Telescreen of the Sultan
by Ali DN
Turkish television calls on a mythical past to shape a new national identity
IN an international social setting, Turkish TV shows are one of my go-to small talk topics. By friends from all over the Middle East, I’ve repeatedly been nicknamed “Behlül,” as well as “Mohenned,” the Turkish and Arabic names of the main character of the series Forbidden Love. Recently, my Persian teacher told us that she had to buy the Farsi-dubbed DVD of The Magnificent Century (2011-14) for her family. A half-Iranian student in our class screamed in surprise: she had to do the exact same thing.
The Turkish TV industry’s massive $350 million business volume is surpassed only by the USA’s. The worldwide fame of the Turkish TV series confirms the industry’s success. Fans are wondering if the second season of The Magnificent Century will be on Netflix. In 2014, the same show became the first ever Turkish TV series or film to be broadcasted in China; its estimated viewer count reaching 1.2 billion across more than 40 countries. But there’s a catch. Through his idea of “coffee ethics,” Zizek reminds us that capital success today isn’t achieved without implicating the product with consumer tempting ideas. Similar to the way some brands lodge social values of health, beauty, and intelligence within their products, many Turkish television shows promote a distinctly Ottoman flavor of life.
The first Turkish TV shows to achieve international acclaim were agonizingly melodramatic adaptations of romance novels, such as Aşk-ı Memnu (2008-10) and Yaprak Dökümü (2005-10). Novels’ plots were stretched to hundreds of episodes — imagine if each page were as long as the extended version of a Lord of the Rings movie.
Then came The Magnificent Century in 2011. With the highest budget among the Turkish TV shows of its time, The Magnificent Century achieved massive success and popularity, but more importantly, it carried the Turkish melodrama trend into the “Ottomanization” process. Its success paved the way for many more Ottoman-themed TV series and blockbuster films, and became the torchbearer of the cultural phenomenon of Ottomania.
Ottomania has been a rising cultural trend since conservative AKP (Justice and Development Party) came to power in 2002. The term refers to a revival of Ottoman culture, which is bolstered by AKP’s politics of neo-Ottomanism and “heritagization.” As Elif Batuman explains, “Ottomania” has its roots in the Cold War and the pre-1980 coup d’état era, where conservative reactionaries against the political irreligiosity of the state’s Kemalist laïcité harkened back to the glory days when the Ottoman Caliph-Sultans ruled. The Ottoman heritage became incorporated into the conservative political discourse. The incumbent AKP's adoption and frequent employment of such discourse popularized political neo-Ottomanism, which expanded into a cultural phenomenon: “Ottomania.” Hence, the promotion of the Ottoman heritage in Turkish television is closely related with conservative politics.
A New State and a New Nation
Between 2002 and 2010, when the melodrama shows were at their commercial peak, one of the main policies of the AKP was to improve Turkey’s global reputation. The AKP’s brand of “Moderate Islam” helped its government portray itself as pro-Western and pro-American, adopting a liberal market economy and pursuing EU membership. Improving citizenship rights and civil liberties were crucial criteria for the EU negotiations, leading the AKP to become the first regime in modern Turkey to both revoke the previously dominant militaristic laicism and grant political representation of religion in government and municipality positions. The AKP government was also the first in Turkey to ever initiate peace processes with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – the armed-organization that has waged a violent struggle for equal rights and self-determination for the Kurds in Turkey since the mid-80s. These important developments were signs of a new era in Turkey, soon to be followed by the formation of a new Turkish society altogether.
The “Moderate Islam” policy was more of an international façade. AKP’s domestic policies, particularly in education and social service, were in the meantime re-defining state-society relations. By introducing a new regulatory law for new regulatory law, AKP aimed to “let [children] pursue religious education younger” in İmam-Hatip (religious) schools. Erdoğan himself declared his aim of raising “a religious youth.” Public schools were converted into İmam-Hatip schools. Many academics criticized the legislation as hasty, and accused the AKP government of “playing politics with pedagogy.”
Furthermore, AKP’s welfare policies consolidated and reconfigured the state-civil society organizations' (CSO) relationship in a framework of cooperation and partnership. Zencirci shows that this cooperation was based on AKP’s specific “discourse of Ottoman heritage”, “a telling of the story of the Ottoman past in a selective way” where “civil society came to be seen as a distinct sector which supports the state.”
Vakıfs (religious endowments) are popular types of CSOs in Turkey, which often have a pious disposition and moral raisons d'être. Vakıfs held a crucial and intricate social place in Ottoman societies, though very different than its role of political activism in support of the rights of the faithful in modern Turkey. With AKP’s selective propagation of the Ottoman heritage, they are now considered ‘leftover’ Ottoman institutions, ‘revived’ by the government’s support, in accordance with neo-Ottomanist resurgence.
