Turkey: Kurds And The Constitution

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Turkish riot police arrest a Kurdish protestor at the entrance of the Bosphorus Bridge on 22 April 2011. (Photo: AFP - Bulent Kilic)

By: Jay Cassano

Published Friday, May 25, 2012

As Turkey prepares to draft its new constitution, one of the most thorny issues is how the rights of minority groups, especially the Kurds, will be addressed.

Istanbul - While countries in the region, from Tunisia to Syria, are reevaluating their constitutions as a consequence of immense popular uprisings, Turkey is now undergoing a civil process to draft a new constitution.

There has been no regime change in Turkey, as in Tunisia and Egypt, nor is one probable, as in Syria. Rather, in a 2010 referendum the Turkish people gave a clear popular mandate for replacing the current constitution.

Following the referendum, there was a period for public input from Turkish civil society on the direction the new constitution should take. This period closed at the end of April and the Turkish government is now preparing to draft the new governing document.

The most pressing task for the new constitution in Turkey will be addressing the unresolved Kurdish Question. This is particularly true as Turkey is attempting to emerge as a regional model for post-revolution countries grappling with their own issues of ethnic identity. Furthermore, the lack of equal rights for Kurds is one of the major roadblocks in Turkey's stalled European Union accession process.

The current constitution of the Turkish Republic was adopted by the military government in 1982, following the coup two years prior. It explicitly defines citizenship along ethnic lines, with numerous references to the Turkish nation.

According to Abbas Vali, Professor of Political Theory at Bosphorus University, “a truly democratic constitution must have a conception of citizenship which is not ethnic and is not religious.” Instead, Vali explained to Al-Akhbar, the new constitution must define a shared identity that peoples of all ethnicities within Turkey can identify with.

The current constitution is rife with contradictions on this matter. Alongside the definition of citizenship as ethnically Turkish, it also has provisions expressing the equality of all, regardless of race, language, or religion. One problem is that, according to the constitution, fundamental rights may be suspended in order to protect the security and territorial integrity of the Turkish nation.

“Citizenship alone is not enough. It needs certain legal guarantees so that it cannot be subordinated to the security of the state,” Vali argues.

Nurcan Kaya, a human rights lawyer who specializes in minority rights tells Al-Akhbar that the new constitution must not only provide general protections of human rights, but must specifically hold the state responsible for preserving minority cultures and identity.

“We need to say that all ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups living in this territory have the right to maintain their identity, language, and culture. Furthermore, a new constitution must say that it is the state's duty to help them preserve their culture and identity.”

After the closing of the so-called “Kurdish opening” [a governmental policy approach intended to resolve problems between the government and the Kurdish population] in 2010, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is most likely hoping it will be able to take credit for resolving the Kurdish Question through the framing of a new constitution. At the same time, AKP has been careful not to seem “soft” on the Kurdish issue to nationalists.

In the lead-up to the 2011 general elections, AKP needed to compete for votes with the surging far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). As a result, the rhetoric of President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Erdoğan took a distinctly nationalist turn and has since stayed on that trajectory.

It is probable that the constitutional process will likewise be the subject of such political electioneering. If so, it could mean that the ideal of equal rights would be sacrificed for the sake of gaining votes.

The Official Language

As the Kurdish movement has transformed in recent years from a separatist movement to a civil rights struggle, the grievance that has remained at the forefront is the right to use the Kurdish language. Although Turkey has improved from the times when singing Kurdish songs was banned by law, the constitution still has provisions that bar Kurdish-speaking citizens from full equality.

Article 3 of the 1982 constitution establishes Turkish as the official language of the country. This has been interpreted into the banning of offering public services in Kurdish or other minority languages.

Abdullah Demirbaş, the mayor of Sur, a municipality in the Kurdish southeast, was dismissed from his office for violating Article 3 of the constitution. Demirbaş's crime was making the signage in his municipality multilingual, in order to provide equal access for all citizens. For this he was stripped of his elected position and imprisoned.

In Kaya's opinion, one persistent problem is the breadth of interpretation the current constitution has been subject to. “Article 3 does not necessarily specify that in access to public services no language other than Turkish can be used. But in Demirbaş's case we can see that Article 3 was interpreted as a basis for his dismissal.”

In another instance of Article 3 being interpreted to discriminate against Kurdish-speakers, courtrooms in Turkey have forbidden the use of Kurdish. When a group of Kurdish activists were tried in 2010 under the Anti-Terror Law, they opted to give their defense in Kurdish. The judge then instructed the stenographer to record that “the defendants spoke in an unknown language.”

Further down in the constitution, Article 42 prohibits teaching a language other than Turkish as the mother tongue. Kurds have long demanded the right to education in Kurdish, their own mother tongue. However, this demand has always been met with stiff opposition from Turkish leaders.

Recognition is Not Enough

There are in fact minority communities in Turkey that have the recognized right to education in their own languages. Jews, Armenians, and Greeks were all legally recognized minority communities under the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which guaranteed their cultural and linguistic rights. Today they all have schools that provide instruction in their respective mother tongues and there exist special laws that allow for children to attend these schools.

However, these schools are not funded by the state, as is required under Lausanne. Rather, they are private schools that are managed and funded by the communities themselves. In recent years, many of these schools have faced a severe funding crisis brought on by national education reform.

“This is in violation of the treaty of Lausanne. These minority communities are supposed to get financial support from the state to run these schools,” Kaya says.

Although at first glance it appears that these minority communities have the rights that Kurds are longing for, it is in fact insufficient. To be merely a legally recognized group is not enough.

“If tomorrow the government declared that Kurdish could be used in education this must go hand-in-hand with the provision of finances, logistical support, and a certain measure of decentralization whereby the local governments in the Kurdish areas can implement it,” Vali states.

Accordingly, the letter of the law will not be decisive in providing equal rights for all. Instead, the future of an egalitarian Turkey will depend on how the law is interpreted and how resources from the state are allocated to protect human rights.

Such concessions from the state will only be made if civil society organizes effectively. In this regard, the constitutional process becomes as much an opportunity for public dialogue as for law-making.

“I believe that just having this debate will change the political climate in Turkey,” Ozgür Sevgi Göral tells Al-Akhbar. Göral is the program director at the Truth, Justice, and Memory Center, a civil society organization that advocates for the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission for the atrocities committed by the Turkish state against Kurds.

“The end result of the new constitution is important, of course, but right now we also have an opening to discuss the history of state terror with ordinary Turkish people. I believe we have an opportunity here that we must exploit.”

Although a new constitution cannot by itself resolve the Kurdish Question, it could be a productive first step.

“If we have specific legal provisions protecting minority rights then people will be able to argue that their rights are in the constitution and they are entitled to demand those rights from the state,” Kaya believes.

“I do not think that everything will all of a sudden change thanks to a new constitution,” she continues, “but a lot will have to.”


In 1982 my wife and I were in Turkey's Cappadocia region and had a Kurdish guide who showed us around. At that time the use of Kurdish language or discussing their history was a forbidden subject. Things have improved since then but it is still a long way from equal citizenship for its Kurdish citizens. Having studied minorities problem in non-western countries I have come to the conclusion that giving regional independence to the areas where these ethnic minorities have a majority would give them a sense of equality. This is something like the Cantons of Switzerland. The Federal government would have the control of key aspects of the country such Defense, Finance and Multinational trade etc. I live in Canada and the provinces enjoy such rights including resource extraction and taxation. This would certainly obviate the need for separatism and partition.

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