Wednesday, March 28, 2007


"As long as the differences and diversities of mankind exist, democracy must allow for compromise, for accommodation, and for the recognition of differences."
~ Eugene McCarthy.

The following is a translated copy of the speech that DTP Mayor Abdullah Demirbas gave at the European Social Forum in January 2006, and for which a charge was filed against him in Turkey for "making propoganda to promote the aims of the terrorist organization PKK." It comprises Appendix 1 of the "Report on Local Government and Local Democracy Dynamics concerning the DTP Municipalities in Turkey."

Mayor Demirbas was subsequently acquitted of all charges in September 2006, but the fact that such a charge was brought against a Kurdish and DTP mayor is indicative of the harassment these mayors face from the Ankara regime.

Municipal Services and Local Governments in the Light of Multilingualism

By Abdullah DEMİRBAS, Mayor, Sur Municipality
Diyarbakir, 2005

1. Democracy and Multiculturalism

There is a widespread consensus that social life and forms of human thought have been undergoing a fundamental process of change and transformation. All the values of the project of modernity, which has developed since the 18th century, have been scrutinized; many components of modern life, ranging from the Enlightenment philosophy to traditional positivism, have been exposed to severe criticism. The boundaries of the nation-states, the emblematic outcomes of the French Revolution, have been blurred in the face of contemporary human realities. There is an ongoing process of transition from industrial to “information societies”. These fundamental transformations have repercussions in the institutional and political realms of human life. The importance of democracy is being re-surfaced within the framework of such transformations. Indeed, democracy has been proving itself to be the most proper and realistic system that can reflect and represent social realities in the political field.

The current debates carried out on the concept of democracy are not to suggest different ideas and practices in its stead. Rather, they aim to contribute to its effectiveness in order to make it function in a much better and satisfying way. Of course, the criticisms of democracy should not be carried out at a superficial and eclectical plane of discussion; the debates should involve a deeper scrutiny. The democratic theory has proved its reliability and feasibility by taking different forms to adapt to changing historical conditions. It should be noted right here that the democratic theory does not point to an already complete situation, rather, it is an ongoing process. This idea invalidates the claims that this or that country is proper for democracy. Rather, it backs the argument that a country improves and becomes proper through democracy.

Grounded in the idea that a people should have a determining influence on the political power, democracy is a system in which citizens could participate fully and effectively in the decision making processes that affect them, and this participation, at all levels, should be realized by means of a well functioning decentralization. It is important to note at this point the dependence of democracy on local governments. The citizens, who do not have an influence on the central government except for the election time, can express themselves through local governments. This argument also acknowledges that local governments are also a “democracy school”. The most important feature of democracy is its ability to enable the citizens become “active agents” in the process of meeting their needs at the local level. The most important element in the relation between local government and democracy is local cultures.

Taking culture as a set values and preferences meaningful to a people, a frame that offers a form of life to them, the harmoniousness of local democracy and culture appears as a must. This harmony is possible to the extent that all elements of a culture, which is a totality of normative values, principles and ideals, can express and maintain themselves within a democratic life.

In the process of the formation of nation-states, it was assumed that all cultures have a similar essence. Creating the illusion that internally homogenous societies exist, such an understanding has brought about the denial of different cultures that are located within territories of the nation-states. Authoritarian modern regimes have been inspired by this very illusion of homogeneity. However, today there is a trend that defends the local in its relation to the central authority, and, relationally, heterogeneity against homogeneity. Fed up by the dynamics of local cultures, local governments have a more democratic nature than the central authorities. In this regard, we have to note the significance of multiculturalism, which, relying on the idea of “unity in diversity”, foregrounds three fundamental principles.

1. People cannot be thought of independent of their cultures, since individuals produce and live with specific meanings, values and symbols in their interaction with social environment.

2. Differences are not a mistake. Each and every culture is “unique” and “valuable”.

3. As a part of a pluralistic structure, each and every culture can contribute to an understanding of democracy that does not exclude or discriminate against "the other”.

Confounding the monolithic and homogenizing cultural formations, multiculturalism both acknowledges and supports diversity. Enabling a rich democratic opening, this principle contributes to the flourishing of a citizen-centered democratic life. To attempt solely at creating democratic openings at the level of the central authority may result in a system that is still alien to local cultures. However, to defend and support the local may help to put into practice the principle of “unity in diversity” by foregrounding and realizing a free and citizen-centered approach.

