Head of Turkish Olympiads committee: The Nobel Foundation cannot overlook us

Mehmet Sağlam (Photo: Today's Zaman, Turgut Engin)
Mehmet Sağlam (Photo: Today's Zaman, Turgut Engin)

Date posted: May 29, 2013


Deputy speaker of parliament and chairman of the organizing committee of the International Turkish Language Olympiad Mehmet Sağlam explains that there are important new aspects to this year’s Turkish Language Olympiad, which has the theme of “Headed Toward Universal Peace.”

Sağlam says the Olympiad, now in its 11th year, has truly turned into an international culture festival and notes that the Turkish Olympiad is one of two events taking place within the larger framework of the International Language and Culture Festival. He talked about the second event, saying: “Our students, coming from 140 different countries in response to the call for ‘universal peace,’ first introduce their countries at the Culture Festival. We get to experience the joy of seeing the children of the world meet at both the Turkish Olympiad and the Culture Festival.”

In discussing the 11th International Language and Culture Festival, which is organized by the International Turkish Education Association (TÜRKÇEDER), Sağlam asserts, “The Nobel Foundation cannot ignore our events aimed at promoting peace and friendship, which of course, overlap with their goals.”

Sağlam notes that while in the past the Olympiad had taken place only in İstanbul and Ankara, this year it will be held on 99 stages in 55 cities, thus making it accessible to about 85 to 90 percent of the population across the country. Sağlam says that of the 15,000 students who compete in 140 countries around the world, 2,000 then win the right to visit Turkey to compete. He continues: “We put the focus on love and friendship, bringing our children together in this way. With this language learning competition, we also put the spotlight on multiculturalism and living together as one and in peace. In this way, not only do those who learn the language win, but the language being learned also wins. It is a wonderful competition with no losers. These are themes and details that cannot escape the notice of the United Nations and the Nobel Foundation. After all, our basic aims overlap with those of these organizations. There are inherently wonderful aspects to our organization that just cannot be overlooked.”

Sağlam recalls the rather more modest beginnings of the Turkish Olympiad back in 2003 when it involved just 62 students from 17 countries. He notes that the tremendous growth over the past 10 years has at its foundation “volunteerism in education” and “the wealth of volunteerism.”

Professor Sağlam answered some of Today’s Zaman’s questions.

A first of its kind, how is it that the Turkish Olympiad grew into one of the world’s largest events? What sort of motivation are we talking about here?

It all began in 2003 when one of our teachers wondered, “How can we encourage students in language learning?” The interest we saw meant that the whole organization multiplied quite quickly after that, starting off with 17 countries and still growing.

In all of this, the primary influence, without doubt, is Fethullah Gülen Hoca, and the second is our teachers. The third influential factor is those who support them. They are perhaps not the very wealthiest of Turkey, but certainly people with rich hearts.

Of course, when it comes to the actual implementation of the competition, our teachers are critical to all of it. They are people with ideals and people who have been able to turn their ideals into a way of life. It is perhaps easy to advise others to be good, but it is not that easy to live as a good person by example and to stand as an ideal for others. I want to relate a small anecdote on this note in relation to our teachers. Some of our newly graduated teachers headed to a city in Europe and wanted to rent a home in this city. But the owner of the home said he wouldn’t rent to unmarried people. They looked in other places, but were unable to find anything at the right price, so they headed back to the first house, telling the owner they just want it for a few months, just as a trial. In the end, they got along well with the owner and were able to build a good dialogue with him and soon the owner actually agreed to rent it to them and at a lower price than was originally quoted.

In a similar way, our teachers motivate their students. They work over days and weeks to teach students sounds from Turkish that might not even exist in their own languages. There are all sorts of model figures who have been involved in our tremendous growth over the past decade, from Fethullah Gülen Hoca, to Anatolian merchants, to our teachers and other members of society.

We are also expecting a record number of audience members for this year’s events.

How many cities are you visiting this year?

We will visit 55 cities, but there will actually be performances on 99 stages.

In the early years, the event would only take place in Ankara and İstanbul, but then we began to get invitations from all over Turkey. This year, we are heading not only to 30 of our larger cities, but also to 25 provincial spots. In other words, around 85 to 90 percent of the Turkish population will have the chance to see the event. Our students and teachers cover their own costs so that our students can sing folk songs and promote cultural values when they perform in the cities they visit.

These students get a chance to see our regional cultures?

Yes. Though we have had more than 1,000 students every year for the past few years, this year we have 2,000. They get to see Turkey — our cities and our regional cultures. And much more importantly, they get to meet other students their age who come from more than 100 other cultures and who speak other languages, and they get to create new friendships with these other young people. So it is not just promoting language learning.

It is such an important advantage for these students to experience all this at a young age. Creating international friendships, dialogue and the ability to embrace others with different languages and cultures is so important in the name of multiculturalism.

This year, we will be hosting 500 teachers and 2,000 students — a total of 2,500 people — for 15 days. We have competitors coming from 140 countries around the world and from every continent with the exception of Antarctica. It is a competition based entirely on volunteerism.

These are numbers sure to be recorded in history … Have you thought of applying to The Guinness World Records?

Well, if we were to make a formal application, I’m sure there would be a few records broken. I don’t know if there are recorded numbers for such enormous growth over just 10 years for a language competition and culture festival. But there is something else too. All of this is the work of civil society organizations. As I see it, this is a very important aspect to it all. I don’t know of any other event of this scale in the world that is prepared and organized by civil society organizations.

How is the budget for an event this large put together?

The answer to this was actually already supplied when the financing for the more than 1,000 Turkish schools abroad was questioned. After all, those schools came about through the richness of the hearts of the people of Anatolia, from people devoted to education and educational services. And so, our answer is the same. The central nervous system, organs and essential implementation of these Olympiads come from our Turkish schools abroad.

