two options in amending article 81: either allow courts to hold people responsible for the language they use during political activities instead of political parties, or lift the ban on using any other language than Turkish. In line with the democratization rhetoric that the AKP itself started, it had no other option but to allow other languages in political propaganda.

In other words, this measure is a belated implementation of an order of the Constitutional Court, not a measure coming from Erdogan’s democratic heart.

Kurdish words

Kurdish words

Second, the formally forbidden letters Q, W and X are now allowed. Well, it’s not that they were explicitly banned, but the state’s language is Turkish and since Turkish doesn’t have Q, W and X, the letters couldn’t be used. ‘Freedom of the keyboard’, Erdogan called the Q, W, X bread crumbs. That must have been strategic somehow, because it excludes three other letters that exist in Kurdish and not in Turkish and which are not on keyboards: Û, Î and Ê. Freedom for the keyboard, but not for Kurdish. In Diyarbakir, where I live, there is a cultural centre called ’Cegerxwîn’, named after a Kurdish poet. It will still be impossible to register that name officially in proper Kurdish.

It is unclear how the lifting of the ban on Q, W and X will be implemented. As it looks now, they will not be added to the Turkish alphabet but they will be ‘free to use’. Of course, you can make a law saying these letters can be used, but it’s still against the constitution, which defines Turkish as the state’s language. I wonder what the Constitutional Court will rule if any case against the legalisation of Q, W and X is ever opened.

Sorani in Arabic script

Third, it will be allowed to provide education in a child’s mother tongue in private schools. The question is how the government is going to implement that, because according to the constitution, it is impossible. Article 42 states that no language other than Turkish shall be taught as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any educational institution.
What the government will probably do is designate Kurdish not as a mother tongue, but as a foreign language, because the law makes exceptions for those. To do that, they will probably define, as this article explains (in Turkish), a ‘foreign language’ as a language that is the official language of another country. Since Kurdish is one of the two official languages of Iraq, Kurdish is foreign.

There are a few problems with that. Most importantly: Kurdish is a language of Anatolia. It is the mother tongue of 15 to 20% of Turkey’s population, and therefore not a foreign language. More practically: the official language of Iraq is Sorani, the Kurdish that is most commonly spoken in Iraq. Which is quite different than Kurmanci, the Kurdish most often spoken in Turkey. Also, in Iraq Kurdish is written in Arabic script, in Turkey in Latin script.

In other words: the rights that the Kurds of Iraq have gained are used as a trick to not give full rights (meaning: education in the mother tongue, including in state schools) to Kurds in Turkey. And if the line of thinking that the government will probably use is followed strictly, the private schools in Turkey where Kurds can educate their kids in their mother tongue will have to teach them Sorani in Arabic script. The positive side is: they can import the school books from Iraq.

Outdated and anti-democratic

Another way to implement it would be to officially recognize the Kurds as a minority in Turkey. But even though Kurds are a numerical minority, recognizing them as such will not be beneficial for the Kurds, and won’t help the peace process any further either. The way the Turkish state thinks about minorities is outdated and anti-democratic. Till now, and based on the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, minorities in Turkey are by definition non-Muslims (Greeks, Jews, Armenians). Muslims can never be a minority, because according to Turkish nationalism, they are all Turkish and Sunni Muslim. Which means no rights for ethnic groups like Kurds, Laz, Arabs and Circassians, or for other Muslim denominations, like Alevis or Shiites.

Bread crumbs

Bread crumbs

Which touches the core of my reasoning that the democratization measures Erdogan announced are bread crumbs. I’m not saying that to be provocative, but because the government categorically refuses to make changes to the legal framework that denies rights to everybody who is not a Turk (or a Sunni Muslim).

It is well illustrated by what I wrote before, about the Q, W and X. They were never specifically banned, as the whole Kurdish language was never specifically banned. Kurdish for a long time didn’t even officially exist, so a non-existing language can also not be specifically banned. Turkish is the state language, and by making that obligatory always and everywhere, other Anatolian languages are excluded. A law that allows Q, W and X, can easily be revoked again if there are no constitutional guarantees to protect Kurdish as a language.

