The space in the office is cramped. The walls are adorned with posters of sports cars and advertisements for insurance companies. Books cover the tables. Sami Tan, a linguist and a lecturer of Kurdish, apologizes for the improvised setting and the lack of more comfortable chairs. After the Turkish government shuttered the Kurdish Institute in Istanbul—an association that has taught and promoted Kurdish-language study for nearly 25 years—he and the other staff have moved into the available offices of a driving school in the same building.
“We used to have two classrooms and a library,” Tan says apologetically. “Now things are a bit more uncomfortable.”
“Uncomfortable” is an understatement. The situation for many civil-society organizations has become downright precarious. On the night of December 31, 2016, 94 associations, including the institute, were shut down on allegations of “connections to terrorist organizations.” A month later, the authorities confiscated all documents, course materials, and hardware—computers, two projectors, a TV—as well as the school’s furniture. The institute’s website was taken down. In theory, the institute has the right to appeal the shutdown through a state-appointed commission, but human-rights organizations such as Amnesty International have criticized it as insufficient, as more than 100,000 cases are pending review by just seven commissioners within a two-year deadline. “In any case, the things they took from the institute have already been given to pro-government institutions,” Tan says. And tens of thousands of Turkish lira were lost.
Founded in 1992, the institute became the foremost promoter of Kurdish-language education and standardization during a period of intense and violent repression of the Kurdish minority. But even Tan, who has been tried several times for his work both as a journalist and as a linguist of a criminalized language, is surprised by the return of such repression. “We never thought we would reach a point at which our schools would be shut down,” he says.
Even though they were never explicitly banned, Kurdish language and culture have been de facto criminalized since the earliest years of the Turkish Republic. The current Constitution, ratified after the military coup of 1980, recognizes only Turkish as the country’s official language, thus limiting the possible use of local minority tongues. From 1983 until 1991, when Turgut Özal legalized the use of Kurdish in broadcasting and publishing, the speaking of Kurdish in public was outlawed, and people were arrested for even so much as the possession of a Kurdish-music cassette. Under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, many restrictions on Kurdish were loosened as part of the so-called “Kurdish Opening,” first announced by his government in 2009.
But now the repression is back. Following the coup attempt of July 15, 2016, Erdogan declared a state of emergency, enabling him and the AKP cabinet to bypass Parliament and rule by decree. The post-coup crackdown, nominally limited to alleged sympathizers of US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom the AKP-government blames for the attempted putsch, has turned into a witch hunt targeting all opposition, including Kurds.
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In March the institute was reopened as the Kurdish Research Institute. The similarity of the name, registered with the authorities, is no accident, according to Tan. Does he expect another raid? Tan shrugs. “This is Turkey,” he says. “You never know.” Since early October, the institute has begun offering classes again, both in Kurmanji, the main Kurdish dialect in Turkey, and in Zazaki, a minority language related to Kurdish. Some 150 people are attending, but Tan says “those who come to the courses now must be courageous.”
Repression against Turkey’s Kurdish minority has returned since the breakdown of a three-year peace process in the summer of 2015, when Kurdish activists announced local administrative autonomy for several Kurdish cities and districts, including Sur, the historic center of the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir. Ankara, unnerved by the possibility of Kurdish self-rule along Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq, both of which have Kurdish populations, responded with a ferocious crackdown, imposing blanket curfews for months all across the region. Turkish security forces deployed tanks and heavy artillery against armed militants, who dug trenches and set up booby traps. Local residents were caught in the crossfire. According to the International Crisis Group, almost 3,000 people have been killed over the past two years, of whom more than 400 were civilians.
