The Kurdish language and culture in Turkey’s institutions of higher education have occupied the spotlight in the non-pro-government media earlier this fall. According to recent news, Dicle University in the Kurdish majority city of Diyarbakir banned students from writing their theses in Kurdish. What appeared as a new ruling in the news media, in reality, had long been in effect at Dicle, where students were not allowed to use Kurdish in their theses. Later, in a press release, the university administration refuted the recent news and stated that there was not any new ruling concerning the Kurdish Language and Culture program. Additionally, it said, from its establishment to this day, “language of instruction [in this program] has been Turkish… Likewise, in all of the philology departments such as English, Arabic, and Persian, the language of instruction is Turkish.” Yet, a quick glance at the thesis and dissertation database of the Higher Education Council (Yüksek Öğretim Kurulu or YÖK) indicates that there are theses written in Arabic, and even one in Kurdish but back in 2017. More recent theses submitted to the Kurdish Language program were written in Turkish. Not allowing Kurdish in a Kurdish Language and Literature Department obviously defies the raison d’être of the program itself, leaving one to question the use and function of a Kurdish language program in which students are not allowed to use the language in their written work. Despite its belated press release to the media, the frenzy of coverage about Dicle University’s ruling brought to fore fault lines and anxieties surrounding the Kurdology programs in Turkish universities.
The origins of the Kurdology program in Turkey go back to the early years of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, henceforth, AKP). In December 2009, Turkey witnessed a first: the newly established Mardin Artuklu University (MAU) launched an academic institution called the “Institute of Living Languages in Turkey” (Türkiye’de Yaşayan Diller Enstitüsü). The program offered courses in Arabic, Assyrian, and Kurdish culture, history, and languages. Leaving aside for a moment the oddness of the institute’s name, it was the first official institution in Turkey to offer a degree in Kurdish. The stated mission of the institute was “to offer undergraduate and graduate education and to conduct research and experiments in the field of Living Languages of Turkey.” Hence, at the outset, the Kurdology program was established at a public institution by the initiation of the ruling government.
In the intervening years, Turkey’s political scene has undergone significant changes as have the prospects of Kurdology programs. From the day it was launched, the fate of the Kurdish Culture and Language (or “Kurdology”) Program at Mardin Artuklu University was tied to the political process known as the Kurdish opening—or democratic opening—in Turkey. The discussions around Kurdish language education and how the program was launched, debated, and policed at MAU reflect the broader political framework for the so-called Kurdish question in the country and reveal how the basic right to education in Kurdish was turned into a political tool in the hands of the government. While seeking to create a liberal image by launching this program, the government found ways to curtail and undermine it by controlling the scholars and students who work in and with Kurdish.
The place and the timing for such an initiative were important. The languages offered by the Institute reflect the multilingual and multi-religious character of the city of Mardin, which is inhabited by Kurdish, Arab, Armenian, and Syriac populations. Mardin has long been known for its “diversity,” despite the massacres of non-Muslims that occurred there a century ago and the influence of robust Turkification policies of the Turkish state throughout the twentieth century. Of the languages offered, Kurdish proved to be the most controversial one, as the Kurds have long demanded their cultural and linguistic rights from an extremely obstinate Turkish state and an equally hostile Turkish public. Moreover, the region witnessed an active war between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkeran Kurdistan, or PKK) and the Turkish military from the 1990s to the 2000s. As such, the Kurdology Program was at the center of much broader developments in the country, as is made evident by the timing of the initiative: the Institute opened shortly after the ruling AKP launched a peace process in the summer of 2009, which involved “negotiations between state officials and the PKK” and reforms aimed at the “recognition of the cultural and political rights of the Kurds.”
In Turkey, universities have always been a part of the broader political context and conflicts. From the earliest days of the Turkish Republic, governments have sought to keep universities under strict control. Nationwide discussions on universities have centered on the issues of autonomy and academic freedom. Yet, the record of the Turkish higher education system on both has been dismal at best. In the 1960s and 1970s, universities turned into hotbeds of student activism until the 1980 military coup suppressed all types of political activism and destroyed the meager degree of freedom in the country. While the autonomy of the universities vis-à-vis the official ideology of the state and the degree of academic freedom fluctuated during this period, one thing remained constant: the Turkish academy consistently barred academic studies on any aspect of Kurdish society and language. In this sense, Kurdology at Mardin Artuklu University was the first course offering on Kurds in Turkey within an institutionalized setting recognized by the state.
