ISTANBUL: Turkey’s Council of Higher Education has banned students studying Kurdish language and literature at Turkish universities from writing their dissertations in Kurdish.
All dissertations at Kurdish language departments will now have to be written in Turkish.
The move is a step back from the government’s previous efforts to provide Kurdish citizens, who make up about a fifth of Turkey’s population, with an opportunity to receive an education in their mother tongue. State schools have been offering Kurdish as an elective language for the past seven years in a country where Turkish is the only constitutionally recognized language.
Since 2013, Kurdish studies were introduced at universities during the fragile and short-lived “Kurdish peace process” that aimed to increase Kurdish cultural and linguistic rights but which ended suddenly in 2015.
Kurdish language departments previously received thousands of applications from university students who wanted to have their education in Kurdish but numbers have now dropped dramatically.
The decision will influence four universities in Turkey that are allowed to open Kurdish language and literature departments: Dicle University in the southeastern province of Diyarbakir, Mardin Artuklu University, Bingol University and Mus University.
“The collapse of the peace process has resulted in such efforts to target Kurdish language whose use has turned into a political leverage and a means of criminalization in Turkey,” Roj Girasun, the head of Diyarbakir-based Rawest Research Center, told Arab News. “However, education in the mother tongue was one of the core campaign topics of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2013 and in 2014 when he was reaching out to Kurdish citizens in the southeastern provinces,” he said.
Girasun wrote his undergraduate thesis in the Kurdish language and on the topic of Judaism in the Kurdish oral culture at Mardin Artuklu University. However, he is now obliged to write his master’s thesis in Turkish, which is not his mother tongue.
“As political tensions escalate domestically and regionally among Turks and Kurds, the crackdown on the universities is mounting. The government doesn’t appoint teachers to the Kurdish language departments of the universities, which naturally discourages citizens from applying to those universities due to the lack of qualified academic staff. What we are witnessing is the criminalization of the Kurdish language,” Girasun said.
Esat Sanli, a doctoral candidate at Dicle University, is another student who will be affected by the decision.
“The decision will directly target students willing to write history and culture-focused dissertations. On the other hand, it will also have international repercussions. Any dissertation that is written in Kurdish will be taken as a lack of capacity of the student in linguistic skills,” Sanli told Arab News.
According to Sanli, the decision will also be a disincentive for Kurdish students to continue their academic career in the Kurdish language.
“There was a significant interest in choosing these Kurdish departments simply for the opportunity to write academic dissertations in their mother tongue. But now these universities risk losing their appeal in the eyes of the students,” he said.
A recent study showed that only 18 percent of the 600 young Kurds surveyed — aged between 18 and 30 — could speak, read and write in Kurdish. The categorization of Kurdish language as an “unknown language” by the judicial system is another marginalization of the language, sometimes even criticized by government officials.
Max Hoffman, a Turkey analyst from the Washington-based Center for American Progress, said that the Kurdish language was another front in Turkey’s culture war.
“Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost most of their Kurdish support with the resumption of the PKK conflict and the accompanying harsh government repression. Since July 2015, they have only intensified the crackdown, including removing duly elected mayors from the HDP,” he told Arab News.
According to Hoffman, just as Erdogan drove the Hagia Sophia controversy in the hope that secular Turkey and the West would react — allowing him to pose as the defender of the faithful — he is trying to use Kurdish language and culture as another wedge to force the opposition to either defend Kurdish cultural rights, driving away nationalist voters, or abandon Kurdish cultural rights, driving away Kurdish voters.
“This move should be seen as a sign of political concern about his right-wing, as well as an attempt by the AKP to cause tension in the informal opposition electoral alliance,” he said.