The violent conflict has laid waste to entire towns and neighborhoods, displacing more than half a million people. In Sur, one of two bilingual pre-schools was destroyed during the clashes. Both were part of the “Zarokistan” project, a network of pre-schools that offered activities and classes in English, Kurmanji, and Zazaki, and had been supervised by experts such as linguist and academic Serif Derince. In Diyarbakir alone, Derince says, “around 1,000 children from poor families were able to attend these pre-schools free of charge.” Twenty more were opened across the Kurdish region in 2015. But those that were not destroyed by missiles and bombs became the victim of the increasingly anti-Kurdish politics of the Turkish government—all have been shut down, destroyed, or “Turkified.”
Based on a string of emergency decrees passed since July 2015, scores of Kurdish media organizations, associations, language schools, and cultural institutions have been shut down. Even a children’s TV channel that translated cartoons such as SpongeBob SquarePants and The Smurfs into Kurdish was taken off air temporarily. Across the region, the AKP government has removed the elected mayors of more than 90 Kurdish-run municipalities and replaced them with “trustees.” Dozens of pro-Kurdish politicians have been arrested on terrorism charges.
For Ahmet, a human-rights activist from Diyarbakir, the renewed crackdown on Kurdish-language rights has been vicious. Having rallied for mother-tongue education for years, Ahmet (a pseudonym; he doesn’t want his real name to be published for fear of reprisal) sent one of his children to a Zarokistan pre-school. “We are Kurds, we live in Diyarbakir,” he says. “For us it’s self-evident that our children should learn Kurdish.” He rejects the government’s attempts to label these early-education institutions as “criminal” and their employees as “terrorist supporters.” “I went there a lot, talked to the teachers, and made sure that the language program did not amount to Kurdish nationalist indoctrination,” he explains. “The classes were excellent.” For years Ahmet has criticized both the Turkish government’s brutal assimilation policies and the violence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought an off-and-on, decades-long insurgency against the Turkish government. “But,” he points out, “it is the government that politicizes language education.”
Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution states that no language other than Turkish can be taught as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens. Even teachers in the Kurdish region are banned from speaking Kurdish in class—even if none of their pupils speak Turkish. For years experts have warned of the consequences of such policies. Research shows that Kurdish students who are educated in a language they do not fully understand suffer communication problems, trauma, feelings of exclusion, and shame. They are less likely to succeed in school, and more likely to drop out early.
In 2012, hoping to woo Kurdish voters, the AKP started to pass reforms that granted greater freedoms to minority-language education. For the first time in the country’s history, Kurdish as an elective was legalized in high schools. Two years later a law change allowed for election campaigning in languages other than Turkish and for the foundation of private minority-language schools. Interest in Kurdish classes soared.
“Even police officers came to our classes, because they simply wanted to learn their mother tongue,” Sami Tan says. “We never asked party affiliations. Everyone was welcome here. But now the AKP is trying to criminalize Kurdish language and culture again. That’s why many people are afraid to come to our classes.” Some instructors and students of the institute have been fired from their jobs for terrorism allegations, Tan said.
In Diyarbakir, the state-appointed trustees fired all Zarokistan teachers—“on February 21, the International Mother Language Day,” Derince says dryly. Since then, all activities have been conducted in Turkish only. Trustees across the region removed many street signs, statues, and place names commemorating Kurdish heroes. In some cities where official communications had been offered in several regional languages such as Assyrian, Arabic, or Armenian, only Turkish, and sometimes Kurdish, remained.
In Bitlis, a project led by the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) to open a library in the birthplace of well-known Armenian-American writer William Saroyan was canceled by the new administration. A quadri-lingual kindergarten in Mardin, a city close to the Turkish-Syrian border, was shut down, and the public official in charge of it was arrested.
In the Istanbul institute, which has once again become a pioneer in supporting Kurdish-language rights, Sami Tan and his colleagues do not want to give up. “Society has changed,” says Tan. “Now there are social media, satellite TV, Kurdish news channels broadcasting from outside of Turkey. It’s much easier to find out what is going on. The clock cannot simply be turned back.” He smiled. “The Kurdish language has overcome so many obstacles. It will overcome these times, too.”