ISTANBUL: Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed Monday to make lessons in the Arabic-alphabet Ottoman language compulsory in high schools – a highly symbolic move which enraged secularists who claimed he was pursuing 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 spoken language.
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.
The 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.
Erdogan argued that 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 learned 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,” he said.
Ottoman Turkish evolved as the administrative language of the 600-year-old multiethnic Ottoman Empire, on whose ruins Ataturk created Turkey’s modern republic.
But at the time of the empire’s collapse after World War I, 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 gave ammunition to critics who claimed he was becoming more overtly Islamist, Erdogan added, “This religion has a guardian. And this guardian will protect this religion until the end.”
Supporters of compulsory Ottoman language lessons say they are necessary so Turks can maintain their links to the past after the brutal cleavage of Ataturk’s radical reforms.
The council voted on several other controversial proposals, which include introducing “values” classes in preschool childcare and compulsory religious culture classes from the first grade, instead of from the fourth.
The decisions need the approval of the Education Ministry to take effect, but the ministry has in the past implemented the majority of them.
Erdogan, who took over Turkey’s presidency in August after serving as prime minister for more than a decade, has long been accused of seeking to impose religion on Turkey’s mainly Muslim but officially secular society, as well as Islamizing the education system.
In September, the government allowed girls in state high schools to wear the Muslim headscarf while banning pupils from wearing make-up, dyeing their hair or having tattoos or body piercings.