With his vociferous call on Monday to elevate an older form of Turkish in the national school curriculum, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is attempting to dismantle the linguistic cornerstone on which modern Turkey was built — and challenge the legacy of its master builder. If 20th century Turkey had been modeled on the obsessively secularist “modernizing” vision of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Erdogan has revealed the extent of his ambition to root the country’s future in the image of its imperial Ottoman past.
Erdogan’s comments came on the heels of a decision last weekend by Turkey’s National Education Council to make Ottoman language classes compulsory for the religious vocational high schools that train imams and elective for secular high schools across the country. The council’s position was widely criticized by Turkey’s secular opposition parties. But Erdogan made clear where he stands in a Dec. 8 speech in Ankara.
“Whether they want it or not, Ottoman [language] will be learned and taught in this country,” Erdogan said. “There are those who are uneasy with this country’s children learning Ottoman.”
The Ottoman language, which was abolished by Ataturk’s decree in 1928, is a predecessor to modern Turkish. It was written in Arabic script, and can still be found on monuments and buildings throughout Turkey. Added Erdogan, “They say, ‘Will we teach children how to read gravestones?’ But a history and a civilization is lying on those gravestones."
Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have never concealed their intention to uphold traditional notions of piety and establish a regional power base that would act as a counterweight to Western influence in the Middle East and Central Asia. The government lifted a decades old ban on Muslim headscarves in state high schools in September, and Erdogan’s political allies on the education council recently voted to ban bartending classes in tourism-industry vocational high schools. Last Thursday, Erdogan lashed out at the United Nations Security Council for being a “Christian body”that didn’t properly represent the interests of Muslim nations.
But changing the Turkish language is different; it is striking at the heart of the grand transformation ushered in by Ataturk in the 1920s. When Ataturk came to power as the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of World War I, the language spoken in Turkey had been a rich tapestry of Arabic, Turkish and Farsi woven together in flowing Arabic script. As part of Ataturk’s scheme to “modernize” Turkey, Arabic script was replaced with the Latin alphabet. Arabic and Farsi words were systematically replaced with German and French.
All of Ataturk's reforms, from the political reorganization of the empire to the adoption of the Saturday-Sunday Sabbath, pivoted Turkey towards European patterns of life. But the language reforms were the ones most profoundly felt every day. Seemingly overnight, an entire society was rendered illiterate and forced to rewrite its stories in an unfamiliar European script. Decades later, modern Turkish is a rich and expressive language, reaching its apotheosis in 2006 with the awarding of the Nobel Prize in literature to Orhan Pamuk for his novels written in modern Turkish.
With parliamentary elections slated for early 2015, Erdogan’s embrace of Ottoman Turkish is a preview of how he intends to spend the political capital he has accumulated over the past decade in power. If the AKP maintains its parliamentary mandate, Erdogan will not face elections for another four years and will have ample opportunity to make more fundamental changes to the way Turkey is governed.
The past year has seen Erdogan confronted by protesters angry with his increasingly authoritarian leadership and the ongoing corruption scandal that has embroiled his closest political confidants. His relationship with the West remains deadlocked over how to handle the crisis in Syria and Iraq. Still, Erdogan’s party won crucial municipal elections across the country and he became Turkey’s first directly elected president. He is now the most powerful Turkish politician since Ataturk, and is setting his sights on reorienting Turkish society through conservative educational reforms.
Turkey’s opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has criticized the proposed language policy as yet another sign that Erdogan is stuck in the past. “Even the Ottomans would not make these decisions,” CHP Deputy Parliamentary Group Chair Akif Hamzaçebi said on Dec. 8. But nostalgia has always been a part of Erdogan’s political appeal. His regular complaints that pious Turks are “subjected to all kinds of criticism, insult and abuse” serve to remind Erdogan’s base that he remains, at heart, a son of the Anatolian heartland.
In his canny use of cultural codes, however, Erdogan has much in common with Turkey’s great modernizer. Ataturk was often photographed in public drinking raki, a popular anise-flavored alcoholic drink, to demonstrate that secularism had come to the nascent Turkish state. Erdogan has crafted a different image — in the grandiose presidential palace he recently constructed and in the remaking of Istanbul as an imperial city through myriad mega-infrastructure projects ranging from a new five-runway airport to a third bridge spanning the Bosphorus.
For much of the 20th century, the term Ottoman carried a negative connotation. The Ottoman Empire had been the "sick man of Europe" demolished by the Kemalists in order to build the modern Turkish state. Attempts to reconnect with Ottoman history, especially in literature by writers such as Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar and Pamuk, were viewed as suspect, overly romantic and obsessed with failure. Erdogan has challenged all of that, recasting everything Ottoman as a source of pride for Turks and even as a symbolic inspiration for his foreign policy. His careful attempts to rebrand Turkish identity as rooted in Ottoman glories cast Erdogan as a latter-day sultan challenging Ataturk’s once unassailable position as the father of the nation. And it’s on that symbolic battlefield that the latest struggle over the Turkish language will be waged.