The “Kurdish Opening”
The AKP government came to power in the November 2002 general elections. As early as 2005, then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sought to cultivate the impression through public speeches that the AKP government’s approach to the “Kurdish Question” would be different from its predecessors. Notwithstanding these early rhetorical maneuvers, the programs of the first two AKP governments failed to include any references to the Kurdish question. In 2009, however, the AKP’s reticence gave way to greater engagement. During this period, the PKK declared a unilateral cease-fire and shifted its ideology from one emphasizing a separate nation-state to one of self-government and democratic autonomy. In the last days of 2008, Turkey’s state broadcasting agency TRT launched its first Kurdish channel, which was initially named TRT Şeş (Six) and later became TRT Kurdî. Returning villages to their original Kurdish names and giving optional Kurdish courses in private institutions were the other steps put forth by the government as part of the democratic opening. In October 2009, Turkey witnessed another first with the arrival of 34 PKK fighters in guerilla uniforms from the Kandil and Maxmur camps in Iraq as a “peace group,” a move perceived within nationalist circles in Turkey as a “PKK-victory parade.” One thing that was unknown to the Turkish public at the time was Turkish state officials had been having secret talks with the PKK since 2008 (later known as the Oslo meetings).
Opening Kurdish language departments at higher educational institutions in Turkey was part and parcel of this broader context of peace talks. Thanks to the Institute of Living Languages, Mardin Artuklu University became the first university in the country to offer Kurdish as a stand-alone program at the Master’s level. The political background for the establishment of this Institute would leave an indelible mark on the program and its graduates’ prospects over the next couple of years.
Episode One: “Living Languages” in a City of “Harmony”
Mardin Artuklu University was established in 2007 during the first term of the AKP government along with sixteen other new provincial universities. Of these new universities, seven were in predominantly-Kurdish eastern and southeastern cities. Mardin, an ancient city with a deeply-rooted multi-religious character, had served as the stronghold for the Muslim Artuqid Dynasty, which left its imprint through numerous architectural structures and two major educational institutions, namely, the Kasimiye and Zinciriye madrasas. Mardin’s new university was named after the Artuqid dynasty. Notwithstanding this medieval Muslim past, the city had been home to various ancient Christian communities including Syriacs, Armenians, Nestorians, and Chaldeans. Despite the massacre of Christian communities in the early twentieth century, the multi-religious character of the town remained visible in its urban topography through the presence of numerous churches and monasteries. Indeed, Mardin’s multicultural tradition and the coexistence of different ethnic and religious groups in the city was a theme long trumpeted by traditional media in Turkey and ardently embraced by the university’s first administration and reflected in its curriculum, academic units, and activities.
As the revival of Mardin’s multicultural character was taking place, government officials began talking more explicitly about the importance of language and education reforms to the success of the peace process initiative. In July 2009, Erdoğan publicly announced that the government had inaugurated the Peace Process. Newspapers reported that the process involved a three-stage timeline, at the core of which were reforms on the use of the Kurdish language. Establishing Kurdish language and literature departments in universities and Kurdology institutes in the Mardin Artuklu and Dicle Universities were described as two key aspects of this process alongside other measures to ensure the “development and spread of Kurdish.” As the newspaper headlines put it, “the Kurdish opening [was] starting with education.”
Meanwhile, the Higher Education Council (Yüksek Öğretim Kurulu or YÖK) received an application from the administration of MAU to establish the Kurdish Language and Literature Department. Furthermore, the president of YÖK made remarks conveying a positive disposition toward the application. His words were reflective of this unprecedented political climate, in which the cultural and linguistic rights of the Kurds were being discussed publicly by government officials:
Regarding Kurdish education, we can give more than what they asked for. They asked for a department; if they like we can even give them an institute.
