FREEDOM OF SPEECH -- FREE EXPRESSION IN ANY LANGUAGE:
LINGUISTIC FREEDOM FOR MINORITIES IN THE MIDDLE EAST
By Jonathan Eric Lewis
But, if Washington is to be successful in fostering democratic change in the Middle East and in promoting stability within states that have ongoing ethnic conflicts, it must put linguistic freedom — the right to freely speak and educate one's children in one's native language — on par with other concepts such as women's rights and religious freedom. The lack of linguistic freedom in much of the Middle East is part and parcel of the region's general stagnation under archaic political systems.
Given the vast diversity of ethno-linguistic groups throughout North Africa, Anatolia, the Levant, Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf, it is striking that just three regional languages dominate the public arena: Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. This is the legacy of European-style nationalism in the Middle East: linguistic conformity has been made a staple of national identity, as states still labor to achieve a nineteenth-century European ideal of the nation-state.
There is nothing wrong with a state imposing a certain degree of linguistic uniformity in order to achieve a measure of national cohesiveness, such as the case in Israel, where modern Hebrew acted as a means of fostering a new, unifying national identity. However, when a state's policy shifts from using a language as a means of fostering national unity to a deliberate policy of denying or eradicating the cultural identity of minority groups, it bodes ill for tolerance in the polity as a whole. Such has been the case with the Assyrians in Iraq, the Kabyles in Algeria, and the Kurds in Turkey. A proper balance would allow simultaneously for a unifying national language, such as Arabic or Hebrew, together with a legally protected right for all minority groups to speak their native languages at home and to print material in these languages for personal use, without fear of state repression.
The ideal of linguistic conformity, however, is pervasive throughout the Middle East, although actual policies have differed from state to state. Baathist Iraq, perhaps the most totalitarian of all the Middle Eastern regimes and certainly the most violent, had an extremely harsh language policy that conformed to its fascistic interpretation of Arab nationalism. Algeria's Kabyles and Turkey's Kurds have also been subjected to state pressures, and have reacted by developing political movements that have resisted official language policy. By contrast, Israel, through its laissez-faire linguistic policies, has defused some of the resentment of its large Arabic-speaking minority. By according official standing to Arabic, it has bought the acquiescence of a large Arabic-speaking Muslim minority that has yet to come to terms with the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state. 
These four countries — Algeria, Iraq, Israel, and Turkey — provide different models for the relationship between state power and linguistic freedom. The Arabization policies of Iraq and Algeria ultimately foreshadowed infernos of political violence. Turkey's language policies led to internal destabilization, particularly in the primarily ethnic Kurdish southeast. The linguistic policies of Israel have contributed to a relative degree of internal stability. What this variation shows is that there is a high correlation between the suppression of languages, the suppression of dissent, and political violence. As U.S. policymakers raise the flag of women's rights and religious freedom, they should consider whether linguistic freedom, of the kind practiced in the United States, isn't just as suitable for promotion in the Middle East.
Iraq, upon independence in 1933, was a linguistically pluralistic state whose inhabitants spoke Iraqi Arabic (in several local dialects), Armenian, Assyrian, Judeo-Arabic, Kurdish, and Turkmen. Over the remaining century, and particularly under Baathist rule (1968 to 2003), Iraq became an increasingly Arab state in which Arabic enjoyed a privileged and dominant status. Under Saddam Hussein, ethno-linguistic minority groups, such as the Kurds, Assyrians and Turkmen, experienced extreme persecution and were severely restricted in their ability to speak and educate their children in their own language.
In the new Iraq, first steps have been taken to restore linguistic pluralism. Article 9 of the transitional Iraqi constitution, promulgated in March 2004, defines both Arabic and Kurdish as the two official languages of Iraq and also guarantees the "right of Iraqis to educate their children in their mother tongue, such as Turcoman [i.e., Turkmen], Syriac or Armenian, in government educational institutions in accordance with educational guidelines, or in any other language in private educational institutions."  The fact that this was agreed upon by the Iraqi Governing Council should be seen as an underreported victory of the Coalition Provisional Authority in its efforts to foster a pluralistic polity, embracing not only Kurds but also Assyrians and Turkmen.
