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Q, W And X Spell Trouble For Kurdish Integration

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  • Q, W And X Spell Trouble For Kurdish Integration

    Thomas Seibert

    The National
    September 29, 2009

    A Kurdish boy at a school in Diyarbakir, the capital of Turkey's
    Kurdish region. Chris Hondros / Getty Images

    ISTANBUL // Can a "w" be a threat to national unity? The Turkish
    government is preparing to submit to parliament a package of measures
    designed to end the Kurdish conflict, which has cost tens of thousands
    of lives, but nationalists have been up in arms since media reported
    that Ankara is planning to allow Kurds to use such letters as q, w
    and x in public - and maybe even reform the Turkish alphabet itself
    to embrace the Kurdish letters officially.

    "This is treason against the Turkish language," Oktay Vural, a
    leading member of the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP,
    told reporters in Ankara. "This is not a democratic opening, but a
    separatist one."

    Q, w and x are not part of the Turkish alphabet at the moment, and
    although their use in foreign language words and abbreviations -
    such as "www" - is accepted, Kurdish activists who used the letters
    in Kurdish words in the past have been charged with violating language
    provisions laid down in a law dating from 1928.

    The row over the Kurdish letters died down after the government denied
    there were plans to change the alphabet, but the linguistic debate was
    only an early skirmish in a political battle about to begin in earnest.

    The "Kurdish opening", as the government's Kurdish plans are called
    by the media, will be at the top of the agenda of deputies returning
    to parliament in Ankara tomorrow after a long summer break. Recep
    Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, sees an opportunity to end the
    Kurdish conflict and can count on the support of many war-weary
    voters and the military. But the row about the Kurdish letters and
    other details of Ankara's plan shows that Mr Erdogan faces an uphill
    struggle to win opposition support for the legal changes necessary
    to get the initiative on tra od that could be crucial for Turkey's
    domestic and foreign policies, and for Mr Erdogan's own career as
    well. Apart from the "Kurdish opening", parliament will also debate
    recent agreements between Turkey and Armenia for the normalisation
    of relations and an eventual opening of the closed border between
    the two neighbours. The documents are to be signed by the foreign
    ministers of the two countries on October 10. After that, parliaments
    in Ankara and Yerevan will vote on the agreements.

    With the Kurdish and Armenian issues, Mr Erdogan is tackling the
    two most sensitive topics in Turkish politics at the same time. The
    opposition in Ankara has been protesting against planned steps on both
    issues. Mr Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP,
    has enough seats in parliament to push through legal changes on its
    own, but it would prefer to get other parties on board as well.

    In several speeches over the past few weeks, Mr Erdogan has made it
    clear that he is aware of the potential political fallout for himself
    and AKP, should the "Kurdish opening" fail to stop the violence that
    has plagued the country since 1984, the year rebels of the Kurdistan
    Workers' Party, or PKK, took up arms to fight for Kurdish self-rule.

    "Whatever the cost may be, we will not take a step back," Mr Erdogan
    told an audience in Istanbul last month. "Our party may lose votes
    ... We took that risk when we set out on our way and we will do what
    is necessary." Mr Erdogan has said he wants the "Kurdish opening" to
    be up and running by the end of the year. The package's main aim is
    to give more cultural rights to Kurds in an effort to weaken support
    for the PKK. According to press reports, the plan includes such steps
    as allowing Turkish families to give Kurdish names to their children,
    adding directions in Kurdish to road signs in the Kurdish area in
    south-eastern Anatolia, ending restrictions on the use of the Kurdish
    language during election campaigns and giving Kurdish children the
    chance to learn their an optional subject in their schools.

    In the run-up to the parliamentary debates, the government has tested
    public opinion about the "Kurdish opening". According to reports,
    government polls show that between 55 per cent and 64 per cent of
    the electorate support the initiative.

    A crucial factor has been the support of the military, which is
    highly respected among Turks. Last week, Ilker Basbug, the chief
    of general staff, was quoted as saying he did not see a problem
    in teaching Kurdish to children in state schools, a statement that
    makes it harder for opposition parties like the MHP to argue that Mr
    Erdogan's government is selling out to Kurdish separatists.