Turkey's on-again-off-again "Kurdish initiative" -- a democratization and reform effort introduced in 2009 that was intended to help solve the decades-old Kurdish issue -- has taken another unexpected turn with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent announcement that his government would soon allow for the teaching of Kurdish as an elective course in public schools. Up until now, the teaching of the language in public schools had been banned. Reports the Wall Street Journal:
Mr. Erdogan said Tuesday that elective Kurdish language classes could be introduced in Turkish schools “if a sufficient number of pupils gather” to request Kurdish language instruction.
“Kurdish can be taken as an elective class; it can be taught and be learned. This is a historical step. This way, our citizens with different mother tongues can develop their languages according to their needs and demand,” Mr. Erdogan said, speaking to his party’s lawmakers. He added that necessary legal framework already exists in Turkey to allow this.
Kurdish teaching has been banned so far in Turkish schools, despite the country’s millions of Kurds, some of whom only speak different Kurdish dialects. Children in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast provinces are taught in Turkish starting in first grade, whether they know Turkish or not.
Kurdish language education has long been a contentious issue in Turkey. The government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), as part of a reform drive it put into place in 2002 after first being elected, did change the law to allow for the creation of private Kurdish language classes (an effort that, for reasons both economic and political, failed to take off). But pro-Kurdish politicians and activists have, in recent years, increasingly been pushing for the government to recognize the Kurdish language as a "mother tongue" and allow for true bilingual public eduction, particularly in southeast Turkey, where many children speak Kurdish as their first language. (To get a better sense of how the lack of Kurdish-language education impacts young students, take a look at this interesting report by the Diyarbakir Institute For Political and Social Research, a Kurdish affairs think tank.)
While Erdogan's announcement about the new Kurdish elective courses was somewhat surprising, the timing wasn't. Turkey in recent weeks has been consumed by discussion of last year's Uludere incident, in which 34 Kurdish villagers were killed in a botched Turkish military raid after mistakenly being identified as Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants. The government's inept and sometimes insensitive response to the incident, both after it happened and more recently, threatened to seriously derail any efforts the AKP has made to reach out to Turkey's Kurdish population, so the offer of elective Kurdish courses clearly makes political sense.
What remains to be seen, though, is if this move helps to move the Kurdish issue forward and restore the AKP's image as a reformer regarding the rights of Kurds. Leaders of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) have already dismissed the effort as "insufficient," saying that only "mother tongue" education -- that is, Kurdish education from the start of primary school -- is acceptable to Kurds. Meanwhile, while offering to liberalize its Kurdish education policy, Ankara is continuing its crackdown on Kurdish politicians and activists as part of its effort to snuff out the Kurdish movement's growing demands for autonomy in the southeast. In the past week, for example, the authorities arrested the Kurdish mayor of eastern Turkey's Van, who is a member of the BDP, while a court in Diyarbakir sentenced BDP parliamentarian Aysel Tugluk to 14 years in jail for "making propaganda" on behalf of the PKK.
Considering the government's continuing efforts to quash the Kurdish autonomy effort through large scale arrests and other legal moves, it's likely that many Kurds will look at the AKP's new offer to introduce elective Kurdish-language suspiciously. Unaccompanied by other tangible reforms, particularly regarding the drafting of Turkey's new constitution, and by a stop to the arrests of BDP leaders and other pro-Kurdish activists, the language education change will be perceived as merely being window dressing.