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The Legal Status of the Kurdish Language in Iraq

Shafiq Haji Khadar
Language is not only a means of understanding, but one of the fundamental aspects of the political identity of any nation. Language is one of the major factors which kept Kurds as Kurds. For that reason, the…

Previous constitutions

The first Iraqi constitution, the Basic Law of 1925, in its Article 124 did not recognize the Kurdish language and avoided mentioning and acknowledging that speakers of this language are one of the components of Iraq. Contrary to that, Article 17 of this law stated that, "the Arabic language is the official language of Iraq with the exception of any other language approved by a special law." Despite the fact that this constitution had been amended twice, the first time three months after its enactment and the second time in 1943, the amendments did not touch the above mentioned article and no constitutional provision was added stating that the Kurdish language is also an official language. Nevertheless, in 1931, the Law of Local Languages was enacted recognizing, to a certain degree, the Kurdish language. But even then it was not perceived to be an 'independent' language, but rather a local language for a certain area. The 1958 temporary constitution did not refer to the Kurds and to their language except in its third article which was also formulated in a way that could be misinterpreted. Article 3 stipulated that Arabs and Kurds are partners of the nation, but this article came directly after a previous article stipulating that, "Iraq is part of the Arab nation." This constitution, too, did not recognize the Kurdish language as an official language in Iraq.

Article 3 of the 1964 constitution stated that, "Islam is the religion of the state and the Arabic language is its official language." This article blocked the way for an official acknowledgement of the Kurdish language while it mentioned in its Article 19 that, "this constitution recognizes the national rights of the Kurds, as part of the Iraqi people, and in a national and brotherly unity." The same thing happened in the 1968 temporary constitution, which only recognized the Arabic language as an official language as stated in its Article 4. The temporary constitution issued in 1970, which remained in force until the fall of the regime in 2003, was an amended form of the 1968 constitution. This constitution allowed the use of the Kurdish language in self-rule areas inhibited by the Kurdish majority. However, the regime Arabized many Kurdish areas and deprived their inhabitants from self-rule and from the freedom of using the Kurdish language.

No need for the Kurdish language

The formulation of the Interim Constitution (the Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period) was an advanced step compared to other constitutions. The constitution, in its Article 9, stated that, "the Arabic language and the Kurdish language are the two official languages of Iraq." The permanent constitution that came afterwards, in its Article 4, kept this as it is and added to it two paragraphs relating to Turkmen, Syriac, and other local languages.

The first sentence of Article 4 of the permanent constitution states that, "Arabic and Kurdish languages are the two official languages for Iraq." This article is self-explanatory. In the paragraph that follows, and when explaining the official nature, it is obvious that the Kurdish language loses its sense of equality with the Arabic language, or at least the scope of the usage of the Kurdish language has been made limited. The second paragraph states that, "speaking, addressing and expressing in official domains" shall be made in either of the two languages and not in the two languages as expressed in other constitutions. In the official domain, as mentioned in this paragraph, such as the parliament, the cabinet, courts, and official conferences, the language practically used is the Arabic while Kurdish is usually forgotten for it is enough, from a constitutional point of view, to use the Arabic.

There is still one more comment on this article: According to the constitution, the manner of implementing the rules of this article shall not be direct but will be defined by a law. When will this law be enacted? Until now, the law has not yet been issued and nobody is speaking that it will soon be enacted. Paragraph 2 states that the implementation of the law should cover "any other realms that require the principle of equality, such as currency bills, passports, stamps etc…" Until now, no law was enacted to change the printing of currency bills, stamps and passports to be issued in two languages!

Official but only inside Kurdistan

The practical results of Paragraph 2 are clear: the marginalization of the Kurdish language. Paragraph 2 (c) recognizes official documents and correspondences in the two languages and the issuing of official documents in both. Nonetheless, since the enactment of the Law of Administration for the State of Iraq and until today, legal texts are only being issued in Arabic. Original copies of these are only printed in this language, and some people translate them unofficially. It is known that translation, in many cases, differs from the original copy, and when problems arise regarding the source of certain texts in the constitution, the Arabic text is usually consulted.

In this regard, Europe is a good model. Prior to its expansion, the 12 languages of the EU were official languages and the Finnish language spoken by around 4 million people was equal to the English language. Finnish representatives in the European parliament, despite knowing other languages, and especially English, spoke their mother language. Europe does not suffer national identity or minority crises and yet deals in such a manner with national languages, while in Iraq, Kurds consider their language as their identity, and this identity is being dealt with in a different manner.

The third paragraph of Article 4 states that, "Federal agencies and institutions in the region of Kurdistan use both languages." This paragraph is not in line with previous paragraphs, and is superfluous. According to this article, all other regions shall use only the Arabic language, while Kurdistan uses both languages equally. This paragraph annuls the contents of the first paragraph with regard to the equality of the two languages all over Iraq given that the "official nature" of the Kurdish language is limited to the borders of the Kurdistan region. Since drawing the borders of the region has been postponed until the end of 2007, according to Article 140 of the constitution, this means that the Kurdish language is not used in other Kurdish areas including the city of Kirkuk.

This constitution is issued by the federal government, but when we examine the laws of Kurdistan region, we find that the language issue is, to a large extent, neglected. Many laws of the Region were formulated and printed in Arabic. Even the draft constitution of the region, in its original copy, was written in Arabic. On the practical level, the courts of the region are also still using the Arabic language until today. All this evidence indicates that there exists no real understanding of the Kurdish language as a language closely linked to the identity of the nation and its political character.


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