6 Haziran 2008 Cuma

Ambassador of Turkish: We are engaging in public diplomacy

The contest, an almost one-month-long marathon of writing, reading, singing and dancing, brought different cultures, colors and religions to perform in one language: the language of peace and love. Depicting a particular language as the language of love can be understood as exclusivity and self-adoration, but the event's long-time board member Orhan Keskin disagrees. According to him the Turkish Language Olympics are a venue of public diplomacy and serve more than just the interests of Turkey. All the countries represented, 110 this year, have the chance to reach the hearts and minds of the other representatives and of the Turkish people. "They love the Turkish people more, but the Turkish people love them more also," says Keskin. Today's Zaman spoke to Keskin, an ambassador of the Turkish language, on the diplomatic aspect of the language Olympics.
Your motto labels Turkish a language of love. This label is of course appealing to the Turkish mind. Does it also have a corresponding feeling in the 110 represented countries and the statesmen of these countries?
If the Turkish Language Olympics were understood in a narrow sense, they could be mistaken for a contest and seen as an attempt at Turkification. Rather, the Olympics are a continuation of efforts of Turkish schools opened all over the world. The countries in question and their statesmen do not look at the Olympics as an atomized event. Its legitimacy is not in its content but in the fact that in all those states Turkish schools operate and the teachers working in those schools are seen as embodiments of love and peace in human form. That is what makes Turkish a language of love. The parents of children educated in these schools agree that these teachers form a bond of love between the children and their parents, their nations and humanity as a whole. Understandably, they look for the source of this love and find it in the all-embracing culture of Anatolia. This develops a sense of connectedness to the people of Anatolia in the hearts of these people. The Turkish Language Olympics are not the venue where this love is formed, they are the stage where it is presented.
Frankly speaking, when the idea first came to our minds, we were also concerned that this would be received in the same way as colonizers and imperial powers were in the past when they imposed their own cultures and worldviews on the nations they occupied. But experience has shown that this concern had no solid basis. The Turkish language and people are loved in the world thanks to the Turkish teachers that serve the interests of the countries they work in. This makes a huge difference.
In some countries local versions of the language Olympics are organized to select the team to be sent to Turkey. Some of these local events are even hosted by the ministries of education of those countries. What is the public opinion about these local Olympics?
This year we had elective contests in several countries including Australia, Indonesia, the United States, Germany and Azerbaijan. This is a huge and complex process. Students are elected first from among their classmates, then school wide and then a kind of primaries for the Olympics is held country wide. These are organized, in almost all cases, together with the official education bodies of those countries. They attract the interest of statesmen, the public and of course the media. I assure you that the excitement, say in Australian Turkish Olympics, is no less than what we observe here in Turkey.
This year Azerbaijani Hatice Alizade became the champion of the song contest. What will this mean for her in Azerbaijan?
In general the results of the language Olympics are followed with interest by the participating countries' relevant governmental bodies. Champions are usually received by statesmen back in their countries and are rewarded. In some countries the champions are greeted at the airport with a ceremony and public applause; they are invited to TV programs and give interviews to newspapers. You have to understand that for some of these countries any championship in the international arena means a lot. Some of the countries that join the Turkish Language Olympics cannot send similar teams to the regular Olympics and when they do, they may return empty handed.
Alizade will unquestionably become a small star in her country. Let me add that as the organizers of the Olympics we are having real difficulty in convincing the participants in the song contests to not jump into a professional music life. In past years several of our students were offered contracts in Turkey and in their countries, but we don't want to turn the language Olympics into some kind of "star-maker" program. Alizade has already proven her qualities and this will most certainly take her to fame. We cannot stop that.
Alizade's song had another dimension. She sang a Turkish song in the Laz accent. This accent is a richness of the Turkish language, used primarily in northeastern Turkey. Even experts of Turkish are not always aware of the beauty of it. Alizade took that accent, the linguistic richness of Turkey onto the international arena. Turkey is represented abroad as if it only consists of İstanbul and the Turkish language is taught only with the İstanbul accent. In this sense the language Olympics also engage the whole country in this public diplomacy effort.
You also staged some of the contests in other Anatolian cities. This must have changed how the participants see Turkey and how these cities' inhabitants perceive the world.
You are absolutely right. We went to Erzurum, Kayseri, Adapazarı, Antalya, Bursa, İzmir, Gaziantep, Ankara and İstanbul. I may say that this was the first time for the inhabitants of some of these cities to see so many different faces, faiths, countries and cultures. This event widens the horizons of the Turkish people. It also helps, as I said earlier, these children love Turkey in its totality.
The children return with many memories. Do you receive feedback about the extent to which their love and connectedness to Turkey changes during the event?
The love and care they receive in Turkey still moves the participants. Instead of placing them into hotel rooms, we have them hosted by families, help them engage in daily life and guide them through Turkey's historical and touristic sites. All of them return having received more than what they expected. Let me just say this as evidence of the love-boom they are passing through: As a principle, we do not accept any student participating twice in the Olympics and we receive an unbelievable amount of complaints because of this. They want to come again and again. That shows the level of success, I think.