In this spirit, YÖK gained a key role in the controversial opening process. On the one hand, this showed that the issue of Kurdish language education constituted a significant component of the peace process—at least in governmental discourse. On the other hand, however, this move reflected an attempt by the government to centralize and monopolize its authority to open Kurdish-related academic units in universities under its purview. With a recent change in the Academic Organization Regulations, YÖK had taken control of the process to open a “scientific unit,” removing this power from the university’s own governance structures and effectively denying university administrations the authority to open any academic units offering Kurdish. At this time, the president of MAU was likely holding meetings with the prime minister and president on the opening of the Kurdology department at Artuklu. Indeed, even while it was still awaiting the outcome of their application, MAU had already started to offer Kurdish language lessons to fifteen academics who could potentially constitute the staff of the prospective department. This was the first time in the history of Turkey that a state institution was offering Kurdish courses. Finally, in early September 2009, the General Council of YÖK gave the green light to Kurdish education. The resolution was to open up an institute called the “Institute of Living Languages” at MAU, which would offer masters and doctoral degrees in Kurdish and potentially other languages, including Persian, Arabic, and Syriac. The decision to establish the Institute was published in the Official Gazette on 1 December 2009.
For different reasons, this was a huge disappointment in different circles. First and foremost, the university administration expressed their contempt for the government’s insistence on not using the name “Kurdology” in the name of the institute, opting instead for “Living Languages.” The president of the university, Serdar Bedii Omay, argued that using the term “living languages” instead of “Kurdology” would offend Kurdish citizens. Hence, he said they would continue to demand a Department of Kurdish Language and Literature and the Kurdology Institute.
This decision failed to meet the expectations of the supporters of Kurdish cultural and linguistic rights for two main reasons. First, because the new department would not have an undergraduate component it was a far cry from offering Kurdish to a large body of students. Second, the failure to include any explicit reference to “Kurdish” in the department name appeared to be nothing short of an attempt to conceal or further erase the Kurdish character of the institute. This was widely seen as a continuation of the Turkish state’s long-standing policy of denying that Kurds had a separate language or culture. The explanations of the president of YÖK further reinforced the idea that the government’s approach to Kurdish identity was merely old wine in new bottles:
In order to open an Institute of Kurdish Language and Literature, one needs a strong Turkish Language and Literature Department. Similarly, one also needs strong Persian and Arabic Departments. I don’t think that any department, institute, or scientific unit would be successful in the absence of these. For when you look at the Kurdish language, according to the studies, they state that sixty-seventy percent of it has been borrowed from Persian, while twenty-twenty-five percent has been borrowed from Arabic.
The supporters of Kurdish linguistic and cultural rights were not the only critics of this approach. The decree establishing the Institute of Living Languages and the Kurdish program created an uproar among the entrenched Republican, secular, Turkish nationalist elites who supported the Republican People’s Party. Their resentment found a voice in Cumhuriyet, the daily newspaper that had been the official organ of the early republican regime. A look through the Cumhuriyet’s pages during this period reveals a sense of panic and constant critique of the government for its decision to offer Kurdish at an official institution and more generally resentment of the peace process. Most of these criticisms reflected the conservative republican approach of treating the “Kurdish question” as a problem of feudalism, underdevelopment, or terrorism. The critics sought to undermine the demands for cultural and linguistic rights using these pretexts. In these accounts, the Kurdish “tribal chief” appears as a stereotypical “feudal lord” who oppresses the peasanty and forces his political preferences upon them. This perspective found an echo in the republican columnists’ discussion of the issues related to MAU. One columnist mockingly said:
I wonder if the president of Mardin Artuklu University, who explains every problem in the region through the lack of Kurdish programs in universities, would feel the need to conduct scientific research on the issue of the tribal chiefdoms (ağalık)?
