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 television 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."
Vote-getting stunt ahead of elections
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 stunt, 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 from 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. Moreover, Turkey's power structures could be at odds over what course to take: the Islamic-oriented government has often sparred with secular circles backed by the judiciary and the military.
Kurdish banned in many official locations
Kurdish was banned in Turkey 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 distantly related to Iranians, 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."
Turkey is a candidate for membership in the European Union, which has pushed for more Kurdish rights. The issue of language has come up in Spain, however, where rules in the national parliament in Madrid require lawmakers to speak Spanish. A few years ago, a Catalan nationalist spoke Catalan, and the speaker reprimanded him. But such cases are rare.
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. He also commented on Kurdish spoken by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a campaign rally on Saturday in Diyarbakir, the main city in the mostly Kurdish southeast.
"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," Turk said. "But when the prime minister speaks Kurdish, nobody says anything. We don't think this is right. This is a two-faced approached."
Erdogan had referred to Turkey's first 24-hour Kurdish-language television, launched Jan. 1. At the rally, and on the day of the TRT6 channel's inauguration, Erdogan said in Kurdish: "May TRT6 be beneficial."
About 30 minutes weekly of Kurdish broadcasting
Some commentators said the prime minister had broken the law, but prosecutors did not launch a probe.
Under pressure from the European Union, state television began broadcasting documentaries and news in Kurdish in 2004, but for only about 30 minutes each week.
Dengir Mir Firat, a Kurdish official in the governing party, has said some laws that restrict Kurdish rights should be rescinded, and that their repeal would undercut support from disaffected Kurds for the Democratic Society Party.
Turk's party has 21 legislators in the 550-seat parliament, and Erdogan's efforts to court Kurdish support with economic aid and promises of more freedom has sapped some of its support.
In 1991, Kurdish lawmaker Leyla Zana took the oath in parliament in the Kurdish language, causing an uproar. She was later stripped of her immunity, prosecuted on charges of separatism and links to the rebels, and served a decade in prison along with three other Kurdish legislators.