The arrest of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the militant Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), at the beginning of 1999 and the almost instantaneous wave of protest across Europe, in Australia and later within Turkey briefly increased the prominence of the Kurdish struggle for autonomy in Turkey. As one of the most important symbols of Kurdish identity, the Kurdish language has been subject to legislation that curbs its use. While attempts by Kurds to preserve their language in the face of stringent prohibitions have received significant media and academic attention, the fate of other linguistic minorities in Turkey under the same prohibitions has been almost entirely overlooked. How, then, do other linguistic minorities fare under the pressure of the mono-ethnic, monolingual Turkish ideal? The Arabic speakers of the Hatay province are a good example. In a province that was separate from Turkey for fifteen years (1923–1938), Arabic is a minority language and a symbol of religious out-groups.

Language Under the Turks

Subjects of the Ottoman Empire enjoyed linguistic freedoms that were liberal even by modern standards. While Ottoman Turkish was the official lingua franca, the general population was at liberty to speak, teach and publish in any language. The fact that missionaries founded many foreign language private schools during the last century that are still functioning in Turkey today is testament to the religious and linguistic tolerance of the time. The official Ottoman ideology from 1908–1913 was that all subjects “irrespective of creed or language” would be citizens with equal rights under the constitutional state. As the empire disintegrated, mono-ethnic Turkish nationalism superseded Ottoman nationalism.

Signed during the final days of the crumbling empire, the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) was a last-ditch agreement between the Ottoman Empire and the European allies. Among other things, it promised an independent Kurdish state. The 1924 Treaty of Lausanne between the newly founded Republic of Turkey and the Allies quickly superseded it. The primary significance of this latter agreement lay in substantial border changes that resulted in a much larger Turkish Republic. The treaty also contained numerous clauses to safeguard the linguistic (and other) rights of all the citizens of the new state:

The Turkish Government undertakes to assure full and complete protection of life and liberty to all inhabitants of Turkey without distinction of birth, nationality, language, race or religion (Article 38.1).

No restrictions shall be imposed on the free use by any Turkish national of any language in private intercourse, in commerce, religion, in the press, or in publications of any kind or at public meetings (Article 39.4).

Notwithstanding the existence of the official language, adequate facilities shall be given to Turkish nationals of non-Turkish speech for the oral use of their own language before the courts (Article 39.5).

As regards public instruction, the Turkish government will grant in those towns and districts, where a considerable proportion of non-Moslem nationals are resident, adequate facilities for ensuring that in the primary schools the instruction shall be given to the children of such Turkish nationals through the medium of their own language. This provision will not prevent the Turkish government from making the teaching of the Turkish language obligatory in the said schools (Article 41.1). [1]

This last provision enabled Greek and Armenian schools to survive to the present day in Istanbul. The number of people to which this provision pertains was substantially reduced by the removal of the Armenian and Greek populations in 1915 and 1923, respectively, and later by emigrations, whether following inter-ethnic violence (in 1955, for example), or in pursuit of economic benefits. Non-Muslims in Turkey now number only 0.2 percent of the population. [2]

Irrespective of the provisions of the Lausanne Treaty, the Turkish Republic overtly endeavored to construct a mono-ethnic Turkish state. Languages other than Turkish and even Ottoman Turkish were targeted. The Turkish language reform program sought to purge Turkish of a massive number of Arabic and Persian words that had entered Ottoman Turkish. For a time, Arabic was not permitted for religious purposes. Even the Islamic call to prayer was compulsorily translated into Turkish. The height of linguistic intolerance was best exemplified by legislation enacted under the last military regime. A complete overhaul of the constitution made the exclusive position of the Turkish language clear:

The Turkish State, with its territory and nation, is an indivisible entity. Its language is Turkish (Article 3.1).

