Early in December, one of Turkey’s best-known singers and film stars, Ibrahim Tatlises, sang a song in Kurdish, his native language, live on television.

Then, a few days after his performance, members of Turkey’s rightist Ulkucu movement, the youth wing of former government partner the National Action Party, staged a large protest in Istanbul against the singer.

The demonstrators carried banners saying, "Do not make our patience run out, we might visit you one night unexpectedly" and "We will hang you".

The furor comes after an EU report last month praised Turkey for its progress towards meeting the bloc’s membership criteria – including those on human rights.

For years, Turkey’s large ethnic Kurdish minority had been denied language rights. 

But recent legislation passed by the parliament in Ankara had liberalised this, allowing freedom to broadcast and publish in Kurdish, along with some rights to education in the mother tongue.

However, the EU report did say much more was needed to be done to ensure these reforms were fully understood, accepted and implemented.

Singer threatened

Tatlises, who has repeatedly outsold other artists in Turkey’s pop charts, responded to the criticism on Turkish TV channel CNN Turk, late in December.

"At least two people were killed recently in a shoot out at a wedding in the conservative town of Adapazari simply because a song was sung in Kurdish”

Ahmet Dagtekin,
head of the pro-Kurdish Democratic People’s Party

“I am not ashamed of my accent,” he told viewers, “otherwise I should be also ashamed of my mother and father.”

The singer, who was born in a cave and left school before he was 10, is massively popular for his pioneering role in developing a musical style known as ''Arabesque", fusing Middle Eastern and Western rhythms.

As for allegations from critics that singing in Kurdish promotes separatism, Tatlises responded, “I know that I do not have the power to divide Turkey. I do not hold separatist views about Turkey. I love Turkey very much. I am an artist and an artist does not have a party.”

But on 14 December, police arrested three Ulkucus, who were allegedly lying in wait near an Istanbul television station where Tatlises was recording a programme. In the men’s car, the police said they found a handgun, an automatic rifle and a stolen police uniform.

Police said that under interrogation, the men admitted they were planning to kill the singer for having sung in Kurdish.

All have been charged with attempted murder.

The song marked the first time Tatlises had sung in his native language before a large audience, or on television, having previously said that: “The timing was not right”.

However, for many in Turkey it seems, the timing is still not right, nor ever will be.

Rights' groups support

Support for Tatlises - who is also well known in Turkey for his high profile lifestyle, many girlfriends and alleged links to the criminal underworld - came from many Kurdish rights groups.

Until recently, Kurds could not give
their children Kurdish names

Ahmet Dagtekin, the head of the pro-Kurdish Democratic People’s Party in the singer’s hometown of Sanliurfa, said that the incident showed little had changed, despite the new laws.

“This is an indicator that there is no tolerance for the Kurdish language,” he said. “This is just another instance of this. At least two people were killed recently in a shoot out at a wedding in the conservative town of Adapazari simply because a song was sung in Kurdish.”

Another to speak out was Gulay Koc, the head of the Sanliurfa branch of Turkey’s Human Right Association.

“Human rights are being breached,” Koc said. “You cannot hang people because they sang in Kurdish.”

The legislation introduced by the government to broaden Kurdish language rights has recently hit a number of snags in addition to entrenched attitudes.

Strict language rules

The state’s media watchdog, the Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTUK), has set strict limits on the amount of material that can be aired in languages other than Turkish.

Turkish officials admit reforms will take time but will make a significant contribution to Ankara's EU accession process.

It is also up to RTUK to decide which media outlets can broadcast in what languages, with permission depending on a state-conducted survey of audience profiles in the station’s broadcast area.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry has now warned that these regulations do not meet minimum EU requirements. The foreseen redrafting of the rules may further delay broadcasting in Kurdish.

However, in a win for both the government and the Kurdish language, on 22 December Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals struck down a lower court’s ruling, banning the displaying of posters in Kurdish.

Slow reforms

Acknowledging the reforms would take time to sink in, Justice Minister Cemal Cicek said the ruling had made a significant contribution to Turkey’s EU accession process.

“The law operates a little bit slowly, but in the end, it meets expectations and it eliminates hesitations and objections,” he said. “The concerned court made such a decision.”

Meanwhile, singer Ibrahim Tatlises now travels on tour in a convoy accompanied by more than 20 vehicles filled with bodyguards.