Aykan Erdemir / Sude Akgundogdu
Turkey has a long history of discrimination against its Kurdish citizens as well as restrictions against using the Kurdish language. While this systematic exclusion has drawn international attention, its detrimental effects on the religious freedoms of Kurdish Muslims and Christians remain little noticed. Thus, it is time for the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and the global religious freedom advocacy community to highlight the egregious religious freedom violations that result from restrictions on using the Kurdish language as part of religious services.
Turkish police on July 3 rounded up 28 Muslim clerics, arresting nine, for preaching sermons in Kurdish. During the questioning of the imams, authorities insisted that the mere use of Kurdish words resonated with the “organizational discourse” of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist-designated group that has led an insurgency against Turkey for four decades. One of the detained imams said that officers showed photos of prayers in mosques as evidence of their crimes.
These spurious arrests come at a time when hate crimes targeting Turkey’s Kurdish community are climbing. In July alone, there were at least four reported violent attacks targeting Kurds. Echoing the Turkish authorities’ prejudice against the Kurdish language, a racist mob in the western province of Afyon assaulted a group of Kurdish seasonal workers for speaking Kurdish, accusing them of being PKK members due to the use of their language.
Hostility toward the use of Kurdish in religious spaces is not a new trend. In Turkey, these spaces are strictly controlled by the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), a governmental agency that delivers, and thereby controls, religious services for Muslims through the nearly 130,000 clerics it employs. The enduring criminalization of the Kurdish language, most recently through its vilification as PKK propaganda, has prevented Turkey’s Kurdish-speakers not only from receiving government services on an equal footing but also from accessing and performing religious services as they see fit. The Diyanet has refused to provide or allow for Kurdish-language sermons, with the exception of a few symbolic cases, and Turkish authorities have regularly cracked down on imams who incorporate Kurdish into their religious services, leading to detentions, jail time, and the banishment of Kurdish imams from their posts.
In 2008, the Diyanet rejected an appeal by a Kurdish congregation requesting the delivery of its sermons in Kurdish. The religious agency cited the third article of the Turkish Constitution, which decrees Turkish as the language of the state, as grounds for its decision, ruling that the Diyanet’s clerics may only use the official language of the state. As a result, Turkish sermons prescribed by the agency continue to remain largely incomprehensible for the country’s monolingual Kurdish speakers.
The Diyanet’s rejection of Kurdish worship inspired a flurry of protests in 2011 led by the now-shuttered pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). The party organized “civilian Friday prayers” in Kurdish-majority provinces, where voluntary imams led prayers and delivered public sermons in Kurdish. Many Kurds applauded the movement. One citizen in Turkey’s southeastern Diyarbakir said, “The government’s imam preaches in Turkish. We understand Kurdish better.”
Some of these services drew up to 5,000 participants, but their popularity did not lead to an easing of state restrictions on religious freedom. In May 2018, Turkish police detained a voluntary imam in a mosque in Diyarbakir’s Cizre sub-province for delivering Friday sermons in Kurdish. Authorities reportedly questioned the imam about whether he had disseminated anti-government messaging through his Kurdish sermons. Soon after the imam’s release, the Diyanet’s provincial officials not only barred the imam from giving sermons but also banished him from the mosque.
A year later, a Diyarbakir court slapped a six-year prison sentence on a “civilian imam,” a title that refers to imams who lead non-state-sanctioned Friday prayers in Kurdish. The indictment accused the imam of membership in a terrorist organization. In a similar case in September 2020, an 80-year-old Kurdish individual passed away in prison while serving a seven-year sentence for holding a memorial service in Kurdish.
Even the pandemic provided no respite for imams delivering Kurdish-language services. Last August, gendarmerie officers in Diyarbakir’s Sur sub-province reportedly interrupted a memorial service being delivered in Kurdish. The officers pressed the imam on whether he was a member of the PKK due to his use of Kurdish.
Christian Kurds suffer the same indignities. An overwhelming majority of Kurds in Turkey are Muslim, but there are Kurdish individuals among the estimated 5,000 Turkish citizens who have converted to Protestantism over the years. Turkey’s Christian Kurds found themselves in the midst of an international controversy when a farcical indictment against North Carolina Pastor Andrew Craig Brunson—unjustly imprisoned in Turkey for two years on spurious terrorism, coup plotting, and espionage charges. The state criminalized their faith and described their use of the Kurdish language as evidence of terrorism. An anonymous witness in the Brunson case testified that some members of Brunson’s congregation would worship in Kurdish as evidence of his claim that the pastor sought to establish a Christian Kurdish state by converting the PKK to Christianity. At the time, Turkey’s semi-official news agency featured this ludicrous claim prominently as part of its systematic smear campaign against Brunson.
The indictment also pointed to Brunson’s alleged publishing of Kurdish Bibles to prove his involvement with the PKK. Another strange accusation he faced was the claim that a PKK member, whom Brunson had regularly invited to speak at church services, would cut a cake each week “with a PKK flag with a cross on [it]”—a slander that made headlines even in mainstream Turkish newspapers.
Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city and top tourist destination, is home to over three million Kurds and host to over 200,000 Kurdish-speaking guests every year. But it fails to offer services in Kurdish, although the municipality offers informational services in 20 other languages. The exclusion of Kurds extends to the private sector. Two of Turkey’s top three cell service providers do not offer customer assistance in Kurdish, despite the country being home to some 18 million Kurds.
The Turkish government’s animosity toward the Kurdish language harkens back to the extreme anti-Kurdish measures of the past. Between 1983 and 1991, it was illegal to speak Kurdish in public. It was not until 2002 that broadcasting in Kurdish was possible and not until 2003 that parents could give their children Kurdish names. Despite the lifting of these discriminatory regulations, an antipathy toward Kurdish and a bigoted misconstruction of it as the language of the PKK persist to this day.
Given Turkey’s alarming track record concerning its minority faith communities and increasingly hostile approach to the Kurdish issue, securing religious freedom for Turkey’s Kurds appears out of reach. If a court bid to shutter the country’s second-largest opposition party, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), materializes, Kurds would lose the only party that consistently advocates for their rights, including their religious freedoms.
The annual reports of USCIRF have presented detailed assessments of restrictions on freedom of religion or belief in Turkey, and the Commission has recommended the US government include Turkey on the State Department’s “Special Watch List” for “engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom.” But there has not been a focus on the detrimental role of Kurdish-language restrictions and anti-Kurdish prejudice on Kurdish Muslims and Christians.
USCIRF should organize a fact-finding mission to Turkey to study this pressing problem, and US diplomats who monitor religious freedom issues in Turkey should document such violations in greater detail. As Biden administration officials interact with Ankara, they should remind their Turkish counterparts that destigmatizing the Kurdish language is just as important for respecting the religious freedoms of Turkey’s Kurds as it is for recognizing their broader rights and freedoms.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). He is the rotating co-chair of the Anti-Defamation League’s Task Force on Middle East Minorities and a steering committee member of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief (IPPFoRB). Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir. Sude Akgundogdu, a student at Williams College, is an intern at the Turkey Program of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.