Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Oh Citizen, Learn Ottoman! Ey Vatandaş Osmanlıca Ögren! !اي وطنداش عثمانليجة اوكرن

It never fails. When Erdogan wants something he seems to get it, often with little to be done. True, this is not always the case. Back in May 2013, he tried to force the rebuilding of Ottoman barracks, which was to house a shopping mall, on Gezi Park in Istanbul despite mass opposition. People reacted with mass protest, which led to dead and injured (and has recently been put back on the planning board by Istanbul's AKP led-municipality). 

Yes, as we saw with Gezi, the Ottoman past is dear to Erdogan; and, in places where he cannot revive the Ottoman past, he is busy trying to build new symbols, aiming to replace the legacy of the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. A grand example of this is Erdogan's newly built 1150 room presidential palace, which costs are rumored to exceed one billion dollars, replacing the former residence that also served home to Ataturk during his presidency. No surprise then that Erdogan has recently compared his new home to the palaces of former Ottoman Sultans. 

If that was not enough, in the background music of the introductory video of the palace, Erdogan had the original Republican-era melody of the state's national anthem replaced with a new one which opted for an Ottoman style of music. Sure, even if the anthem's melody has not been officially changed, in this case it seems Erdogan was either testing the waters to check the reactions, or simply trying to provoke his pro-Republican opponents.  

It was not at all surprising that last week when Turkey's education council announced that it would put forth a plan to implement Ottoman language classes into the country's high school curriculum, it sent chills down the spines of many of the pro-Republican opposition. Just to remind you, the Ottoman script (an alphabet based on Persian-Arabic script) was banned in 1929, by Ataturk who introduced a Latin script. However, the reforms did not end with transforming the script, but also replaced many "archaic" words with modern Turkish ones. In fact, as someone who works with Ottoman documents, I can attest to the fact that it is not at all an easy script/language to learn and that one needs an intense amount of proper training to tackle a level of comprehension

As the controversy brewed, it did not take no time at all for Erdogan to become the center of the debate, stating that "whether they want it or not, Ottoman [language] will be learned and taught in this country." What should be clear however is that his harsh stance stifled any real debate of the need to provide students with the tools to open up the doors of the past. In other words, Erdogan's stance seems set on challenging the legacy of Ataturk, and not motivated by its pedagogical and historical value (stay tuned for a future piece on how "history" is being manipulated to suit current agendas in Turkey).  

In fact, I think few would disagree that providing tools to a new generation to read the past is not only needed in Turkey (along with a debate focusing on the reforms of Ataturk), but in numerous nations states that discarded scripts and languages on behalf of political elites, who were set on enforcing a strict uniformity of their societies. However, placing policy aside, I highly doubt that the Turkish education system is equipped to teach Ottoman, just as we see its with its failure in teaching English. Luckily, many Turkish universities have strong Ottoman language programs, which have produced an abundance of scholars working on Ottoman history, literature, arts, and sociology, to name a few.

Lastly, lets face it, Ottoman does not seem to be a pressing issue for most Turkish students. And, if one wanted to argue the importance of learning a language, Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the mostly Kurdish HDP party, stated that, "What is the use of imposing [Ottoman]? You ban people from teaching their mother tongue. You say ‘Mother tongue education is banned..," in reference to the Kurdish demand to study in their mother tongue. 
The fact that most are focusing on the debate over the Ottoman script should not hide the reality that this move is part of a new package to introduce religious studies in the Turkish school system. According to Selin Girit, a BBC journalistthe Education Council that is proposing the Ottoman language classes, also has suggested the Ministry of Education adopt a plan to extent religions education to children as young as six-years old, increasing the already religious education among older students, and even allowing male boys to take a two-year break after the fourth grade to memorize the Quran. 

In fact, even Erdogan sees the attack on Ottoman as inherently an attack on the religion, stating: "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. This religion has a guardian. And this guardian will protect this religion till the end of time," he said.   

Once placed in this context, it seems that perhaps Turkey's second-in-command, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, could be correct in assessing that the debate over Ottoman language instruction is nothing but a "storm in a tea-cup," and calmed fear, explaining that what was on the agenda was not a mandatory class but rather it would be offered as an elective. In other words, it seems the opposition should heed Davutoglu's words and fight a battle not over symbols, but over what really matters, such as the fact that what is stake here is not Arabic letters, but the continued integration of religion within the public sphere. Indeed, in a country that continues to apply Sunni based religious studies to secular students and students of Alevi background, this should be the struggle.

As for Erdogan, I am quite curious if we put him up to reading an Ottoman text if he himself could actually read it. I suppose we will never learn that fact. However, for me his drive to have Ottoman taught reminds of the Turkish language campaign introduced in the early years of the Republic basically forcing non-Muslims (Greeks, Armenians, and Jews) to speak Turkish, with signs stating "Oh Citizen, Speak Turkish!/Ey Vatandaş Türkçe Konuş!" 

It certainly is an irony that almost a century later we have Erdogan now preaching to Turkish Muslims:

 "Oh Citizen, Learn Ottoman!/ Ey Vatandaş Osmanlıca Ögren!/!اي وطنداش عثمانليجة اوكرن" 

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