Nevertheless, more needs to be done to guarantee the linguistic rights of the Iraqi Shi‘ite community. Najaf has long had a history of linguistic pluralism with Shi‘ites from Persia, Azerbaijan, Bukhara, and Lebanon studying in the city's madrasas (Islamic schools). Indeed, from the mid-eighteenth-century to the most recent decades, the majority of Najaf's students were not Arabic-speakers at all. Historian Yitzhak Nakash writes:
Given that the Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali as-Sistani, the country's pivotal power-broker, speaks Arabic with a Persian accent, there is an obvious need for guarantees of linguistic pluralism for the ethnically diverse Shi‘ites who will be returning to Najaf for scholarship. While Washington should not actively take part in intra-Shi‘ite theological disputes, it should use its leverage in Iraq to guarantee that speakers of Persian and Persian-influenced Arabic are not discriminated against in the public administration of Iraq.
Nowhere in the Middle East does the United States have a greater opportunity to foster linguistic pluralism than in Iraq. The provisional constitution, while theoretically protecting the linguistic rights of Armenians, Assyrians and Turkmen, will be but a piece of paper unless its provisions for linguistic freedom are vigorously enforced by the Iraqi judiciary. Washington further has the obligation to make sure that the Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq do not abuse their new found freedoms to discriminate against non-Kurdish speakers, particularly Assyrians, who fear that they will lose opportunities for bilingual Arabic and Assyrian education. Given the strong correlation between the persecution of ethno-linguistic minorities and state violence in Iraq, policymakers should consider the status of linguistic pluralism as a bellwether for Iraq's success in nation-building.
The first target of Arabization was French. During the long period of French colonial rule from 1830 to 1962, many Algerians, particularly members of the educated and urban classes, used French as a primary language. Such was the degree of French linguistic influence on Algerian society and politics that Algeria's first president, Ahmed Ben Bella, on release from French prison, proclaimed his adherence to Arab nationalism in French: "Nous sommes des Arabes!"("We are Arabs!")."  Ben Bella's use of French to proclaim his anti-imperialism and Arab-Islamic nationalism was paradoxical, for it was he who, as president (1962-1965), initiated the policy of linguistic Arabization in the country's primary schools.
Arabization took a particular form. The leaders of independent Algeria wished to link the country to the wider Arab world, which it regarded as the cultural counterweight to France. Hugh Roberts, Vice President of the Society for Algerian Studies, has written:
The promotion of this brand of Arabization gained momentum under President Houari Boumedienne (1965-1978), who declared a révolution culturelle to accompany the country's radical economic and foreign policies. Boumedienne's Arabization drive was intended to link Algeria to revolutionary ideologies in the rest of the Arab world. But, due to the lack of native speakers of modern standard Arabic, Algeria imported teachers from the Levant and Egypt, many of whom were sympathetic to Islamism. Their teaching had an unintended consequence of strengthening Islamism as an ideology in Algerian public life.
Also, because French remained the language of commerce, young educated speakers of Arabic — the socalled Arabisants — did not command adequate French for career advancement. These Arabisants gravitated to the study Islamic law and literature at the university level, rather than the francophone science and technology courses. This made them susceptible to Islamist teaching.  The migration of lower class, rural Arabisants into Algerian cities also played into the hands of Islamists. They would become the shock troops of the Islamist insurgency of the 1990s. Islamists still had to resort to French in order to recruit more educated followers. One of the best-selling Islamist newspapers in newly independent Algeria, ?Humanisme Musulman, was in French, not in Arabic.  Likewise, La Cause, the diaspora newspaper of the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), an Islamist group, was published in French. But the Arabic-French divide largely came to subsume the Islamist-secular split, which itself resulted in part from forced Arabization.
All of Algeria paid a price for Arabization, but it posed a direct threat to the identity of the Kabyles. Numbering approximately 20 percent of Algeria's population and a disproportionately large number of its intellectual class, Kabyles are a non-Arab, nominally Muslim community. Their ancestral homelands of Greater and Lesser Kabylia border the Mediterranean Sea. Kabyles speak Tamazigh, an Afro-Asiatic language linguistically unrelated to Arabic, and they trace their descent to the pre-Islamic Berber community indigenous to North Africa. Kabyles played a significant role in the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the Algerian nationalist movement that fought for independence from France, only to be politically sidelined by the Arab-Muslim elements within the FLN, once independence was achieved in 1962.
