Erdogan’s move to bring back Arabic script angers secularists

Published December 9, 2014
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

ISTANBUL: Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed on Monday to make lessons in the Arabic-alphabet Ottoman language compulsory in high schools — a highly symbolic move which enraged secularists who claim he is persuing an increasingly Islamist agenda.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, abolished the Ottoman language in 1928, replacing its Arabic alphabet with a Latin one.

He also purged the language of many of its Arabic, Persian and Greek words to create a new “pure” Turkish closer to the language people spoke.

Critics claimed Erdogan’s vow to reintroduce teaching of the language “no matter what they say” was another bid to roll back Ataturk’s secular reforms, which were based on a strict separation between religion and state.

Turkey’s National Education Council, largely made up of members backed by Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted government, voted over the weekend to make classes compulsory at religious high schools and an option at regular high schools.

The council also voted to ban bartending classes at tourism training high schools.

But Erdogan argued the lessons were necessary to restore Turks’ severed ties with “our roots”, with most unable to read the tombstones of their ancestors.

“There are those who do not want this to be taught. This is a great danger.

Whether they like it or not, the Ottoman language will be learnt and taught in this country,” Erdogan told a religious council meeting in Ankara.

“It’s not a foreign language. It’s a form of Turkish that will never age.

Therefore it will be taught no matter what they say,” he added.

And in one particularly emotive phrase, Erdogan compared Ataturk’s abolition of the language to cutting Turkey’s ‘jugular’.

“History rests in those gravestones. Can there be a bigger weakness than not knowing this? This (departure from the Ottoman language) was equal to the severing of our jugular veins,” Erdogan said.

Ottoman Turkish evolved as the administrative language of the 600-year-old multi-ethnic Ottoman empire, on whose ruins Ataturk created Turkey’s modern republic.

But even at the time of the empire’s collapse after WWI, it was mostly unintelligible to all but a tiny ruling elite.

“Hans in Germany can learn it and study the works (in the Ottoman language),” Erdogan said, citing a typical German male name. “But unfortunately this isn’t the case here.” And in comments which will give ammunition to critics who claim he is becoming more overtly Islamist, Erdogan added, This religion has a guardian.

Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2014

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