ISTANBUL – The leader of Turkey’s Kurdish lawmakers startled the country Tuesday by addressing Parliament in his native language, breaking the law in a nation that has tried for decades to keep a firm grip on the restive minority amid fears of national division.
State-run television immediately cut off the live broadcast of legislator Ahmet Turk, ostensibly to celebrate UNESCO world languages week. But his real aim was to challenge the country’s policy toward its Kurdish population, a suppression of rights that only recently has started to ease.
“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.”
Kurdish lawmakers gave Turk a standing ovation. His party has 21 legislators in the 550-seat parliament.
Turkey’s prime minister himself spoke a few words in Kurdish at a campaign rally over the weekend. But fears of national division prevent any concerted effort to repeal the laws.
Turkey is caught between the long-held suspicion that outsiders and minorities can threaten state unity, and its moves toward the kind of Western-style democracy that would consider a language ban an affront to human rights.
Turkish law banned the speaking of Kurdish at all until 1991, and today it is barred in schools, parliament and other official settings on the grounds that it would divide the country along ethnic lines. Kurds, who are also present in large numbers in neighboring Iran, Iraq and Syria, make up about a fifth of Turkey’s more than 70 million people.
“The official language is Turkish,” Parliament Speaker Koksal Toptan said after Turk spoke. “This meeting should have been conducted in Turkish.”
It was not clear whether he would face charges. As a lawmaker, he has immunity. In certain cases, a normal citizen speaking Kurdish in an official setting could go to jail.