Changes made by the AKP government in education and civil society organizations depict that the state is not only interfering with society, but also it is able to mold societal religious disposition to the government’s liking. The state claims to have a say in how society is shaped, and Ottomania plays a big role in that claim.
Televising the Nation
Before moving on to AKP’s influences on Turkish TV, we have to consider the political aspects of TV as a medium, both within the country and across the Middle East. Özlem Özsümbül, head of sales and acquisitions in the popular TV channel Kanal D, said it clearly in 2012 as she was boasting about the success of their TV series:
We are a Muslim country, but we are modern. We have love and passion and revenge. We use real locations and good-looking men and beautiful ladies with no scarves.
Offhandedly, Özsümbül’s opinions reveal a lot. First, they show that the producers of the series pay special attention to the kind of society that will be depicted on TV. Second, the depictions of sexuality and passion on TV screens are considered to be an indication of a modernized Muslim society. Ignoring for now how controversial that statement is, we can see how the producers realize that the appeal of the TV series is directly relevant to ideas about religion and society. Just so, the politicians also realize the potential of TV screens to depict an ideal society for their own interests.
The political influence of Turkish TV shows reaches across borders. It has been argued that the modernist Turkish Model of Islam had been an initiating factor for the Arab Spring, and the TV series were the primary channel through which this process occurred.
Ottomania and Erdoganism
As education became more religious and social work became more “Ottomanized,” the AKP’s influence on television was felt along the same lines. In recent years, Ottoman themed TV series have had noticeably high budgets, four of them especially: The Magnificent Century (2011), on the harem of Süleyman the Magnificent, Resurgence: Ertuğrul (2014), on the rise of the Ottomans, The Magnificent Century: Kösem Sultan (2015), a sequel on the harem of Sultan Ahmed I, and Payitaht Abdülhamid, on the era of Sultan Abdülhamid II (2017).
AKP policies are strikingly different in this decade. AKP sharply consolidated its powers after the diminished success of the Moderate Islam policies, the failures of both EU negotiations and peace-attempts with the PKK, the widespread international criticism of the police brutality in the Gezi Park protests, the unexpected outcomes of the Arab Spring, and massively sectarian and hurtful AKP policies in Syria. Many founding members of the AKP have left the picture, leaving the stage for Erdoğan’s charisma and leadership.
As the emphasis on Erdoğan’s charisma was increasing, Ottoman-themed TV shows began to center much more on the sultans. The movie Conquest 1453, for example, is really about a particular vision of Mehmed the Conqueror; Resurgence Ertuğrul is really about the story of a man who single-handedly builds an empire; and Payitaht Abdülhamid depicts a “superhero on the Ottoman throne.”
This is no coincidence: with the Constitutional Referendum, which recently passed with 51% of votes, the government aims to change the regime, annul most of the powers of the parliament and collect them in the hands of the president. At the same time, the Ottoman sultans on TV series invoke ideas of iconic, reliable one-man rulers adorned with a Weberian charismatic authority. Their intentions aren’t hidden in top secret files either: according to the interpretation of an AKP parliament member, “the 90 year long commercial break” of the Ottoman Empire is over.
Two main issues arise out of this infusion of state-ideology in Turkish TV: it constructs a narrow and specific interpretation of Islam, and it manipulates history in a way that benefits the government while deceiving the shows’ audiences.
Popular Turkish TV shows are publicizing a particular interpretation of ‘moderate Islam.’ This might be a smart business move, as some may argue that the shows wouldn’t have been successful if this conception of Islam weren’t so popular. But enforcing a specific view of religion through media is a controversial matter, as reflected in the crises of Danish cartoons, Lars Vilks’ drawings and Charlie Hebdo. There might be people out there, Muslim or not, who argue that adding passion and sexuality and removing the veil is not what makes Islam ‘modern’ or ‘moderate.’ There also might be people who think that TV series should not be the primary medium that teaches us ideas about religion.
Promoting a controversial kind of Islam in popular media has political repercussions as well. Ironically, the person who found sexuality and Muslims on TV inappropriate was arguably the person who profits the most from these TV series—Erdoğan himself. When the ‘modern Islam’ of The Magnificent Century became a bit too ‘modern,’ i.e. a bit too sexual and alcohol-induced, Erdoğan hurled insults and claimed that the Sultan Süleyman depicted in the show “is not the Süleyman we know.” More dramatically, the show was cancelled immediately after the actor who played Sultan Süleyman was spotted in the anti-government Gezi Park protests. Around the same time, another Ottoman-themed TV series Once Upon a Time in the Ottoman Empire was also cancelled, and its main actor complained directly to Erdoğan on Twitter.