Moreover, its status is unchallengeable:

The provision of Article 1 of the Constitution establishing the form of the State as a Republic, the provisions in Article 2 on the characteristics of the Republic, and the provision of Article 3 shall not be amended, nor shall their amendment be proposed (Article 4). [3]

Extensive legislation preventing the use of other languages in a wide range of situations, including private conversations on a public street, reinforced this status. Article 3 contentiously states, “The mother tongue of Turkish citizens is Turkish.” [4] If that were the case, the prohibitive legislation would have been largely vacuous. The sentiment embodied in such legislation was not new. In 1960, on the occasion of his campaigns in the Kurdish provinces, General Cemal Gürsel bluntly stated, “Citizens [of Turkey] speak Turkish.”

Turkey repealed the more restrictive laws in 1991. [5] However, it is still illegal for an “institution of training or education” to teach a language other than Turkish as a mother tongue according to the Turkish constitution. These laws were designed to undermine Kurdish culture. The 1982 constitution effectively coincided with a revived Kurdish rebellion in the form of the PKK. Despite the liberalization of language laws, Kurdish is still targeted as a “language prohibited by law,” defined as a language that is not a primary official language of any other country. Prosecutions against Kurdish now proceed under anti-terrorism laws that are open to interpretation. Hypothetically, a child who complains that he or she can’t speak Kurdish at school could face prosecution. [6]

Practice ultimately reflects the true state of human rights in Turkey, and the letter of the law is of little actual significance. Even after the 1994 liberalization of language laws that permitted publication in languages other than Turkish, the editor of a journal written in both Turkish and Lazi, a Kartevelian language related to Georgian, was arrested to face charges of separatism. [7]

The Uniqueness of the Kurdish Case

The Kurds are a notable minority in Turkey not only because of their highly visible militant element, but also because they constitute Turkey’s largest minority. Estimates of the number of Kurds range between 10 and 20 percent of the population. This puts them in a stronger position than other minorities to maintain their language and culture.

The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, which can facilitate their assimilation to Sunni-dominated Turkish culture. Turgut Özal, one of Turkey’s most venerated presidents, is reputed to have been of Kurdish descent. Contrary to previous official denials, Özal admitted in 1991 that Kurdish existed and that there were 12 million Kurdish speakers. Kurdish ancestry in and of itself is thus no bar to participation in all aspects of Turkish society. This has not been the case for other ethnic minorities in Turkey. Nonetheless, not all Kurds have chosen assimilation. Since 1925, just two years after the founding of the Turkish Republic, Kurdish insurgencies have been a recurrent feature of modern Turkish history. Ironically, Öcalan is derided in Turkey as the “Kurdish leader who cannot speak Kurdish,” evidence that while assimilation policies practiced by Turkey can be effective on a linguistic level, their effectiveness does not guarantee cultural assimilation.

The Hatay “Question”

The situation in Hatay provides a useful contrast to how the specter of Kurdish autonomy strikes at the foundation of the republic. By virtue of its administrative boundaries and its distinct history, Hatay has a clear identity, not least because it was separate from Turkey for 15 years, from 1923–1938. Moreover, Syria still lays claim to Hatay, leading to ongoing posturing from both Turkey and Syria regarding the status of the province.

Though the Turkish border of the Treaty of Sévres moved southward with the Treaty of Lausanne, in 1923 Turkey’s border with Syria (under French Mandate administration) was still to the north of Hatay. Under the mandate, Hatay, then known as the Sanjak of Alexandretta, was a semi- autonomous subdivision of Greater Syria. Negotiations between Turkey and France over the status of Hatay began in earnest in 1934. Elections were supposed to decide the fate of the province. [8] Since results would depend on the demographic composition of the local population, census statistics and voter registrations were contentious.

The population was mixed in terms of religion and language. The 1936 census by the French High Commission indicates that, while Turks comprised the largest single ethnic group (39 percent), an even larger cohort were Arabic speakers. Namely, 28 percent were Alevi, 10 percent were Sunni Arabs and 8 percent non-Armenian Christians, and thus 46 percent were Arabic speakers. [9] The Armenian Christians, furthermore, were refugees of the earlier expulsions from Anatolia and had good reason to fear Turkish governance. During registration, Turks born in Hatay but residing in Turkey were encouraged to move back into Hatay. Similar calls were made for Arabs living elsewhere in Syria to return to Hatay, but these did not receive the same support. Despite a common bond of language, Arabic speakers were unable to work together cohesively in Hatay. The end results of the voter registration became irrelevant because the French closed the border with Hatay while Turkey left it open to free trade. The French finally left Hatay to the Turks and Turkey annexed it in 1938.

