Saturday, April 12, 2008

Language & the Modern Project of "Nation-Building"

Sezgin Tanrikulu, leader of Diyarbakır's Bar Association, recently met with Erdoğan and sparked a fury of criticism when he walked out on the Prime Minister during an argument about education in Kurdish. While the prime minister has offered less than eager support for private language schools that offer classes in Kurdish, he remains very much opposed to the use of Kurdish in public schools. This is a comfort to most Turks who view proponents of education in Kurdish as separatists and express grave fear that a southeastern population educated in another language apart from Turkish would pose a serious threat to national coherence. Although the fears of the latter are not without ground, it seems reasonable to conclude that at the very least Erdoğan might endorse limited Kurdish education in public schools. Most Kurds are very poor and private language courses are out of the question. Not only is there not much investment capital to found such schools, but few could afford the enrollment. It is not out of the question to imagine public funding being allotted to after school programs and other educational initiatives taken to ensure that Kurds are able to preserve their language.

Interesting to the Erdoğan-Tanrikulu exchange is Mustafa Akyol's recent column. Akyol considers the importance modern nation-states vest in the formation of and education in a national language and compares the Turkish case to education in Europe, most especially France. The column speaks to the legacy of European nation-building and as I have written about before, the influence of the French on the policies of the Turkish state.

One of the interesting episodes in Turkey’s past week was a quarrel between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Diyarbakır Bar President Sezgin Tanrıkulu. In a gathering of NGO’s and government officials, Mr. Tanrıkulu, an ethnic Kurd, asked from the prime minister “not only economic, but also political reforms” for Turkey’s southeast, including the right to “Kurdish education.” Erdoğan didn’t like the idea and, instead, replied with an argument: “Education in a mother tongue does not exist anywhere in the world!”

I disagree with Mr. Erdoğan on this, and I think his government should consider at least a form of what Mr. Tanrıkulu had asked for. (Not “education in Kurdish,” but “education of Kurdish” might be the best formula.) I bet many readers of the Turkish Daily News, especially the ones from Europe, would also disagree with Mr. Erdoğan, and even express their dismay in the face of Turkey’s unwillingness to grant Kurds the right to get education in their mother tongue. But one should also see that there are reasons to be lenient on Turkey’s fixation on the “national language.” It is, after all, something that Turkey not invented, but imported – and from nowhere but good-old Europe.

From Babel to Paris

In the beginning, mankind had a single language. Or, at least, the Bible says so. According to the Book of Genesis, it was God who first gave a single language to humans. But then, after the Tower of Babel affair, He created other tongues. “That is why it was called Babel,” says Genesis, “because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world.”

Therefore, from a Judeo-Christian point of view, the existence of multiple languages was simply a result of divine will. Islam, not too surprisingly, confirmed the same wisdom. “Among [God]’s Signs," the Koran declared, “is the creation of the heavens and earth, and the variety of your languages and colors.”

Perhaps that was one reason why different languages and tongues co-existed in the pre-modern, religiously-defined era. Both in Christian Europe and in the Islamic Middle East, native languages were regarded as a part of the divinely ordained natural order.

Things started to change with modernity. The modern mind was a constructivist one – it aimed at re-creating the natural order as it willed. Yet some moderns, especially the British ones, decided to carry out this construction in harmony with pre-existing forms. They, after all, respected the natural (or, say, divine) order. Other moderns, especially the French ones, preferred to destroy all existing traditions and re-construct everything right from the beginning. They were, as they proudly declared, revolutionaries.

Native languages would be one – only one – of the many victims of the revolutionary modernists. Actually in the early stages of the French Revolution – that bloody archetype of revolutionary modernism – liberty of language was declared for all citizens of the French Republic. Yet soon, this policy was abandoned in favor of the imposition of a common language aimed at destroying local tongues. The ideology was expounded in the “Report on The Necessity and Means to Annihilate The Patois and to Universalize The Use of The French Language,” written by a Henri Grégoire and presented to the National Convention on June 4, 1794.

From that point on, the French Republic initiated a long war against the “non-French” languages and cultures – a policy which lasted until very recently, and whose traces arguably still survive. The basic idea behind “national education” in France has been the eradication of plurality. After 1918, the use of German in Alsace-Lorraine would be outlawed. In 1925, Anatole de Monzie, minister of public education, declared, "For the linguistic unity of France, the Breton language must disappear." Only in 1964 the French government would allow Breton on regional television – and only for one and a half minutes. Yet even in 1972, President Georges Pompidou would autocratically announce, “There is no place for the regional languages and cultures in a France that intends to mark Europe deeply."

France might have been the inventor of forced assimilation, but it was not its monopolist. “In the 19th and 20th centuries, most European states conducted politics of forced assimilation against their ethnic and linguistic minorities,” reminds Wikipedia. Even Norway, a beacon of peace and good life, carried out a “Norwegianisation process” on its ethnic minorities such as the Sami and the Kven – well up to the 1970s. (1972, by the way, was the year that homosexuality was decriminalized in Norway.)

Outgrowing Nation-Building

So, when Europeans criticize Turkey’s mistakes about its Kurdish citizens, they should be a little bit restrained. Yes, Turkey has taken huge missteps on this issue, and it needs fundamental reforms. But the mindset that led Turkey to the denial and forced assimilation of Kurds was not homemade. It was invented and first implemented in Europe.

Alas, before the arrival and dominance of that idea – i.e., revolutionary modernism – the Kurds existed in these lands and nobody forced any assimilation on them. The Ottoman State was a multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire. Pluralism, if you will, was the hallmark of the Ottomans. Then came the Turkish Republic, whose founders were, unfortunately, inspired by the French way of nation-building. Hence started the Kurd’s drama.

Today, the bright future of Turkey lies in its capacity to outgrow that early revolutionary modernist paradigm. We should not cease being a modern nation-state, to be sure, but we have to make it more liberal and pluralist. Europeans, of course, should help Turkey’s walk on this thorny path – but do this humbly and patiently. They just should keep in mind how long their liberalization has lasted, and how recently their illiberalism ended.

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