‘O people of the fatherland! You are aware of the injustice and oppression of the Turks. With a small number of themselves they have ruled over you and enslaved you… They have passed regulations to destroy your noble language.’
Today Turkish police used water cannons and tear gas to disperse dozens of young Kurds at a demonstration in central Istanbul. The unrest erupted after about 2,000 people marched down Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul’s main pedestrian area, to denounce the trial in Diyarbakır of some 150 Kurdish leaders on charges of links to Kurdish Communities Union, or KCK, the alleged urban branch of the PKK.
Last Thursday in Diyarbakır some 8,000 people gathered in front of the Diyarbakır Station Square during the Thursday hearing. The meeting then turned into a protest march joined by more than 10,000 people, including BDP deputies and members of the Democratic Society Congress (DTK). Kurdish politician and DTK co-chair Ahmet Türk addressed the crowd in Kurdish and criticised the policies of the ruling AKP and the KCK trial. He emphasised the demand for a democratic autonomy.
The demonstrators remained in front of the courthouse after the members of parliament had returned to the courtroom. After the protesters lit fireworks, the police intervened with tear gas to disperse the crowd.
There was another point in history when a different group fought against the same policies of linguistic repression and forced Turkification, which mirrors what is happening today. The similarities between what happened 100 years ago in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire and now are remarkable.
The adoption of Arabic as an official language in the Ottoman Empire was one of the main demands by the Arab elite during the latter part of the nineteenth century. In 1880 and 1881 a series of placards appeared in Damascus, Beirut, and other cities announcing these linguistic demands. The third placard, dated 14 January 1881, included this:
O people of the fatherland! You are aware of the injustice and oppression of the Turks. With a small number of themselves they have ruled over you and enslaved you… They have passed regulations to destroy your noble language.
Autonomy was the first demand in this placard. Recognition of Arabic as an official language was the second.
Secondly, recognition of the Arabic language as official in the country [Syria] and of the right of those who speak it to complete freedom in publishing their thoughts, books and newspapers, in accordance with the demands of humanity, progress and civilisation.
This is all too familiar in the current call for Kurdish linguistic and cultural freedoms.
With the Young Turks Revolution in 1908 and their rise to power in 1909 a rigorous policy of Turkification was implemented in the Arabic-speaking provinces of the empire. This was led by the more extreme elements of the movement who sought to save the Empire by forced assimilation into Turkish language and culture of non-Turkish subjects. This policy was mainly directed at the Arabic-speaking populations of Syria and Lebanon as they were seen as the biggest threat to the Empire. This was, in effect, a realisation of some of the dominant Turkist themes of the Hamidian period of 1876-1908.
Ankara today, like its Ottoman predecessors, is trying to ‘save the Empire’ by enforcing compliance of its anachronistic language laws. The state still sees the use of any other language apart from Turkish as a threat to the territorial integrity of the state.
The intended result then of the forced assimilation policy was to counter nationalist tendencies amongst non-Turkish populations and bring them into the Turkish fold. The actual result was the alienation of the Arabs and a transformation of the Arab nationalist movement into a political one.
The parallels to the current relationship between the Turks and the Kurds are striking. The policies of assimilation have failed and have only served to reinvigorate Kurdish linguistic pride and, with it, Kurdish national identity.
The Young Turks forced the reinstatement of the 1876 Constitution, set aside some 30 years prior by Sultan Abdul Hamid II. With that, Turkish was imposed as the language of instruction in all state schools. Arabic was outlawed both inside and outside the classroom at all times. Students caught using Arabic were publicly shamed and subjected to corporal punishment. Arabic was outlawed in the courts and in all correspondence with the government administration. All members of Parliament were required to speak Turkish.
Also around that time, articles began to appear in the Turkish press attacking the Arabic language. The following quote appeared in an editorial in Tanin, an Istanbul daily newspaper of the time:
The Arabs do not stop prattling in their language and they are total ignoramuses in Turkish, as if they were not under Turkish rule. The government is obligated in such a case to force them to forget their language and to learn the language of the nation that is ruling them.
Language is a key marker of identity. It is the essence of identity. The KCK trial in Diyarbakır is no longer about whether these 152 defendants are ‘members of an illegal organisation.’ It is about the survival of the Kurdish language, culture, and identity. The mindset in Ankara, however, harkens back to the days of the Young Turks Revolution and the idea that it is a government obligation to force non-Turkish speakers ‘to learn the language of the nation that is ruling them.’ This myopic, ultra-nationalist approach cannot accept the existence of another nation or another language.
So how did the Arabs at the time resist the intense push for Turkification?
First and foremost was the call to make Arabic, alongside Turkish, an official language of the state in the Arabic-speaking parts of the Empire. The Decentralisation Party, established in 1912 by Ottoman Arabs, stated in Article 14 of its platform: ‘Every province will have two official languages, Turkish and the local language.’ Other parties and societies espoused similar demands.
In 1913 Arab elites gathered at the Paris Congress where declarations were drawn up to press their demands on the government in Istanbul. Paragraph 5 of the draft resolution stated that the ‘Arabic language must be recognised in the Ottoman Parliament and the Parliament must decide that it will be an official language in the Arab [provinces].’
The Young Turks, however, met in January 1914 and only pushed their Turkification agenda further by deciding to eliminate the ‘nationalist societies’, which, in their eyes, were becoming much too assertive.
The second method of resistance was through active promotion of Arab culture and the Arabic language. Organisations, societies, and cultural clubs were formed to promote Arabic and its usage. One of the better-known groups was the Society of Arab Revival (est. in Istanbul in 1906), which had to change its name to the Society of Syrian Revival due to escalating Turkification in the government. The word ‘Arab’ was not allowed.
The aim of the Syrian Revival group was to spread Arab culture and language. It did this by organising meetings to study language, literature and history. Turkish borrowings in Arabic were banned during these sessions.
The third method was the use of poetry to rebut the attacks against Arabs and Arabic. One poem by Fuad al-Khatib rejected Turkish claims that the Arabs’ attempts to modernise their culture through language were a form of dissension or civil strife in the Empire.
Several months ago, TZPKurdî (Tevgera Ziman û Perwerdahiya Kurdî) began a campaign called ‘Read, Speak, Write in Kurdish Everywhere’, launched against the prohibition of the Kurdish language in certain spheres in Turkey.
TZPKurdî suggests three measures to resist the repression of Kurdish in Turkey: 1) to promote the Kurdish language in education, 2) to speak the language in private as well as in public venues and 3) to speak it at all political events. Currently, the use of Kurdish in the political arena is forbidden according to the Law on Political Parties.
In the early 20th century the nascent popularity of journalism in the region and the introduction of modern printing presses pushed the Arab language agenda and supported it. One hundred years later, in addition to the street protests in Diyarbakır, Istanbul, and elsewhere, it is online citizen journalism, Twitter, facebook and YouTube supporting the linguistic revolution.
The KCK trial resumes on Tuesday and the struggle for recognition of Kurdish linguistic rights will continue…online and in the streets. Ez li vir im.
Suleiman, Yasir (2003). The Arabic Language and National Identity. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
Müge Göçek, Fatma (2002). Social constructions of nationalism in the Middle East. State University of New York Press.
Kurdish protesters clash with Turkish police in Istanbul. Hürriyet, 16 January 2011.
Who’s as mad as hell? Anyone? Kurdistan Commentary, 16 November 2010.
KCK trials and the Kurds. Kurdish Info, 14 January 2011.