Iraqi Law Recognizes Kurdish, Assyrian, Other Languages

By Halkut Hakim – AL Monitor – 3.2.2014 – To this day, humankind has not found a stronger legal framework than the constitution to preserve the rights of individuals and groups. Yet the constitution, as a whole, is a document that has been exceeded by developments and changes over time. Those who write a new constitution are usually not those who wrote its predecessor.

And rarely does a constitution change in just a few years. France, for example, has had the most constitutions of any democratic state. In a period of 180 years, France issued 15 different constitutions. France’s most recent constitution was issued in 1957. Even though it has been in place for more than half a century, the French state is still governed by it and a large proportion of the population adheres to it. In the Middle East, we have adopted a concept similar to the modern constitution, even if at times it goes by different names. However, those who develop and sign the constitution are the first to refuse to operate according to it. They place themselves above the constitution. Thus, constitutions in the Middle East are “born dead,” according to the popular expression. This is because, for many years, the Middle East has been characterized by strong central authorities and a weakness — if not absence — of the law.

Today we are seeing events that go against these conclusions. This is happening even in Iraq, one of the most violent and dictatorial countries in the Middle East. The reason for this is simple: the authorities no longer have the necessary power to subdue the other components of the country — those who do not follow the authorities, benefit from their gifts, or remain silent when it comes to their violations.

On Jan. 7, 2013, the Iraqi parliament quietly voted on a law regulating official languages and local official languages. Despite the fact that members of the Iraqiya List — which is still headed by Ayad Allawi — refrained from voting, the session took place as though it were the session of a parliament whose members realized the value of the law and the constitution and the dimensions emanating from the two.

Article 4 of the Iraqi Constitution, which was ratified by a popular vote in 2005, stipulates that Arabic and Kurdish are the official languages of Iraq. The same article also ensures the rights of Iraqi citizens to educate their children in their mother tongues — including Turkmen and Syriac — in government institutions in accordance with education guidelines, or in any other language in private institutions. Section 2 of the same article specifies the scope of the term “official language” and the provisions of this article note that the official gazette shall be published in both Arabic and Kurdish. Moreover, the article stipulates that discussions and speeches in official domains — such as parliament, the cabinet, courts and official conferences — can be carried out in either of the two official languages. Furthermore, official documents and correspondences that are issued in either of the two languages shall be recognized officially. Schools can be opened in either Arabic or Kurdish according to educational guidelines and — based on the principle of equality — other official documents such as currency notes, passports and postage stamps can be printed in either of the two languages.

Institutions and government agencies in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region use both languages. The Constitution also stipulates that Turkmen and Syriac are official languages in the administrative units where native speakers of these languages comprise a significant proportion of the population (a law has also included the Armenian language alongside Turkmen and Syriac). The Constitution notes that any region or province can adopt an additional language as a “local official language” if the majority of the region or province’s residents agree to this in a general referendum.

The law voted on by parliament a few weeks ago — eight years after the constitution entered into force — serves as a means to implement what is specified in the Constitution, without adding anything other than clarifications. For example, it notes that Turkmen, Assyrian or Armenian citizens have the right to ask the administration of the government school where their children study to provide the latter with lessons in their mother tongue.

In this respect, Iraq is following in the footsteps of developed countries that have realized the importance of teaching a person his or her mother tongue if they so desire. Lawmakers have confirmed the importance of spreading “linguistic awareness” and bringing the various components of the country closer together. Today, this is now an issue of law, budget and implementation, especially when it comes to the employees who should be appointed in official circles and schools so that this law can come into effect. [To truly implement the law], thousands of employees are needed.

What is important is that the law confirms — without directly mentioning it — the idea that was expressed in Article 3 of the Constitution: that Iraq is a country of many nationalities, religions and sects. This is one of the most important issues that the Iraq state has refused to recognize since its inception. In Iraq, there are languages that can be traced back to completely different linguistic families. These include Semitic languages, Indo-Iranian languages (from which Farsi and Kurdish originated), Altaic languages (from which Turkish languages originated), Indo-European languages (from which Armenian originated) and Caucasian languages (from which Circassian originated). There are also some Iraqis who speak languages that are Slavic in origin.

Furthermore, there are many different religions and sects in Iraq. In addition to Muslims, Christians and Jews, there are Mandeans, Yazidis, Shabak, Kakaia and Bahais, not to mention various religions and sects that have disappeared in the present day. And according to official sources, Iraqis speak several languages, including Arabic, Kurdish, Turkmen, Syriac, Persian, Chaldean, Armenian, Roma, Mandean, Russian, Hebrew and Urdu.

This law did not come down as a mere gift from the government to Iraq’s various nationalities and their languages. Rather, it is just applying what the Constitution confirmed many years ago. It is also the product of a decades-long struggle carried out by the Kurds in particular. The Kurds are the first group concerned with the issue and the mechanism for activating the constitutional article and the law, and they have a long history with this issue. After efforts on the part of the Kurds that lasted over a decade and a half, in 1932, the royal government issued the “law of local languages” to satisfy the Kurds and to use as a card to enter the League of Nations. The law, on paper, specified that government employees in Kurdish regions must be Kurds, and schools [in these regions] must carry out instruction in Kurdish. While this law entered into force in schools in some Kurdish-majority regions, and some magazines and books were published in Kurdish, many Kurdish cultural and administrative fields deliberately remained in a state of delay until 1958. It was in this year that the Kurds achieved recognition in the Constitution via a single sentence noting that Arabs and Kurds are partners in the homeland.

Thus, some prospects opened up for the Kurdish language in terms of the spread of the language in primary schools and the opening of a Kurdish language department at the University of Baghdad. But the doors to the spread of the language closed once again three years later, when fighting commenced between the Iraqi government and the Kurdish national movement.

In 1970, when the autonomy law was issued, the Kurdish language went through one of its most prosperous periods in Iraq. The first Kurdish university was opened in the city of Sulaimaniyah, and a Kurdish scientific academy and a Kurdish culture directorate were opened in Baghdad. Moreover, schools in most Kurdish areas began teaching in the Kurdish language. However, the dream lasted only four years, when a dark period in the history of the Kurds began, unlike anything they had seen before. This period came to an end in 1991 with the occupation of Kuwait, and a period of gradual liberation began, eventually reaching the situation we know today. But in spite of the sacrifices made by Kurds in Iran, Turkey and Syria, the type of recognition achieved by Iraq’s Kurds in January of 2013 still remains a dream. The recognition of the Kurdish language and its use in official institutions and in other [non-Kurdish] areas of Iraq, even if only in form, will expedite the “return” of Kurds to the embrace of Iraq both intellectually and psychologically. That is, if the sectarian war does not rupture the joints of the country and lead its peoples and languages to a fate that is totally unknown.

Translated by Tyler Huffman.