The president of MAU at the time was a hematologist whose research had nothing to do with the sociological organization in the region. Despite the sarcasm, the columnist’s words reflected the dominant view of the republican elites: that the real problem in the region was “feudalism” and the question of cultural rights was secondary at best. Shortly after YÖK announced its decision to open the Kurdish program at Artuklu, YÖK’s former deputy president expressed his disdain in comments that were extensively covered in the pages of Cumhuriyet. He said he found it odd that “YÖK took seriously the request of Mardin Artuklu University to open a Kurdish Language and Literature Department and put it on the agenda.” He went so far as to state that this institute was stillborn, adding that “bringing these types of ideas to the agenda might lead to unexpected protests within universities. The incidents of the '70s could be relived on a larger scale.” Another article entitled “The Price to be Paid” referred to the potential consequences of the peace process and the opening of the Kurdish program at MAU:
If the president, saying this is a “golden opportunity,” starts from Norsin, where Saidi Nursi grew up, if the prime minister does not care about anything but an ill-defined “opening” that he initiated by saying “we are paying a debt that has accumulated over eighty years,” if the rector of Mardin Artuklu University, who, seeing the Higher Education Commission’s approval of an “Institute of Living Languages” as insufficient, wants an institute of Kurdology, then the end point for this is clear. These guys are going to run with it.
The author also added a cartoon showing Prime Minister Erdogan standing on the trunk of a tree that he is cutting down with an axe, saying “I am making an opening”—the implication being that he will be crushed by the falling trunk.
These words reflected the widespread sentiment among the republican nationalist elites that recognizing Kurdish cultural and linguistic rights would eventually result in Kurdish “separatism” and independence. According to this author, the price of the peace process (or the democratic opening) to be paid by Turkey was Kurdish independence. Paradoxically, he made this point in reference to the “Declaration for the Resolution of the Kurdistan National Question” (“Kürdistan ve Dünya Kamuoyu İçin, Kürdistan Ulusal Sorunun Çözüm Bildirgesi”), a document signed by more than one thousand Kurds in Turkey and Europe the prior year. The irony here is that this document itself was a critique of the democratic opening process—along with the PKK’s ideology of democratic republicanism—by Kurds who argued that having an independent state was the only solution to their problems. In other words, amongst Kurdish political groups, the supporters of independence were critical of the peace process itself, and this criticism did not constitute the dominant discourse within Kurdish political circles. By referring to this declaration and eventually connecting it with the Kurdish program at MAU, republican elites not only revealed their inability to comprehend the nuances between different Kurdish political factions and ideologies, they also voiced their fears of Kurdish independence. Through their reaction to the Kurdology program, secular nationalists were in fact dismissing the possibility of a reconciliation with the Kurds (i.e., the government’s peace process).
[Read Part 2 of this article here.]
 “Kürt Dili bölümünde “Kürtçe” tez yasaklandı,” https://dokuz8haber.net/toplum-yasam/egitim/kurt-dili-bolumunde-kurtce-tez-yasaklandi/ August 2, 2020. Accessed on September 20, 2020.
 “Dicle Üniversitesi'den ''Kürtçe tez yazımı yasaklandı' iddiasına yalanlama,” https://www.haber7.com/guncel/haber/3000606-dicle-universitesiden-kurtce-tez-yazimi-yasaklandi-iddiasina-yalanlama August 2, 2020. Accessed on September 20, 2020.
 Yüksek Öğretim Kurulu Tez Merkezi https://tez.yok.gov.tr/UlusalTezMerkezi/tezSorguSonucYeni.jsp Accessed on September 20, 2020.
The official web page of the “Yaşayan Diller Enstitüsü,” at Mardin Artuklu University http://www.artuklu.edu.tr/tr/yasayan-diller-enstitusu/suryani-dili-ve-kulturu Accessed on December 25, 2017.
 Mesut Yeğen, “The Kurdish Peace Process in Turkey: Genesis, Evolution and Prospects,” in Sanem Aydın-Düzgit et al. Global Turkey in Europe III: Democracy, Trade, and the Kurdish Question in Turkey-EU Relations (Edizioni Nuova Cultura: 2015), 157.