Governmental restrictions on Tamazigh-related activity began immediately upon independence. They included the abolition of the Chair of Berber Studies at Algiers University in 1962 and the criminalizing of the possession of Tamazigh dictionaries. After the cancellation of a lecture on Berber poetry by Kabyle activist Moulaoud Mammeri in the Kabyle city of Tizi Ouzou in 1980, a series of riots and demonstrations were sparked, often termed the Tizi Ouzou Spring, leaving several hundred dead or wounded. More recently, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in a nationwide television address, termed Tamazigh "a factory of division in national unity." 
The pressure has come not only from the state. Algerian Islamists have likewise victimized the Kabyle community and are responsible for bomb attacks against Kabyle music concerts and the kidnapping and eventual murder of the famous Kabyle singer Matoub Lounes, who had told a Kabyle newspaper that he was "neither Arab nor Muslim." 
Linguistic freedom has been one of the linchpins of the Kabyle political movement. The Movement for the Autonomy of Kabylia (MAK, founded 2001) is the most politically sophisticated of all the Kabyle ethno-linguistic political movements. The MAK, partially led by Ferhat Mehenni, a Kabyle singer-activist, advocates autonomy for Kabylia along the lines of that enjoyed by the Catalonians, Flemish, Welsh, and Scottish peoples.  The MAK boycotted the April, 2004, Algerian presidential elections on the grounds that Algiers has refused to recognize Tamazigh as an official (rather than just a "national") language.
Algeria's Arabization policy has had repercussions for both Europe and the United States. It has contributed to the growth of militant Islam within the Algerian public sphere, fueling not only the Algerian civil war but also the growth of a fundamentalist Arabisant Algerian diaspora in both Europe and North America. More recently, continuing clashes between the Kabyle minority and the country's security forces have clouded Algerian-U.S. cooperation in the ongoing war on terror, as Washington is reluctant to work with security forces responsible for suppression of a peaceful minority.
Unfortunately, President Bouteflika is using a restrictive linguistic policy to forge a national consensus. He seeks to reconcile Arab nationalists and Islamists by refusing to grant broad linguistic rights to the increasingly restless Kabyle minority. Arabization has become one more prop of an authoritarian regime that refuses to engage in much-needed economic and political reforms. The very least the United States can do, to begin to move Algeria in the direction of those reforms, is to stand on the side of linguistic diversity and urge the regime to abandon Arabization. Otherwise, the number of Arabisant Islamists will continue to swell into the next decade, and so too will the resentment of the Kabyles.
To understand Turkey's harsh restrictions on speaking and publishing in non-Turkish languages, it is necessary to recall the difficult circumstances that faced the nascent Turkish republic at independence. From the late Ottoman period onwards, the country's elite sought acceptance in Europe by embracing European-style notions of the nation. By a process of Turkification, they also sought to prevent the emergence of alternative national identities. They had learned, from long and bitter experience, that national groups under Ottoman rule could appeal to European powers to support separatist aspirations. By this process, the empire had lost most of its Balkan possessions.
The Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 ended the Turkish war of independence against both European and Greek forces and gave birth to the secular Turkish Republic. By its terms, Turkey had to recognize the rights of non-Muslim minorities such as Armenians and Greeks to educate in their own language. But these were small minorities whose national aspirations were being realized outside of Turkey's borders. The danger, in the minds of the Turkish-speaking elite, lay in Anatolia, among Muslim minority groups within the Turkish Republic. What was to keep them from making separatist demands? Turkey, therefore, successfully excluded their linguistic rights from the treaty.  Indeed, such disparate ethno-linguistic groups as the Albanians, Abkhaz, Arabs, Bosnians, Chechens, Circassians, Kurds, and Laz are not officially recognized by the state and have, instead, been subsumed under a monolithic Turkish identity.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's adamant secularism, or Kemalism, has likewise determined Turkish linguistic policies. As a means of breaking with the Islamic past, not only did Atatürk abolish the caliphate, but he also rid Turkish of Arabic and Persian elements, and replaced its Arabic script with a Latin one. This policy was deliberately intended to lessen the strength of Islam, by making the great body of extant religious literature inaccessible even to literate Turks. In 1932, the newly formed Türk Dil Kurumu (TDK), an organization devoted to promoting the Turkish language and protecting it from foreign influences, excised thousands of Arabic and Persian words from the new, modern Turkish lexicon.  The degree of success of this process is evident in both the generally high literacy rate among Turks, and the inability of the vast majority of Turks to read Ottoman-script Turkish documents. But even this success has not prevented the reassertion of Islam in Turkish politics.