Does this mean that TV producers have to keep up with the government’s understanding of Islam? These days, the answer is clearly “yes.” The follow-up to The Magnificent Century, a fictionalized account of the life of Kösem Sultan, never depicts smoking or drinking of alcohol. It does, however include scenes of brutal slave trafficking—specifically, the “taming” of the “fresh” slave girl Anastasia, who later became known as Kösem Sultan, into being the concubine of Sultan Ahmed, all within a computer-generated Ottoman realm. The characters of Diriliş Ertuğrul (2014-present) commit a great deal of Battal Gazi/Jackie Chan-like violence against fitne (chaos, trouble) makers and/or Christians, but absolutely no blood is shown. Put mildly, after Erdoğan’s interventions, there has been a great deal of change in Ottomaniac TV shows’ policies when it comes to depicting sensitive affairs.
Adjusting history at one’s leisure, claiming it as one’s own, and refusing it from the rest of humanity, is a dangerous game. The opening credits of Diriliş Ertuğrul read, “the story and the characters of the show are inspired by our history.” But virtually nothing is known about the life of the historical figure Ertuğrul Gazi (d. ~1280), except that he was the father of the first Ottoman ruler. The show represents Ertuğrul as the founder of the Ottoman nomad tribe—a perfect, charismatic, macho leader around whom a devotedly and exclusively Sunni nation is formed. The lack of historical knowledge about Ertuğrul, combined with his portrayal’s striking resemblance to Erdoğan indicate that the source of “inspiration” is not history at all, but what the Turkish government considers to be “our history.”
The safety of those series as well as Payitaht: Abdülhamid is confirmed. After “joking” with the program moderator about who really has the power to end their interview, Erdoğan added that he expects more TV shows along the lines of Resurgence to be produced because he and his grandchildren love it.
Similarly, Erdoğan gave a speech on May 2015, during the opening ceremony of TRT World – the international news platform of the state – advising the crew of Resurgence to pay no heed to criticism. What matters, he assured them, is that they are “embraced by this nation.” Immediately following this ceremony, perhaps as a gesture in response to the standing ovation he received from the crew of Resurgence, Erdoğan made an appearance on the set. This shows that these TV series are a propaganda tool, invoking and popularizing the government’s ideals of what a political leader, an ideal nation’s regime and politicized religion should be.
The newest TV show on TRT, Payitaht Abdülhamid, depicts a version of Sultan Abdülhamid II’s period that majorly distorts historical facts. An Ottoman historian who studies the Abdülhamid period, writing for the newspaper Agos, hasrecently criticized the “overt fabrications” in the series, as he notices the parallels between the show’s rendering of the Hamidian period and the AKP member Speaker of the Parliament’s aggrandizing opinions on Abdülhamid II.
One might argue that history, the knowledge of the past in the present, can never be absolutely factual. But consistent distortion of established historical facts in the narratives of Ottomaniac TV series signals a seriously dubious practice of manipulation for political gains.
This is not to say that the act of producing TV series set in the Ottoman Empire is inherently wrong. I, for one, actually love historical fiction. My point is that these series have aims other than simply entertaining; they paint an ideal scenario for a particular conception of politics and religion at the exclusion of others. For those who share this particular understanding, the ideological elements embedded would probably be considered utopic. But the reality is that there are other conceptions of what politics and religion should be, and the TV series display no tolerance for opposing or even merely different political and religious subjectivities. Instead, they stigmatize them as enemies of the “Ottoman” state.
In this article I’ve made a generalized summary of the politicization of Ottomaniac Turkish TV shows. The source of my discomfort lies in the fact that some problematic elements of a cultural phenomenon may be neglected due to its great appeal and popularity. Without gadfly-like cynicism, we might overlook the damage being done.
 Here’s just one link to an entertainment website where many Turkish TV series can be found in Persian dub, free for watch. View counts roam in hundreds of thousands. http://www.iranianyellowpage.ca/entertainment/iypseries
 Scott, Alev, in Shifting Sands: The Unraveling of the Old Order in the Middle East. Edited by Raja Shahadeh and Penny Johnson. Profile Books Ltd., London, 2015.
 Gizem Zencirci, « Civil Society’s History: New Constructions of Ottoman Heritage by the Justice and Development Party in Turkey », European Journal of Turkish Studies [Online], 19 | 2014, Online since 15December 2014, Connection on 30 September 2016. URL : http://ejts.revues.org/5076
 An honorable mention here is Conquest 1453, a feature film of which the plot is the conquest of Constantinople by Mehmed the Conqueror.
 I would love to report more about the website of the TV show, but according to the “legal warning” on the website, which is twice as long as the plot summary, as a Turkish citizen I am legally not allowed “to sell, utilize, share, distribute, exhibit or let others reach or use this website’s content,” perhaps including this very excerpt.
 Lindner, Rudi P. (1983). Nomads and Ottomans in Medieval Anatolia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p. 21. “No source provides a firm and factual recounting of the deeds of Osman's father.” Kafadar, Cemal (1995). Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State. p. 60, 122.
This work appears in Khabar Keslan Issue 0. MEDIUM.