A politician stirred debate about minority rights in Turkey when he spoke Kurdish in parliament on Tuesday, violating laws that bar the language in official settings.
The prime minister has himself spoken a few words in Kurdish at a campaign rally, but fears of national division prevent any concerted effort to repeal the laws.
State-run TV immediately cut off the live broadcast of legislator Ahmet Turk as he spoke in his native tongue, Kurdish, ostensibly to celebrate UNESCO world languages week. But Turk’s real aim was to challenge the longtime cornerstone of Turkish policy toward its restive Kurdish population, a suppression of rights that only began to ease in recent years.
“Kurds have long been oppressed because they did not know any other language,” Turk said. “I promised myself that I would speak in my mother tongue at an official meeting one day.”
Turk was aiming at Turkey’s tension between suspicion dating from the demise of the Ottoman Empire that outsiders and minorities can threaten state unity, and moves toward the kind of Western-style democracy that would consider such a language ban to be an affront to human rights.
It was also a vote-getting act, coming ahead of local elections on March 29 that will determine whether Turk’s Democratic Society Party can keep southeastern strongholds in the face of an aggressive campaign organized by the governing party.
Kurdish lawmakers gave Turk, their leader, a standing ovation for the politically daring decision, but it could be used as evidence in a case to shut down the party on charges of having ties to Kurdish guerrillas.
Also, private NTV television reported that prosecutors launched an investigation of Turk himself, though it was not clear whether he would face charges.
Heavy-handed action by the state could backfire, exposing it to accusations of authoritarian behavior and further alienating Kurds ahead of the vote.
Kurdish was banned in Turkey until 1991 and today it is barred in schools, parliament and other official settings.
“The official language is Turkish,” Parliament Speaker Koksal Toptan said after Turk spoke. “This meeting should have been conducted in Turkish.”
Speaking in Kurdish, Turk described how he was jailed during a 1980 military coup and was beaten for speaking Kurdish to visiting relatives who knew no other language.