Whether they want it or not, Ottoman language will be learned and taught in Turkey, said president Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a religious conference last week in Ankara. Erdogan and his AK party have never concealed their Islam-inspired social ideals for the Turkish Republic and now, after a year of consolidating his political capital, Erdogan has waded into one of the most heated debates in the country: the place of Ottoman Turkish in the state education system.
In order to fully comprehend the nature of this debate, we have to step back in time. At the heart of the transformation that saw the emergence of the secular Turkish Republic out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire was the question of language. By the end of the Ottoman Empire, the language spoken in Turkey was a rich tapestry of Arabic, Turkish and Farsi words woven together in flowing Arabic script. As part of the “modernisation” scheme that would pivot Turkey away from the Muslim world and towards Europe, Arabic script was replaced with the Latin alphabet. Arabic and Farsi words were systematically replaced with German and French terms.
Seemingly overnight, an entire society was rendered illiterate and forced to learn a new way of communicating inspired by Europe. Decades later, modern Turkish is a rich and expressive language confirmed by the fact that the country’s only Nobel Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk, won for a work of literature.
The overhaul of the Ottoman language and creation of modern Turkish is one of most profoundly felt reforms spearheaded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of the secular republic. For President Erdogan, a leader who often casts himself in Ataturk’s larger-than-life image, rolling back these language reforms is one of several areas where he can attempt to change the future of the country and build an everlasting legacy.
While Erdogan regularly argues that religious Turks are “subjected to all kinds of criticism, insult and abuse”, his embrace of Islam and the Ottoman pedigree might just be a convenient vehicle for him to remould the country in way that places himself and a confused Ottoman nostalgia at the centre. His AK party has one election to win in 2015 before enjoying four years of unchecked power.
While he will not be able to change the way Turkish is spoken or bring back Ottoman as the official state language, Erdogan is attempting to minimise the achievements of the secular Republic and reconnect Turkish society to its Ottoman past. From his grandiose presidential palace to plans for establishing Istanbul as a truly global city, Turkey under Erdogan is in the throes of an Ottoman renaissance.
Joseph Dana is Monocle’s Istanbul bureau chief.