2. Cultures and Language

Living in specific cultural contexts, human beings think and express what they think through the medium of language. In this sense, language is the main symbol of human life. Besides, it is only through language that other symbolic systems of human life can be interpreted. Any object which cannot be expressed in language is not able to have a meaning. Language is a human creation, and a historical phenomenon, in the exact sense of the words. It relies on a process of becoming, including all the meanings of human thought and practices. The boundaries of a people’s world of meanings are at the same time the boundaries of the language they speak. Language is not a simple means of communication; on the contrary, it involves all the meanings of human existence. It is definitely not possible to talk about human life beyond and without language.

Delivering services from a citizen-centered approach, local governments should be aware of the fact that the language a people use forms at the same time the spiritual world of those people. Language cannot be relegated to a simple medium of thought and communication between the people and governments. Language is what exists; it cannot be accepted as if it does not exist. Language, as a system of specific sounds, words or signs in order for people to express, in written or oral forms, their ideas, feelings, expectations and imaginations, is an active being living and developing according to principles unique to itself; and, as such, it is one of the most important components of any cultural formation. That is why most contemporary democratic societies have reflected their sensitivity to the issue of language on governmental systems in both theoretical and practical senses.

3. Conclusion and Suggestions

The monolithic logic of the nation-state has ignored the fact of cultural diversity in the process of the formation of the nation-states. In order to form a national unity, nation-states have aimed to produce a nation-form that aimed to secure some homogeneity with regard to linguistic, religious, sectarian, etc. differences that were sources of cultural diversity. This has led to the formation of a dominant and core cultural group within each territorially bound nation- state and the subjection of other cultures to this dominant group accordingly. With its current monolithic structure, however, the nation state is not able to keep together, in harmony and equality, the different forms of life within its territories.

Turkey has accepted a policy (Every one living within its borders is Turkish!) that intends to homogenize all peoples within its territories for years. Contradicting with the principle of multiculturalism, this policy has amounted to a despotic understanding aiming at denial and assimilation of cultural difference. However, cultural diversity could pave the way to refuse approaches relying on violence and conflict by opening space for intercultural dialogue and social peace. Since the declaration of the Turkish Republic and best concretized in the “Turkish History Thesis” and “Sun-Language Theory”, the approach that denies cultural difference has been the main frame of Turkey’s cultural and (national) identity politics, which was most obviously maintained in the 1982 Constitution. This understanding, which can be summarized as to characterize all people living within the national territories as Turkish regardless of their ethnic origins, has brought about the denial of many languages in Turkey such as Kurdish, Abkhaz, Arabic, Albanian, Circassian, Armenian, Georgian, Kıpti, Laz, Pomak, Greek, Syriac, Tatar and Hebrew languages. The people who claimed cultural diversity and difference have always been viewed as dangerous vis-à-vis the “monolithic” cultural politics of the Turkish Republic; they have been punished on the accusations of “infidelity” and “separatism” on the one hand, and exposed in society to various policies of “devaluation”, on the other.

Although the arrangements that were devised recently as part of the process of Turkey’s accession to the European Union has brought some changes in the Turkish Republic’s traditional pro-status-quo approach, these arrangements fall short of establishing a truly multicultural society. For example, arrangements such as the Regulation on Education in Different Languages and Dialects Used Traditionally by Turkish Citizens in Daily Life and the Regulation on Radio and TV Broadcasting in Different Languages and Dialects Used Traditionally by Turkish Citizens in Daily Life have immediately put limits on the reform process.