People interested in helping out on a voluntarily basis in any particular city or town in Turkey can contribute to the financial support of a Turkish school anywhere in the world. Though the beginnings may be modest, they start to gain support and encouragement from others over time, and in the end, the financial support gathered is enough to create and maintain educational services.

In the same way, our Turkish Olympiad began under modest conditions, with modest people and very modest awards. As it grew over time, with more support and more appreciation, its budget also grew. Also, Turkish brands that are making their names known around the world are becoming sponsors for these Olympiads. We have a great many sponsors now, everything from transportation to lodging, to telecommunications companies.

Is there a special meaning to this year’s theme of “universal peace”?

Yes, this year our slogan is “Headed Toward Universal Peace.” In the past, we had always spotlighted themes like love, friendship and brotherhood. After all, there is a great longing for peace all over the world these days. But of course, these are values that are not always the guiding values in the world.

Though there may be pain, sadness and tears in different spots all over the world, the truth is that there will always be steps taken for the happiness of others as well. As we insist that we are “speaking the language of love” and “heading toward universal peace,” these are the ideals we highlight, and the ideals that we maintain are universal for everyone, everywhere.

It must add some extra meaning to put the spotlight on this theme from lands that are cradles of civilizations.

Yes, these lands have acted as a cradle for so many civilizations. American writer Leonard Cottrell wrote half a century ago about the “anvil of civilization.” These lands have been like an anvil where so many civilizations were formed and flourished. Now, children from 140 countries with different cultures, languages and accents are all meeting here. The anvil of civilizations is now hosting a culture festival. The focus on peace and love actually dovetails with the depths of history itself, and this really also puts the spotlight on our country as being the homeland of peace and love.


From language education to a language and culture festival

What is your response to criticism that this is all propaganda promoting Turkey and the Turkish language?

First and foremost, we take advantage of this criticism to investigate how to be better, more successful. We do pay attention to criticism, even when there are many allegations involved. For the past 10 years, as so many people have seen, we have put the spotlight on peace, friendship and brotherhood. We encourage children and students from all over the world to learn different languages. With so many of the competitors coming from Turkish schools all over the world, the students at these schools have the opportunity to learn not only one local language but a more widely spoken language as well. These students, who enter voluntarily into these competitions, first prove their abilities at their own schools. Then, if their abilities permit, they get to take a wonderful holiday to Turkey. There are awards that fulfill all tastes. The students learning a new language win something, and the language being learned wins as well. It is a win-win situation. There are no losers here.

For the young people who experience such things at such an early age, these are experiences they will take with them for their entire lives. They will return to their own countries with these wonderful experiences. Most of them make friendships and connections with others that will last their whole lives. All of these incredibly wonderful things are enough of a win for those who give their time and effort to education. And so, a word like “propaganda” really belongs nowhere in this entire picture. As it is, our Olympiad is really being transformed into a kind of international culture festival.

How is this happening?

Well, the event is known as the “Turkish Olympiad,” but as it grows each year, it is developing other aspects also. We saw this very clearly at the closing ceremonies for the ninth year and the preparations for the next year. For the 10th year, we wanted stands to be set up for our students to use to be able to promote their own countries and cultures. These stands were visited by tens of thousands of people last year at Ankara’s Altınpark. The visitors’ interest showed us that our intentions had been right on the mark. And so, this year, we have renewed and somewhat revised the official name of the event. The Turkish Olympiad is now one of two important events under the larger umbrella of the International Language and Culture Festival.

So what is the other event?

The other event is the Culture Festival. The larger organization actually begins there. Our students from 140 countries around the world introduced their own cultural values and ways to our country from May 24 to 26. We had a more developed version of what we had last year in Ankara this year in Izmir at the international Izmir Trade Fair arena. It was a wonderful event.

What if the state had been able to organize all this?

What do you say in response to allegations that the state is actually behind the Turkish Olympiad?

Of course, we can understand these assertions up to a certain point, since there is no other organization like this anywhere else in the world. There is no other place where civil society organizations work like this to produce such an event. And of course, Turkey is not even one of the top 10 to 15 richest countries in the world. In addition, those volunteering their lives for education are not wealthy, either.

First of all, there are just so many participants and supporters involved in all this. Maybe it’s not so easy to understand this, given the nature of some people, but let me ask you something. If the state were really able to organize such an event, don’t you suppose they would have tried to do it already?

All right, so does this completely unique civil society organization get any reaction from other international organizations?

Certainly nothing negative … (laughs)

No, I meant positively speaking.

Well, there was some suspicion at first, with the idea that Turkey is trying to prove its own linguistic superiority. But this is all in the past now. It is now widely accepted that shared values are being highlighted and that we are trying to show that differences cannot and should not prevent peace.

In select universities throughout the world, there are international meetings of many scientists and academics. There are academic articles being written about the Hizmet movement. The Turkish Olympiad and the man behind it, Fethullah Gülen, are being recognized and applauded by the academic world.

What about the United Nations and the Nobel Foundation? Have they shown interest in the organization? With its slogan of “Heading Toward Universal Peace” and its efforts to bring young people together from all over the world, does this event not stand to attract the attention of the Nobel Foundation?

Of course both the UN and the Nobel Foundation must notice this. And there can be no more overlooking this civil society organization, with no state support either in Turkey or in the 140 countries where competitions are occurring. The spotlight we put on love and peace overlap and completely dovetail with the basic aims of the Nobel Foundation, so of course they will recognize this and applaud our efforts.

Source: Today’s Zaman, May 28, 2013

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