Democratic Society Party leader Ahmet Turk violated Turkey’s constitution today by addressing the parliament in his native Kurdish tongue.

Susan Fraser reports for AP:

A Kurdish politician defied Turkish law on Tuesday by giving a speech to Parliament in the Kurdish language. State-run television immediately cut off the live broadcast. “Kurds have long been oppressed because they did not know any other language,” said legislator Ahmet Turk. “I promised myself that I would speak in my mother tongue at an official meeting one day.”

While members of his party gave Turk a standing ovation for the politically daring move, other lawmakers were upset. “The official language is Turkish,” said Parliament Speaker Koksal Toptan. “This is written in the Constitution and laws. This meeting should have been conducted in Turkish.”

Turkey’s Kurds, who make up at least a fifth of this country’s population, have long been repressed by the Turkish state. Turkish forces also are fighting against a Kurdish separatist group.

Until 1990, speaking Kurdish in public was entirely forbidden. Turkey continued to ban the use of the language in schools, official settings and broadcasts other than music until 2002, when — under European Union pressure — it allowed Kurdish-language broadcasts. It still refuses to allow Kurdish education in schools and official settings, such as in Parliament, arguing that it would divide the country along ethnic lines.

It would seem that horse has already left the barn.

Turk began his speech in Turkish but switched to Kurdish in several minutes. He said he was doing that in recognition of U.N. cultural body UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day this week to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. The lawmaker was allowed to finish his speech in Kurdish.

“When (Kurdish party) members salute someone in their own language, they are prosecuted or investigated. When a mayor speaks to his people in their own language, he is prosecuted. But when the prime minister speaks Kurdish, nobody says anything,” Turk said. “We don’t think this is right. This is a two-faced approached. What did the prime minister ever do to free the language?” He was referring to the fact that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took his message of inclusion into the center of Turkey’s Kurdish heartland on Saturday. There, he told the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, once the center of Kurdish resistance, that its people were “first-class citizens.”

It is not clear what consequences Turk will face for his transgression but, theoretically, his party could be disbanded for violating the constitution.

Language is an emotional issue, naturally, and even the most modern states — the United States, Canada, France, and Belgium spring quickly to mind — have varying degrees of controversy over how far the state should go in accomodating diversity while promoting efficiency and protecting the culture.   But, rather clearly, Turkey has gone too far the direction of the latter while totally ignoring the former.  Obviously, it would be madness to have the legislative business routinely conducted in two languages.  But, surely, it shouldn’t be illegal to speak a few lines in another language to make a political point. 

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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