MESOP IN DEPTH : The Return of Ottoman Turkish & Erdoğan’s Settling of Accounts with Fethullah Gülen – Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak

Editors: Dr. Harel Chorev, Hadas Sofer Shabtai, Linda Dayan – Volume 2, Issue 11, December 2014 / Dayan Center Tel Aviv

In recent weeks, the government of Turkey has proven that Erdoğan’s declaration last September1 that the beginning of a “New Turkey,” symbolized by Erdoğan’s inauguration as president, was not merely an empty political slogan. With the assistance of his loyal ally Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Erdoğan continues accumulate power and legitimacy to promote the measures that move him closer to achieving his vision. Of these, two acts particularly riled social network sites (SNS) during the last month: the return of the Ottoman Turkish language to the curricula of middle and high schools, and a campaign against media outlets identified with his political rival, the exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen.

In early December, the Turkish public was shocked to discover that, as part of the 19th Educational Conference, a significant annual event for the Turkish educational system, the Ministry of Education decided to make the Ottoman Turkish language a required part of the curriculum, in direct opposition to the policy of the Republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who was responsible for the replacement of Arabic script with the Latin alphabet for writing Turkish. The decision quickly became the hottest topic on SNS. As expected, proponents of Erdoğan fully supported the change, joining together under slogans like “The heritage of our Ottoman fathers becomes a required class,” and “We want to read our fathers’ gravestones.”2 Government officials echoed these sentiments. In his justification of the reform, Prime Minister Davutoğlu claimed that gravestones inscribed in Ottoman Turkish are an invaluable part of the nation’s heritage.3 Building on this last statement, Davutoğlu was greeted at a party meeting with signs in Ottoman Turkish declaring, “We love you, the invaluable Ahmet Davutoğlu.” (Pictured)

Conversely, Kemalist users on SNS greeted this dramatic, anti-Kemalist decision with anger and claims that the move was designed to destroy the Latin alphabet reform instituted by Atatürk, and accused Erdoğan’s ruling AKP party of returning Turkey to dark days.4 In order to ridicule the move and illustrate the irrelevance of the Ottoman Turkish language in the current day, users uploaded images including long, complex sentences in Ottoman Turkish, showing its Arabic and Farsi influences, and compared them to sentences in modern Turkish that are free of foreign influences and clearly comprehensible.

Kurdish users, led by the Kurdish HDP party, similarly denounced the decision. For years, Kurdish citizens have been waiting for their language to be recognized as an official language and for the right to learn it in school. They were horrified to learn that studying Ottoman Turkish would now be mandatory. The comments by Kurdish user focused, therefore, on the demand that the Kurdish language be included in the curriculum, both as subject in its own right, and as a legitimate language of instruction for the other subjects in the humanities and sciences.5 They also expressed strong opposition to studying the Ottoman language with the slogan: “We don’t want to learn Ottoman; we want to learn Kurdish, Zaza, Laz, Circassian and Armenian.”6 Acceding to heavy pressure, the Turkish Ministry of Education moderated its stance and ruled that Ottoman Turkish studies will become a mandatory subject only for religious schools, and be an elective in other schools.

An interesting response to the Ministry of Education’s decision came from supporters of the religious leader Fethullah Gülen. Although one might assume that they would support the move because Gülen’s spiritual father, cleric Said Nursi (1877-1960), opposed the alphabetic reform of Atatürk , their response was complex. Although the left-wing newspaper BirGün does not support Gülen, his followers re-tweeted its front page when it carried a single-word headline in Ottoman Turkish, “Thief” (“Hırsız,” pictured). This headline – which hints at the corruption scandals involving of officials in the Erdoğan government that the Turkish police force, associated with the Fethullah Gülen, uncovered last year7 – illustrates the dual position of Gülen’s supporters on this issue. On one hand, the language of the headline makes their connection to the Ottoman language clear; on the other hand, the headline itself expressed strong criticism of Erdoğan, who is willing to use any means to divert the public discourse from the scandals, including reinstating the study of Ottoman Turkish.

The tension between supporters of Gülen and the government culminated on December 11, when a mysterious user with the pseudonym Fuat Avni (pictured above) – apparently a senior official in the Davutoğlu government who identifies with Gülen – leaked confidential information about the government’s plan to act against the newspaper Zaman and the television channel Samanyolu, both known for taking positions critical of the government and affiliated with Gülen. This warning soon proved accurate. On December 14, the police (from which supporters of Gülen were purged in the last year) raided the offices of media outlets in 13 districts across Turkey, and the private homes of their heads. During the operation, leading journalists and former police officials were detained. Opponents of Erdoğan on SNS presented the operation as a further step by the government to silence them. Their protest slogans included “You can’t silence the free media” and “I invite the police to arrest me, too.”8 The protests spread from the cyberspace to the street when an angry mob surrounded the headquarters of Zaman and demonstrated against the arrests. No unusual clashes between security forces and protesters were reported. Prime Minister Davutoğlu backed the campaign, stressing that anyone who dared to foment a “coup” against the Erdoğan government would pay the price. In this spirit, users identified with AKP used SNS to spread slogans like “Treason can’t be forgiven” and “It’s time for cleaning.”9

In short, the return of the Ottoman Turkish language to the educational system in Turkey is further proof of the intentions of Erdoğan and Davutoğlu to bequeath to future generations a collective consciousness and historical memory that celebrates the Ottoman past they consider a source of inspiration for Turkey’s future. This is accompanied by a foreign policy that many experts are already calling “Neo-Ottoman.” In this context, it is important to note that, similar to the Ottoman concept of government, under Erdoğan’s leadership, Turkey is becoming more centralized, and the level of tolerance for internal criticism is dwindling. To accomplish this end, the Turkish government repeatedly stresses the need to suppress the “deep state,” the formerly powerful factions largely associated with the military, whose informal systems never cease burrowing beneath its foundations. As a result, the pressure exerted by the Turkish government on state and private media outlets naturally leads to self-censorship. In this dynamic, the social media continues to be the main channel for subversive messages, and the only space where they cannot be silenced in traditional ways.