Similarly flawed were previous bread crumbs the government offered, like opening the Kurdish language state TV channel TRT6 and a faculty of ‘living languages’ at Mardin University. They have no basis in law, which means they can be closed again any time the government feels like it.

The bond of citizenship

Every measure related to the Kurdish issue that the AKP has ever taken, is fumbled into the legal framework with some trick (or not even that), to protect the leading principle of it: Turkish hegemony.

It is often claimed that everybody is equal in Turkish law, which is then based on article 66 of the constitution. That article states: ‘Everyone bound to the Turkish State through the bond of citizenship is a Turk’. This implies that the word ‘Turk’ is purely a legal definition, used to describe the national identity of all citizens in Turkey irrespective of their origins, and that ethno-cultural and religious identities are private matters and not relevant to the state.

This notion is, however, firmly undermined by the rest of Turkish law, including the (pre-amble to) the constitution and jurisprudence of the courts, in which concepts of ‘Turkishness’ and ‘Turkification’ are promoted in many ways. To put it more simply: the whole Turkish legal system breaths ethnic ‘Turk’.
A small example of this hegemony of Turks in law is in the preamble of the constitution. It refers to ‘the historical and moral values of Turkishness’, and ‘the national interest of the Turks and their existence’. This excludes acknowledged minorities like Armenians and Greeks, and forcibly includes numerical minorities like Alevis and Kurds.

I knew all this already, but I could never properly substantiate it. But now I can, thanks to the book ‘Minorities and Nationalism in Turkish law’, by lawyer Derya Bayir (from which also the previous example is taken). It explains the state’s failure to accommodate ethno-religious diversity and how that failure is rooted in the founding philosophy of Turkish nationalism. If you too want to get an amazing and detailed insight into the history of minorities in Turkey from a legal perspective and the current state of affairs, I strongly recommend this book.

Halki Seminary, on Heybeli Island close to Istanbul

Halki Seminary, on Heybeli Island close to Istanbul

Not only measures relating to Kurds but also all other measures taken in the ‘democratization package’ confirm the refusal of the AKP to address the fundamental and deep flaws in the Turkish legal system. The only thing the Alevis get is a university named after their most important saint, Hacı Bektaşi Veli. Christians? The Mor Gabriel monastery gets its historical lands back, after the state stole those in legal procedures: giving it back expresses at best the remorse of a thief, not a granting of rights. Granting rights to Christians would mean re-opening the Greek Halki seminary in Istanbul, but that was not in the package because it may create a legal precedent the state can’t bear.

Women with headscarves, they do get a right that improves their freedom seriously: civil servants will be allowed to wear the headscarf at work. I am happy for them, I support their rights, but also this measure can be squeezed into the existing legal system.

A new and truly civic constitution is needed to bring real democracy to Turkey. Any measure that is taken to fit ‘democratization measures’ into the system without changing the very system itself only confirms and even strengthens the legal supremacy of Turks. But the parliamentary commission that is supposed to draft a new constitution is making no progress whatsoever. So far only 59 of 172 articles have been agreed upon, none of them related to the Kurdish issue.


Why is the commission not making any progress? Because all changes have to be agreed upon unanimously by the twelve members, three for every party represented in the parliament. Since three of those are in essence supporting the root of the problem – Turkish nationalism – there is a chance close to zero that the work of the commission will lead to anything substantial. It’s like giving the white racist Boers in South Africa a veto in drafting a constitution to end apartheid.

If Erdogan was a statesman, he would get rid of everybody in the commission who is not devoted to drafting a civic constitution and get the work done by law makers and experts who are truly dedicated. Even if it were the last thing he did as Turkey’s most powerful man: a statesman who cares for the future of the country and all its citizens would act regardless of the possible effect on his political future. But Erdogan is not a statesman. He is a smart politician, thinking only of power and the next elections. The democratization package shows that once again.

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