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.