Turkey sets date for first lessons in Kurdish

Mardin Artuklu has become the first university in Turkey to receive official permission to teach Kurdish courses.

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ISTANBUL // At a little-known university in south-eastern Turkey that was founded only two years ago, history is being written. With its 700 students, Mardin Artuklu University, named after a 10th-century regional principality, finds itself spearheading a political initiative designed to fundamentally change the way the country deals with its estimated 12 million Kurds and to end a conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives. Mardin has become the first university in Turkey to receive official permission to teach Kurdish courses. Strengthening language rights of the Kurds is a key element of a plan by the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, to solve the Kurdish question and stop a Kurdish rebellion that started in 1984. "It is very, very important," Bulent Ayanoglu, an aide to the rector, Serdar Bedii Omay, said by telephone yesterday. "It will calm the social climate here; it will have positive effects." In a landmark decision last week, Turkey's Board of Higher Education (YOK) allowed the state-run Mardin university to set up an Institute of Living Languages, including Kurdish, Persian, Arabic and Aramaic, the language spoken by a small community of Syriac Christians in a region close to Mardin, a provincial capital in Turkey's Kurdish area. "This is a solution that encompasses not just Kurdish but also other languages," Yusuf Ziya Ozcan, the head of YOK, said after the decision. "This is the model we will use if other universities want to serve citizens who speak different languages." YOK wants staff in Mardin to concentrate on postgraduate studies first. The aim was to "train academics that we will need when there are undergraduate studies at universities", Mr Ozcan said. Mardin had been preparing for Kurdish courses for some time and even enlisted the help of experts from universities in northern Iraq, Mr Ayanoglu said. But the university had its focus on courses for students fresh out of high school, not on postgraduate studies. As a result of the YOK decision, the start of undergraduate courses had to be postponed. Mr Omay told Turkish media he hopes to begin postgraduate classes with about 30 students in February. Mr Ayanoglu said he expects undergraduate courses to start within two to three years. Even with these academic and organisational hiccups, the step Turkey has taken with the YOK permission for Mardin is significant. The public use of Kurdish was prohibited in the 1990s because the Turkish state saw the language as an instrument of separatism. Parliamentary deputies from the Kurdish region in south-eastern Anatolia were stripped of their seats and sentenced to long prison terms after one of them spoke Kurdish during her swearing-in ceremony in 1991. Some restrictions have been lifted in the course of Turkey's EU bid in recent years. But now, the language issue has taken centre stage in Ankara's efforts to end a 25-year-old rebellion by the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, an armed group that has been fighting for Kurdish autonomy. A state-run Kurdish television station went on the air at the beginning of the year, and the highest representatives of the state have been talking about how important it is for Turkey to widen language rights for its Kurdish citizens. Even if there were no plans to make Kurdish a second official language alongside Turkish, "Kurds must be able to speak their own languages", Abdullah Gul, the president, said last week. The YOK decision for Mardin also marks the first concrete step of what has become known as Mr Erdogan's "Kurdish opening". The government has promised to tackle social, economic and cultural reforms for the Kurds this year. "We are closer to a solution than ever before," Mr Erdogan told a meeting with foreign ambassadors on Monday evening, the Turkish press reported yesterday. He said his government was committed to see the "Kurdish opening" through. "We are extremely determined, we will not take a step backwards, we will make no concessions." Besir Atalay, Mr Erdogan's interior minister, met representatives of dozens of political parties and associations as well as leading intellectuals in recent weeks in an effort to forge a broad consensus on the issue. Legislative work is scheduled to begin when parliament returns from its current recess in early October. Critics say the government has been promising much without saying what actual legal changes it seeks. The two main opposition parties say they will not participate in the reform programme and have even rejected talks with Mr Atalay. Still, polls conducted for Mr Atalay's ministry show that between 55 per cent and 64 per cent of Turkish voters support the government's plan, the English-language daily newspaper Today's Zaman reported yesterday. The media are also mostly in favour of the initiative. One reason why Mr Erdogan's "opening" has seen that level of support is that military pressure on the PKK, the main method employed by Ankara to solve the Kurdish issue for a long time, has failed to end the conflict in 25 years. "To repeat the same thing over and over for years and to expect a different result is not smart," Hasan Cemal, a respected columnist, wrote in the Milliyet daily. tseibert@thenational.ae