Arabs and Armenians saw the acquiescence of the French to the annexation as a betrayal. Subsequently, large numbers of refugees left for Syria; within two months of Hatay’s transfer, 22,000 Armenians, 10,000 Alevi, 10,000 Sunni Arabs and 5,000 Christians fled. Those who remained in Hatay had an uncertain reception into the republic. Some families hid their children to avoid registering them in the Turkish education system.

Syria still claims Hatay and includes it on official maps, a fact which occasionally exacerbates relations between the two countries. Tense relations between Syria and Turkey prior to Öcalan’s expulsion from Syria highlighted this in 1998. The Turkish media cited three major grievances against Syria: the first two pertained to Syria’s alleged support of the PKK, and the third was the continued claim on Hatay. [10] It is tempting to attribute Syria’s tacit support of the PKK as retribution for Turkey’s annexation of Hatay, as Syria would gain little if the PKK succeeded in founding an independent Kurdistan.

Linguistic Rights in Hatay

Beyond the existing provisions of the Treaty of Lausanne, the French made no move to protect the linguistic rights of non-Turkish residents of Hatay. Assimilation was enforced from the outset. When Hatay residents became Turkish citizens, they were required to take surnames (as all Turkish citizens did). These surnames had to be Turkish and were sometimes assigned arbitrarily, with little regard to existing Arabic family names. Officials assaulted Arabic monolinguals for not speaking Turkish, as they assaulted Kurds in Kurdish areas. Turkish laws prohibited provisions for Arabic education.

One of the peculiarities of the Arabic-speaking community in Hatay is that Arabic there is associated primarily with two non-Sunni groups, the Alevi Muslims and the Christian communities (although there are some enclaves of Arabic-speaking Sunnis). Most Sunnis in Hatay, by contrast, are Turkish speakers. These religious and ethnic differences have undermined the ability of the various communities to work together to maintain Arabic in Hatay.

The Treaty of Lausanne could be interpreted as making provisions for the Christian community to establish a language program. The state could just as easily argue that the small numbers of Christians (notwithstanding their proportionally greater representation in Hatay) are insufficient to justify schools or courses. Further, it would be inconsistent for the Turkish state to allow language programs for one religious community and continue to forbid them for another, far larger, community. Ironically, classical Arabic courses are available to Sunni Muslims at Imam Hatip schools. Given the religious indoctrination that is fundamental to these schools, it would be highly unlikely for an Alevi, let alone Christian, Arabic speaker to attend such classes. Some young Arabic speakers study Arabic at university as a foreign language, but to do this they must leave Hatay because Arabic is not offered at Hatay’s Mustafa Kemal University.

The Shadow of Interethnic Conflict

Interethnic and interreligious conflict has been an unfortunate theme of modern Turkish history. In 1915 the infamous pre-Republican expulsion of Armenians resulted in thousands of deaths from disease and violence. In 1921 a population swap with Greece exported most of the Greek-speaking Christian minority. In 1943 the wealth tax disproportionately hit non-Muslims who dominated the mercantile classes. In 1955, ethnic tensions in Cyprus led to organized riots in Istanbul that targeted non-Muslim homes and businesses. This led to an exodus of much of Istanbul’s remaining Greek population. In the 1970s, there were riots between Sunnis and Alevis in Sivas and in Kahramanmaras. The civil disorder resulting from these clashes precipitated the military coup of 1980. In the 1990s, an arson attack on a hotel hosting an Alevi arts festival in Sivas resulted in the deaths of 37 intellectuals, authors and performers. In 1995, riots erupted in Istanbul in protest against the lack of police action over drive-by shootings of Alevi coffeehouses. The riots then spread to Ankara and Izmir. In 1997, a book fair in Antep was bombed because Christian bibles were on sale there. There have been recurring Kurdish revolts.