The reforms that have been implemented so far and those that are planned to be implemented are far from meeting popular expectations. The core of the problem is very much about mentality change. It should be noted that a mentality change towards higher democracy standards would help to create internal peace and a harmonious social and moral climate. In this regard, specific policies should be devised and implemented in order to create equality among diverse ethnic and linguistic communities. Although the reforms that target democratization at the level of central authority are a positive step, local governments should be made autonomous so that democracy could permeate into the social fabric fully. The importance of municipalities, which are service institutions that come to power through democratic mechanisms, becomes clearer at this point. As the institutions closest to the people, municipalities are crucial with regard to the promotion of democracy and the improvement of the citizens’ democratic culture. While delivering services to meet local needs, municipalities involve in direct communication with the people. Therefore, they have to take into account all cultural and linguistic groups in the locality. The differences in the areas where municipalities deliver services are a natural situation and cultural richness. Social and cultural diversity should be included in politics as “colorfulness” and on the basis of a culture of tolerance that democratic pluralism produces. To this end, specific measures should be devised in order for all kinds of linguistic, cultural, religious and belief groups to express themselves fully and freely. “One-nation - one language” approach should be abandoned, and a pluralistic and participatory democratic process should be initiated.

In contemporary modern democracies the principle of “unity in diversity” has been put into practice by means of pluralistic and multilingual mechanisms. Multilingualism is guaranteed constitutionally in many states, and is being practiced by various municipalities. The states who have accepted the principle of multilingual municipal services can be counted as follows: Belgium, Switzerland, Canada, Israel, Sweden, Spain, Basque Country, India, China, Indonesia, England, Wales, Scotland, North Ireland, France, Bulgaria, etc.

Meeting the needs of people, municipalities detect those needs by communicating with local people. The necessity of face-to-face dialogue of municipalities with people in the locality brings about the problem of understanding local languages. Delivering municipal services in a multilingual framework is a necessity because of both the very reason and meaning of the existence of municipalities and the principle of democratic pluralism. We suggest the following with regard to application of multilingualism in delivering municipal services.

1. Before applications in specific localities, macro constitutional and legal arrangements should be made at the level of state administration. Specific measures should be taken so that citizens could participate with their own identities and languages into the processes that affect them directly or indirectly. The identity of “Türkiyelilik” [which literally means to be from Turkey] could be included in the Constitution as a roof term, and constitutional norms should be taken into account accordingly.

2. The ability of the municipalities to receive the demands and complaints of the local people properly and produce solutions in the light of these relies on whether the municipal officials and local people can express themselves clearly and understand each other. Because of this, before any specific application of multilingualism the municipalities should undertake preparatory activities. In this context, first of all, the rooms and desks, titles and duties should be defined in a multilingual way (written in Turkish, Kurdish, Zazaic, English, etc.)

3. Because it is not very possible that all units in the municipalities could understand and communicate through all of the local languages and dialects, the municipalities should hire interpreters as an institutional responsibility.

4. Within the framework of the law that regulates “The Right to Obtain Information”, the municipalities should be able to respond to the local demands for information in the local language through which the demand was raised in the first place.

5. Within the framework of multilingual municipal services, another suggestion can be that each and every linguistic community could form their own “People’s Assembly”. The assemblies could speak in their own languages in the meetings, and the points over which they have consensus should be taken as recommendations to the municipalities.

6. Municipalities should communicate with the people about declarations, announcements and campaigns in multiple languages.

7. Municipalities should prepare and publish their annual activity reports in multiple languages.

8. The era we live in is called the “Age of Information”. Most means of communication are based on information technologies. The spread of Internet technology has been directing the municipalities in new ways. While preparing their web sites, municipalities should take into account multilingual applications, and arrange the sites in all the languages and dialects that are used or can possibly be used.

9. Local languages should be used sufficiently in the local bulletins and publications that aim to inform people.

10. The names of roads, streets and parks in the residential areas where municipalities deliver services should be written in multiple languages.

11. One of the most common means of communication with the municipality is telephone. With the application of multilingualism in services, municipalities should be able to communicate with the citizens and deliver services in multiple languages. For this reason, the municipal personnel who receive phone calls could speak Kurdish, Arabic, Syriac, etc. as much as s/he can speak Turkish and English.

12. Besides, in order to contribute to the protection and preservation of the local languages used by citizens, municipalities should support studies on spelling and dictionaries. Also, municipalities could support studies on translation of World’s Classics into local languages as well as participate in activities that target children such as collecting and publishing stories and tales, educational brochures and child literature.

13. To know the local language should be a pre-condition for employment in the municipality.

14. In the delivery of local services, urban development plans as well as the projects prepared by engineers should be publicized in other languages besides the official language.

15. Official documents could be in other languages.

16. In the body of municipalities there should be libraries that have materials in different languages.

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