Turkish academics enraged as state dictates language guidelines

July 9, 1999

Use of the words "Kurd" or "Kurdish" has been banned in Turkish universities under a confidential directive distributed by governors' offices.

The directive lists 37 words and phrases that should not be used and offers alternatives. Most relate to the on-going conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish separatists.

According to the three-page document obtained by The THES, the word Kurd should be replaced by "Turkish citizen". The document also notes that the words Kurd and Kurdish are "used by terrorists to describe Turkish citizens".

One academic from Istanbul's Bosphorous University, who did not wish to be named, said: "It is outrageous - the document should be binned. Members of the Turkish state want to return this country to the 1930s."

In the 1930s the Turkish state banned the use of the word Kurd and decreed that the term "mountain Turk" be used instead. It was not until 1989 that the term Kurd was officially accepted. Until the early 1990s the Kurdish language was banned. Turkey has up to 12 million people of Kurdish origin out of a population of more than 65 million.

The directive coincided with the end of the trial of Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan, who faces the death penalty after being convicted of treason. His PKK movement has been fighting the Turkish state for nearly 15 years.

The state has responded with a series of laws restricting freedom of expression. Those laws have led to many academics being imprisoned for publishing books and articles deemed to be supportive of the Kurdish separatists or supporting a Kurdish state.

The directive's source is unclear: when contacted, the governors refused to comment. Such documents are usually issued by the ministry of the interior, but it too refused to comment, claiming the document was "confidential" and that "the ministry does not comment on confidential matters".

Several academics, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, claimed that the army was probably behind the move. One said: "The directive has the fingerprints of the army all over it."

Although the directive is not binding, another academic claimed: "This is an attempt to divide academics into those who support the state and those who do not. They are attempting to intimidate us."

Turkey's academics have been under increasing pressure in the last year. University authority YOK has already issued a circular updating the disciplinary rules to include the offence of "undermining or showing disrespect for the Turkish state".

But YOK vice-president Ismail Tosun distanced himself from the directive. He said: "I was quite surprised by it myself. Academics are free to follow it or not - no sanctions will be imposed on any staff if they ignore it."

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