Such conflicts are not only an indication of the tensions that exist, but they are also an ongoing reminder for smaller minorities to be circumspect. Christians occasionally camouflage their religious identity by using names or nicknames that are religiously neutral or even Muslim. Men may also seek non-religious circumcision, which is free during military service. [11] For the non-Muslim Turk, these small subterfuges can only have limited success because official Turkish identity cards indicate religious affiliation.

Turkey has repeatedly targeted language as a corrupter of the “ideal” mono-ethnic state. The consistent history of the state’s response to Kurdish efforts to maintain their culture, and the less well-known response to Laz publishing efforts, is a signal of the type of reception that Arabic language programs, were they attempted, could expect to receive. Hatay’s history as the one province that was separate from Turkey and Syria’s claims to it means that Turkey could take language maintenance efforts as evidence of separatist goals. Perhaps the Arabic speakers of Hatay and other minorities in Turkey will only actively pursue language maintenance if the Kurds first secure a degree of cultural autonomy. In the meantime, the mono-ethnic Turkish state may not yet be a reality, but the monolingual one is rapidly becoming one.

Author’s note: Thanks to Lyle Campbell, Suzanne Nesbitt and Martin van Bruinessen for comments on earlier drafts. Any inaccuracies which remain are my own.


[1] The Treaties of Lausanne and Sèvres are available on the web at wwi/1918p.html.
[2] Youssef Courbage and Philippe Fargues, Christians and Jews under Islam (London: I. B. Tauris, 1997), p. 115.
[3] The Turkish constitution is available in English at the Washington, DC Turkish embassy homepage at It is available in both English and Turkish at grupc/ca/cag/l142.htm and, respectively.
[4] C. Rumpf, “The Turkish Law Prohibiting Languages Other than Turkish,” Documentation of the International Conference on Human Rights in Kurdistan, 14-16 April 1989 (Hochschule: Bremen, 1989); and idem, “Das Sprachenverbot in der Türkei unter besonderer Berücksichtigung inhrer völkerrechtlichen Verpflichtungen,” Orient 30 (1989).
[5] Martin van Bruinessen, “Kurds, Turks and the Alevi Revival in Turkey,” Middle East Report 200 (Summer 1996).
[6] Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and Sertaç Bucak, “Killing a Mother Tongue: How the Kurds Are Deprived of Linguistic Human Rights,” in Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and Robert Phillipson, eds., Linguistic Human Rights: Overcoming Linguistic Discrimination (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1995).
[7] Unlike Arabic, Lazi did not have a writing system of its own. Wolfgang Feuerstein, who first went to the area in the 1960s, developed Lazi writing. He, too, was arrested, beaten, imprisoned and finally deported; see Neal Ascherson, Black Sea (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995) p. 203.
[8] Local sources refer to this as the “referendum.” The Turkish Daily News cited the “plebiscite” in “Secret Talks Held Amid ‘Controlled’ Tension,” October 19, 1998. Academic sources, including Ataman Demir’s Through the Ages: Antakya (Istanbul: Akbank, 1996), make no mention of a referendum per se. The contentious issue was how many seats would be assigned to each ethnic group. It is convenient for the Turkish administration that locals believe that the decision was made democratically rather than bureaucratically.
[9] Philip Khoury, Syria and the French Mandate (London: I. B. Tauris, 1987), p. 495. Compare this to Turkish sources for Antakya in 1938 that showed 62 percent of the population was Turkish. Demir op. cit., p. 110. According to Khoury, “Turkish landowners [required] their Arab peasants to register as Turks, or else be driven off the land. Whole Arab villages were known to have dissolved under such pressures.” Op. cit., p. 507.
[10] Turkish Daily News, October 1998.
[11] The need to camouflage identity is less pronounced in Hatay itself, where the heterogeneity of the population is acknowledged and more tolerated.

How to cite this article:

Joan Smith/Kocamahhul "In the Shadow of Kurdish," Middle East Report 219 (Summer 2001).

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