Snubbing the Kurds

Turkish high school students pose on October 1, 2013 in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakır, a day after Erdoğan's reform package was announced. (Mehmet Engin/AFP/Getty Images)

Turkish high school students pose on October 1, 2013 in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakır, a day after Erdoğan's reform package was announced. (Mehmet Engin/AFP/Getty Images)

When Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, unveiled a series of reforms last week, Kurds were expecting the largest slice of the pie. They seem to have been utterly disappointed. Now, they cannot help but ask themselves whether the Turkish–Kurdish peace talks are over.

Under his much-touted reform package, Erdoğan lifted the ban on wearing headscarves in state institutions and allowed the usage of the letters Q, X and W in Kurdish names, as well as permitting private schools to educate in Kurdish. So, there is at least a small cause for celebration. When a Kurdish couple have their child registered at the Population Registry Office, officials will no longer debate whether the child’s name should be written as Xezal or Hezal. A language that has longed for its missing three letters will now be complete. Kurdish, which has primarily been an oral language in Turkey, will now be written with its full alphabet.

But for the Kurdish opposition Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), all this is too little too late. The BDP’s co-chair, Selahattin Demirtaş, reacted to the reform package with harsh words: “Who are you [Erdoğan] to give rights like charity? You are supposed to return all the rights that you ripped off.” He then went on to say that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) “has de facto declared the peace talks as finished.”

The head of the political wing of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Cemil Bayık, made a statement from the Qandil Mountains expressing concern over the announced reforms: “The reform package is a pumpkin. . . . It is practically empty. . . . The will to continue the ceasefire has been implemented by the PKK. Now, the AKP has to show some real effort to continue the peace talks, or Kurds will find another way to continue the struggle.” PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan has yet to respond publicly to the reforms; Kurdish news outlets report that Öcalan plans to make his position known next week, on October 15.

Erdoğan’s dilemma lies in one of the chronic diseases of Turkish politics: the election calendar. Municipal elections are scheduled for March 2014. Then come the presidential elections, which will be held by popular vote for the first time in Turkey’s history. The following year will see the general election for 550 seats in the Turkish Parliament.

Erdoğan wants to hold onto the AKP’s heartland municipalities by appeasing devout Muslim voters while showing some muscle to the Kurds to win over the nationalists. But at what price? Lifting the headscarf ban in state institutions (except in the judiciary, military and police) was a long overdue step. Allowing Kurds to learn their native language in public schools, however, proved too much for Erdoğan to stomach in the run up to the polls.

As BDP member of parliament and longtime survivor of Turkey’s Kurdish politics Sırrı Sakık said in an interview: “Poor Kurds will never have the ability to send their kids to private schools to learn their native language; the rich ones never had that concern anyway. So this package doesn’t give anything to anyone.”

One controversial item in the reform package was the so-called “school oath” that children were required to recite at school. The oath children swore began with “I am a Turk, honest, hardworking,” and concluded with the declaration, “How happy is the one who says ‘I am a Turk!’” Kurds have been complaining about the oath for at least a decade. In his reform package, Erdoğan ordered that it should no longer be sung or pledged in schools. “You cannot format kids like that,” he said in his party’s weekly address. Opposition parties are now organizing mass protests against the decision to scrap the oath, scheduled for Republic Day on October 29. But the real question still remains as to whether the Kurdish peace talks have come to a sudden, unfinished conclusion.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.

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