Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses parliament
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses parliamentReuters

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to make lessons in the Arabic-alphabet Ottoman language compulsory in high schools, despite objections from secularists, AFP reports.

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 language people spoke.

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.

Turkey's 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, noted AFP.

The council also voted to ban bartending classes at tourism training high schools.

Erdogan argued 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 learnt 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 declared.

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," Erdogan said, according to AFP.

Ottoman Turkish evolved as the administrative language of the 600-year-old multi-ethnic Ottoman empire, on whose ruins Ataturk created Turkey's modern republic.

But even at the time of the empire's collapse after WWI, 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."

In comments which will give ammunition to critics who claim he is becoming more overtly Islamist, Erdogan added, "This religion has a guardian. And this guardian will protect this religion till 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 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.

Throughout his time in power there have been more signs of Turkey turning more extremist. In 2013, the Turkish Parliament tightened restrictions on the sale and advertising of alcoholic beverages.

A year earlier, a Turkish court formally charged internationally known pianist and composer Fazil Say with insulting Islamic religious values, in comments he made on Twitter.

Previously, Turkey's Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk was prosecuted for his comments about the mass killings of Armenians, under a law that made it a crime to insult the Turkish identity. The government eased that law in an amendment in 2008.

In another incident in 2007, ethnic Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who received death threats because of his comments about the killings of Armenians by Turks in 1915, was shot dead outside his office in Istanbul.

Two weeks ago Erdogan stirred up controversy when he said women cannot be treated as equal to men.

"You cannot put women and men on an equal footing," he told a women’s conference in Istanbul, adding, "It is against nature."

Women cannot do all the work done by men, he added, because it was against their "delicate nature".

"Our religion regards motherhood very highly. Feminists don't understand that, they reject motherhood," he charged, adding that women needed equal respect rather than equality.