Language & Identity

The use of language in many countries is not merely a personal custom, but a political statement. In Turkey, the government purged the Turkish language of Arabic and Persian elements in the 1920s and 30s. This language program supported the nationalistic and secular philosophy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In 1950 with the election of a new government party, the adhan (Turkish: ezan) reverted back to being preformed in Arabic, which signaled an increasing political connection to the Arab world and conservative Islam. Though Turkey remains a secular nation, an anti-Kemalist faction has risen in recent years in tandem with economic downturns. The use of the Turkish language in any form is closely tied with nationalistic sentiment, and the language of the adhan is a political marker for the political atmosphere.

Language has long been a source of national identity. In the Indian subcontinent, for example, the languages Hindi and Urdu are mutually intelligible but classified distinctly based on the religion of the speaker: whether or not someone claims to speak Hindi or Urdu shows a kind of political and religious affiliation. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whose honorary title means ‘father of the Turks’, recognized this political component of language. The language of the Ottoman Empire was a mixture of Turkish, Arabic, and Persian words for the elite classes of society, while the lower classes used dialectal forms of Turkish. Atatürk saw the Arabic and Persian words as foreign: something that contaminated the more desirable Pure Turkish (öz Türkçe). In order to purify the language from these undesirable influences, Atatürk appointed a team of scholars to replace the foreign words with new Turkish words, some of which were artificially created. The use of these new words was mandated by the government, to the extreme that newspapers printed sections explaining the new words used in their articles. The teaching of Arabic in school was stopped, and the youth absorbed this new language. Atatürk instituted these reforms to unite the people under a common language, and build a nationalistic pride in the new, secular, and modernizing Turkish state.

A more controversial move was the decree that the call to prayer would be done in Turkish. Traditionally, the adhan had been done in Arabic, as that is the language of the Qur’an. This change signified the most dramatic language oriented reform, because it trespassed into the religious sphere. This idea lay at the heart of Atatürk’s secularism: while Islam was an integral part of national identity, it was subservient to the State. Atatürk also abolished the traditional Caliphate, and made clear that Sharia would not be the law of the land. While Islam was deeply intertwined with the government and the citizens, Atatürk’s vision of modernization placed it in a sphere beneath—crucially, not synonymous with—the national government. This idea is what Atatürk meant by secularism. The forced elevation of the Turkish language by the government in such a religious important context signified a break from the rest of the Arab world and a strengthening of ties with the West. Significantly, Atatürk eliminated the Arab script, proclaiming it insufficient for the sounds of the Turkish language, and replaced it with an expanded version of the Latin script. Atatürk associated the Arabic and the Persian cultures as part of a failed Ottoman past, and pushed for modern advancements, which he associated with the Global West.

The adhan would not remain in Turkish, however: the Kemalist ideal lost ground to traditional Islamic practices and the Arabic version reappeared nationwide in 1950. This shift of a more conservative government signified a shift in attitudes and realignment with the Arab world. In the modern day, there are still power struggles over language in Turkey, frequently involving the sizeable Kurdish minority. Some Kurdish Muslims have requested to preform the adhan in Kurdish, but this request has been denied. The idea of preforming the call to prayer in a language other than Arabic is criticized as being divisive, as all Muslims can understand the Arabic version while other languages would exclude non-speakers. The use of Arabic in this fashion is seen as a connection to the entire Arab world—a way to unite all Muslims uniformly, and thus the use of language is a political statement.

The linguistic state of the performance of the adhan is a marker for the political sentiment of the Turkish country. The politics of language are complex and often abstract, but illustrate very real conditions and philosophies in the countries affected. The interplay between government and religion in Turkey is complicated and multifaceted, as is that relationship in many other nominally secular nations; the back-and-forth between Islam and the State is perhaps most succinctly shown in language policies. This dynamic interplay is both extremely personal and has international ramifications politically as Turkey marches forward as an example of successful modernization in the Muslim world.

Annotated Bibliography

Language Policy and Official Ideology in Early Republican Turkey. Yilmaz Çolak. Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 40, No. 6 (Nov., 2004), pp. 67-91. Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

The author shows how language worked as a political force in the 1920s and ‘30s in Turkey. The Kemalist approach to language purity (öz Türkçe) to define national identity embraced Western modernizations and shunned Arabic and Persian influences. The enforcement of pure Turkish illustrated the commitment to secularism and nationalism, which was promised to bring Turkey back to its rightful place of glory after years of struggle in the old Ottoman Empire. The new, pure language was meant to unite the Turkish people in an egalitarian way and foster a strong national identity. 

Muhammad Iqbāl and Atatürk’s Reforms. Fazlur Rahman. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Apr., 1984), pp. 157-162. Published by: The University of Chicago Press.

With Turkey’s independence from the Arab world, a distinct kind of Islam arose. With Atatürk’s policies of nationalistic secularism, the Caliphate was abolished in Turkey, distinguishing it from the rest of the Muslim world. The Turkish language policies removed Arabic from being taught in schools and the students were forced to learn the new national language. The reforms sought to liberate Turkey from the past and distance the new nation from the Ottoman Empire.

Islam and Ideology: Towards a Typology. William E. Shepard. International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Aug., 1987), pp. 307-335. Published by: Cambridge University Press.

This paper shows Turkey’s elevation of the nation-state over religion. While Islam is an essential part of the national identity, it is subordinate to the entity of the Turkish nation itself, and this is what is meant by secularism. The removal of Islam as a national religion from its constitution in 1928 illustrates this secularism. The use of Turkish as an official language and the replacement of Arabic influences, even replacing the adhan, traditionally recited in Arabic, with a Turkish substitution, shows this superiority of state and binding national identity over religious tradition.

Nationalism and the Rise of Muslim Sentiment in Turkey. Jeremy Salt. Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Jan., 1995), pp. 13-27. Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

Salt illustrates how the fluctuation of political Islam has affected government policies. The 1950 revocation of the Turkish ezan and replacement with the Arabic adhan shows an increase in conservative policies in the government. These policies seek to align Turkey with the rest of the Arab world, and are thus political in nature. The linguistic alteration came with a small series of other reforms that show Islam’s increasing relevance to governmental politics.

Turkey’s Religious Affairs Authority Criticizes Recitation of Adhan in Kurdish. Today’s Zaman. N.p., 7 June 2011. Web. 11 Mar. 2013. .

This newspaper article illustrates the contemporary conflict between Turkish and Kurdish factions in Turkey. The Kurdish factions wish to be able to recite the call to prayer in their own language, while the Turkish government insists that it be done in the traditional Arabic. This article shows that the battle over linguistic dominance is ongoing.