The real cost of Turkification, however, has been paid by the state in its relationship with its Kurdish citizenry. Steven Kinzer of the New York Times, an observer of Turkish affairs, correctly assessed that "by banning almost every kind of Kurdish organization, the government made it impossible for moderate Kurdish leaders to emerge."  One of the most persistent demands of the mainstream Kurdish movement has been for the freedom to use Kurdish in schools and the media, both of which have been viewed with suspicion by Turkish authorities that rigorously adhere to the indivisible and unitary character of the state. More recently, the state has made some concessions, including the noteworthy granting of permission by the Turkish authorities for Kurdish-language teaching in private schools in Van, Batman, and Sanliurfa.  In June, 2004, Turkish state radio and television (TRT) began short broadcasts in two Kurdish dialects, Zaza and Kurmanjy, as well as in Arabic, Bosnian, and Circassian. There will likely be increasing demands for Kurdish language classes in state-funded schools, and a growing demand by other ethno-linguistic groups, such as the Circassians, for more linguistic freedom than they have enjoyed to date.
Recent relaxations of government policy have been billed as concessions to the EU. In particular, Ankara's stringent policies on the public use of Kurdish have been a constant source of friction with the EU, as well as international human rights organizations. At the same time, there may be a realization in the Turkish political elite that past policies have been counter-productive. Those past policies were inspired by a nineteenth-century European ideal of linguistic conformity — an ideal that even Europe has abandoned as dangerous and divisive. The United States, however, has taken a less adamant stance on linguistic freedom in Turkey. This is one issue on which Washington might amplify the message coming from Brussels: Turkey will be stronger if it allows a greater measure of linguistic freedom. Far from prompting political separatism, such liberalization will tend to neutralize it.
Israel has neither a constitutional provision nor a law that specifically articulates the state's language policy.  This affords both central and local governmental authorities great flexibility in shaping Israeli society's use of various languages in private and public life and allows for the state to reshape its policies in relation to both the ongoing conflict with its adversaries and the emerging challenges to Hebrew-language dominance.
In order to comprehend Israel's relative degree of linguistic pluralism within the context of the Middle East, one must take into account several things: Israel's history of Jewish immigration and the rebirth of Hebrew as a vernacular language for the country's Jewish citizens, the granting to Arabic the status of an official language of the Jewish state, Israel's laissez-faire attitude toward the country's Armenian and Circassian minorities, and contemporary attempts to promote bilingualism. Despite the rising numbers of Israel's Arab citizens involved in terrorist activities — still an extremely small number in proportion to the numerical strength of the Arab sector — Israel's policy of linguistic tolerance has helped to stem the tide of radicalization of its minority communities.
Hebrew, as the most widely spoken language and as the language of government, has become to Israel what English is to the United States: the language to be used by immigrants (whose native languages number in the hundreds) so as to create a monolithic Israeli linguistic identity. Given the importance of the rebirth of Hebrew as a vernacular for the modern Zionist project, Hebrew has become the Israeli language, par excellence. In the early years of the state, Hebrew primacy came at the expense of the numerous languages spoken by Jewish immigrants, particularly Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, and Judeo-Berber, vernacular languages that were both discouraged and marginalized in the new Hebrew-speaking society. (Speech in other European languages spoken by immigrants, such German and Polish, was also discouraged.)
But the State of Israel's promotion of Hebrew as the dominant language of its majority actually discriminated more against rival Judaic (and European) languages than against languages spoken by the country's non-Jewish minorities. Certainly Israel's Arab citizens are also required to learn Hebrew in school. However, Arabic is an official language of the Jewish state, a status it shares only with Hebrew. Not only does Israel allow its Arabic-speaking citizens to maintain their own linguistic identity, the government funds Arabic-language schools for its Palestinian Arab citizenry. Likewise, signs in Israel are often found in both Hebrew and Arabic, and there is no shortage of Arabic-language newspapers and broadcasts.