 Reflecting the new regime’s overall goal of detaching itself from the Ottoman legacy, the new republic turned the Ottoman higher education institution of Darulfünûn into Istanbul University in 1933. Presumably, the Darulfünûn’s “indifference,” or at times “reaction” to the republican reforms was the underlying reason for its closure and subsequent attachment to the Ministry of National Education. This, for all intents and purposes, terminated its autonomy. Yücel Namal and Tunay Karakök, “Atatürk ve Üniversite Reformu,” Yükseköğretim ve Bilim Dergisi 1, no. 1, April 2011, 27-35.
 Yeğen, 4-5
 Çiçek 20.
 Marlies Casier, Joost Jongerden, and Nic Walker, “Turkey's Kurdish movement and the AKP's Kurdish opening: Kurdish Spring or Fall?” in Mohammed M.A. Ahmed and Michael M. Gunter (eds.) The Kurdish Spring. Geopolitical Changes and the Kurds. Mesa (California): Mazda Publishers, 2013.
 Along with Mardin, Ağrı, Siirt, Bitlis, Bingöl, Muş, and Batman were the other Kurdish cities where new universities were established in 2007. Yükseköğretim Kurumları Teşkilatı Kanununda ve Yükseköğretim Kurumları Öğretim Elemanlarının Kadroları Hakkında Kanun Hükmünde Kararname ile Genel Kadro ve Usulü Hakkında Kanun Hükmünde Kararnameye Ekli Cetvellerde Değişiklik Yapılmasına Dair Kanun passed on 5/17/2007. Article 9. Resmi Gazete. (Official Gazette of the Republic of Turkey).
 For examples of traditional media framing Mardin in these terms see the following articles in the secular, republican Cumhuriyet newspaper: Oktay Ekinci, “Telkârinin Demokrasi Deneyimi,” Cumhuriyet, July 2, 2007; and İ. Gürşen Kafkas, “Uygarlıklar Kenti Mardin’de Artuklu Üniversitesi,” Cumhuriyet, January 31, 2009. The articles boast that “Mardin, the cradle of civilizations, located at the crossroads of the Silk and Spice roads, was known for the fraternity of religions,” where “Turks, Arabs, Kurds, Syriacs, and the Armenians lived in peace” and that “the sound of the church bells, ezan, and hazzan (çan/ezan/hazan)” could all be heard at once.”
 “Açılım Eğitimden Başlıyor,” Cumhuriyet, July 25, 2009.
 “Kürtçe Eğitime Olumlu Bakıyoruz,” Cumhuriyet, August 21, 2009.
 “YÖK’e Açılım Yetkisi,” Cumhuriyet, September 9, 2009.
 “Resmi Kurumda İlk Kürtçe Ders,” Cumhuriyet, August 18, 2009.
 “Resmi Kurumda İlk Kürtçe Kurs,” Cumhuriyet, August 18, 2009.
 “YÖK’ten Kürtçe Eğitime Vize,” Cumhuriyet, September 11, 2009.
 Resmi Gazete, December, 1 2009, no. 27419. Karar Sayısı: 2009/1559
 “Mardin Üniversitesi "Kürt Dili ve Kürdoloji"de Israrlı,” Bianet, September 15, 2009. http://bianet.org/biamag/bianet/117068-mardin-universitesi-kurt-dili-ve-kurdolojide-israrli Accessed on January 19, 2018.
 “Üniversitelerde önce Arapça ve Farsça bölümü lazım mış!!!” Birgün, October 10, 2009.
 Mesut Yeğen, “The Kurdish Question in Turkish State Discourse,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Oct., 1999), pp. 555-568.
 Orhan Birgit, “Gönülsüz Tezkerenin Getirecekleri, “Cumhuriyet, September 23, 2009.
 “Karar akademik değil,” Cumhuriyet, September 21, 2009.
 Işık Kansu, “Ödenecek Bedel,” Cumhuriyet, September 21, 2009.
“Kürdistan ve Dünya Kamuoyu İçin, Kürdistan Ulusal Sorunun Çözüm Bildirgesi.” Available at https://kurdians.wordpress.com/2008/05/21/kurdistan-ve-dunya-kamuoyu-icin-kurdistan-ulusal-sorunun-cozum-bildirgesi/ Accessed on g 10, 2017.