Participants meet not only Turks, but also other participants. Can we say that this also helps them develop a vision of the world and aids them in becoming world citizens?
This is an important issue. We are, of course, trying to have Turkey and Turkish loved and understood. But a secondary and indispensable target of the Olympics is bridge building. This year we brought 550 children from 110 countries together and this experience taught them to develop friendships through Turkish. The Turkish language has two words that probably do not give the same sense in any other language in the world: abi and abla (older brother and older sister). These words have a sense of connectedness, care, love, belonging and most importantly safety. A Japanese girl calling an older Kenyan boy "abi" or an American boy replying to his Iraqi "abla" … this is what we mean by the "language of love." I assure you that these children won't fight, won't occupy the lands of others and won't denigrate others because of their skin color, ethnicity or religion. So, yes, this is the Turkish Language Olympics, but it is not exclusive; it is a meeting of differences in Turkish as a common denominator.
This is the sixth Turkish Language Olympics. This means that the first participants are already graduates and some may have even become businessmen, state officials and intellectuals in their countries. How does this experience influence their understanding of Turkey?
The influence cannot be measured separately from the influence of the Turkish schools. The graduates of these schools and the participants in the Olympics keep that love of Turkey and Turkish people in their hearts. Businessmen coming from Turkey to these countries will see this love in their eyes. Last year the Vietnamese participant addressed spectators as the people of her second motherland. That feeling is kept alive forever. But I have to say that these children develop a sense of belonging for the whole world also. When they graduate, they care not only for their own countries and Turkey but also for the whole of humanity.
If we see the Olympics as an event of 550 children alone, we cannot perceive its magnitude. The children, their families, their classmates and even their statesmen are all engaged in this process. Including the country-level Olympics to elect representatives, this year tens of thousands of people were engaged in the project. The aura of love produced during the Olympics encapsulates much more people than the number of the participants.
The 110 countries represented at the Olympics are not at complete peace with one another. The fathers of these children are fighting on battlegrounds. Turkish people resent certain countries also. But their children are applauded sincerely at the Olympics. What does this say to you?
This should say something to their fathers. The uniqueness of the Turkish Olympics is in being a gathering of children. Innocence comes with that. Our people are able to separate their feelings toward a particular country and toward their children. We all feel the same deep sorrow when one of the children, from whichever country he or she might be, forgets a line of the poem to be recited. That is the expression of love, mercy and care we all have deep in our hearts towards other people. As I said, the children that observed that love and mercy here will never make the same mistake their fathers are making now.
What you are doing is successful public diplomacy. How are your relations with classic diplomacy? Are you welcomed by diplomats of countries represented in the Olympics?
Diplomatic missions are not altogether passive observers here. No, they contribute to the preparation of the country stalls. Most of them receive their representatives in the embassies or consulate and I am sure they give them hints. Sometimes even the teachers of the children are surprised at the level or performance their students show on the stage. One source should be the "diplomatic guidance" they take from their missions. We do invite the chiefs of missions of countries represented in the Olympics and many of them participate in the event. If their representatives succeed in winning a medallion, we know that the diplomats inform their foreign ministries even before us. So, I may suggest that there is a healthy relationship between the two types of diplomacy.
Can we say that this is also helping Turkey in its bid for European Union membership?
At this point the public diplomacy dimension of the language Olympics enters into the discussion. Children from several European countries are participating in the event and a generation of Europeans is getting rid of their prejudice about Turkey. If we take into account that Turkey's membership will be subject to referendums in some of these countries, we may say that the Olympics are making what classical diplomacy cannot do with its tools. Of course we are at the beginning of a very long road. Prejudices formed over 600 years cannot be undone in a mere six years.
As Turks we love to speak about turning Turkish into a universal language. The language Olympics show that this is not only a dream but can become a project also. Do you give Turkish a chance in that sense?
The founding principle of the Turkish Language Olympics is that it they are not a project of turning Turkish into a universal language. Rather, we are trying to promote Turkish as a language in which we can speak about love, tolerance, peace and cooperation. As a Turk, I of course feel a sense of sympathy toward Turkish turning into a universal language. We hope that a new culture of peace, a civilization of love will come out of the contacts and interactions made possible through the use of Turkish as a common language. This does not mean that people should leave their own languages and start speaking Turkish. Such an aim would doom our yearnings for love and peace to failure.
Do you have new plans for the future?
Let me confess that the Turkish Language Olympics didn't come out of a conscious planning effort. It was the end result of a natural process. The genius of Fethullah Gülen, who suggested opening Turkish schools worldwide, gave birth to the Olympics naturally and unexpectedly. As I said earlier, we even had reservations that this might have been misunderstood as a kind of Turkish cultural imperialism. We don't have plans for the future; we have only one goal set already during the third Olympics: We hope that by the 10th Olympics we will have participants from all the member states of the United Nations. When we set this goal, it was seen in the neighborhood of impossibility. Now we feel that it is not going to be very hard to accomplish that. I am sure the process itself will give birth to new ideas. Trying to formulate new plans with our limited capacities may even block the natural process that, I am sure, will surpass our imaginations.

03 June 2008, Tuesday