Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Some Volga Tatars Want to Revive Use of Arabic Script for Their Language

Paul Goble


            Staunton, October 7 – Mustafa Cemilev, the leader of the Crimean Tatars, says that Moscow is worried about the impact of the Crimean Tatars on the Volga Tatars in the Middle Volga, fearful that developments on the Russian-occupied Ukrainian peninsula will affect the Turkic Muslim populations of the Middle Volga (ru.krymr.com/content/article/26624317.html).


            But the Russian authorities would face a far larger problem if some Volga Tatars get their way and their national language is once again written in the Arabic script as it was for centuries before the Soviets replaced that first with a Latin-based script and then with one modelled on the Russian Cyrillic one.


            Most people in both Russia and the West have focused on the way in which this break with the Arabic script cut the Muslim peoples off from the Arabic of the Koran and other Islamic religious texts, but equally profoundly, it cut these peoples off from their national literary traditions and perhaps equally important from each other.


            (Turkic languages written in Arabic script are far more similar than those written in Latin or Cyrillic script because the latter emphasize variations in the vowels among these languages rather than the commonalities based on consonants. Someone who knows one of the languages can read almost all of them if they are written in Arabic script rather than in the others.)


            Leaders of the Union of Muslim Youth of Russia have announced plans to revive the Old Tatar language in the Arabic script, the alphabet in which Turko-Tatar literature was written between the 13th and early 20th centuries. That will allow Tatars now to read Islamic theological literature in that language, the union says (ng.ru/regions/2014-10-07/1_tatary.html).


            The union is organizing four small groups to study Old Tatar and the Arabic script, a modest effort and one that not appear to conflict with Russian legislation that specifies that all languages in the Russian Federation must be written in Cyrillic. But the authors of this idea clearly have bigger goals than just teaching a small cadres of linguistic experts.


            Tatar political analyst Ruslan Aysin, for example, says that “the idea [of learning Old Tatar in Arabic script] is a good one. But it may encounter certain difficulties, in particular the lack of knowledge by a majority of Tatar young people of their native language even at the everyday level.” It would be better for those with an interest in such texts to study contemporary Tatar and Arabic separately.


            That the union is not advocating that is suggestive in two other respects. On the one hand, it shows that an increasing number of Tatars are sufficiently interested in their Muslim roots, including the important reformers of the jaded movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that they are prepared to ignore Turkey’s calls for a common Latin script for all Turkic peoples.


            And on the other, it underscores that the process of the national revival of the Volga Tatars is going to be increasingly linked with other Turkic Muslim peoples and that the Tatars interested in promoting this see the best way to do that is by promoting a return to the Arabic script for their own language first.

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