Due to the growing demographic and numerical strength of Israel's Arab citizens, it is conceivable that Arabic will become an increasingly influential language in the Jewish state. This partially explains the attempts by some Israeli political activists to press for a greater Hebrew-Arabic bilingualism among Jews, a move with significant political implications. The Swiss government, for example, has given financial support for an Arab-Jewish bilingual school in Jerusalem.  Haifa mayor Yona Yahav recently argued that "one of the barriers that exacerbates the Jewish-Arab conflict is the language barrier," a clear indication that he believes that an increased appreciation and understanding of Arabic by all Haifa schoolchildren could help to lessen the potential ethnic and political conflicts within the municipality. 
The effort to create a bilingual society in Israel will face many obstacles, not least of which is the perception that Arabic is the language of the enemy. There is also the fact that the million-plus immigrants who arrived from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s have differed from past Jewish immigrants. They have maintained their Russian language, imparted it to the next generation, and supported cultural activities in Russian. Over the past decade, Russian has emerged as a second language of Israeli Jews, easily on par with Arabic in the media, politics, and advertising.
In sum, Israel is more linguistically diverse than ever, and the absence of linguistic legislation allows for a great deal of creativity and flexibility. This laissez faire attitude has served the state well, compensating Arabic-speaking communities for other forms of perceived social and political discrimination, and integrating large numbers of Russian-speakers into society, even before they have mastered Hebrew. Linguistic pluralism has been of crucial importance in strengthening Israeli democracy, and in reinforcing a respect for political and religious pluralism. It is no accident that the most vibrant democracy in the Middle East is also the most tolerant of diversity in languages.
This is where the United States can and should play a role. Just as Washington has an interest in a democratic Middle East, it also has an interest in a Middle East that respects linguistic freedom. Its absence is usually a sign of a dangerously dysfunctional political system. So it was in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, where the oppression of Kurds and threats to U.S. security went hand in hand. So it was in Algeria, where growing Arabization led to civil war and the emergence of radicalized Islamist cadres that have posed a clear danger to U.S. national interests. So it was in Turkey, where a stringent policy against Kurdish contributed to blocking Turkey's path to the EU, a clear U.S. interest and one that U.S President George Bush, despite opposition from French President Jacques Chirac, rightly promoted at the June, 2004, North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Istanbul.
Washington can help to promote linguistic diversity if it raises the issue to the same level as religious freedom and gender equality. It should use its not-inconsiderable influence to assure that the new Iraq protects linguistic freedom and pluralism. Indeed, it is unlikely that Iraq will break with its sorry record of abusing minorities, or achieve even a semblance of democracy, without guaranteeing such freedom. Washington likewise should urge Algeria to stop placating Islamists at the expense of Kabyles. The United States also should work with the European Union to create still more incentives for Turkey to liberalize its linguistic policies, especially vis-à-vis Kurdish. This can only strengthen Turkish democracy, which is not only important for U.S. strategic interests, but which also provides a working model for other regional states, notably the fledgling Iraqi polity. As for governments at odds with the United States, such as Iran and Syria, their policies toward language freedom, particularly against their Kurdish citizens, should be monitored and reported, just as the United States monitors their involvement in terrorism.
It is in America's longterm national interest for Washington to promote linguistic freedom in a region stagnating under archaic economic and political systems and generating totalitarian movements, religious and secular, that are hostile to American national security. One way to do that is to promote freedom of speech in its fullest sense. That means not just the freedom to speak one's mind. It means the freedom to speak whatever language comes most readily to one's lips.
The Israeli-Arab Conflict
Turkey, the Middle East, & the U.S.A.
The Middle East & the Problem of Iraq
Page Two Page One
The Problem of Rogue States:
Iraq as a Case History
Islamism & Jihadism -- The Threat of Radical Islam
Page Three Page Two Page One
War & Peace in the Real World
Page Two Page One
Islamist Terrorist Attacks on the U.S.A.
Osama bin Laden & the Islamist Declaration of War
Against the U.S.A. & Western Civilization
Islamist International Terrorism &
U.S. Intelligence Agencies
U.S. National Security Strategy
Jonathan Eric Lewis is a New York-based political analyst and consultant specializing in the history of Middle Eastern minority
groups and their political movements in the diaspora. The foregoing article by Lewis was originally published in the
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September 27, 2004
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