‘Diriliş: Ertuğrul’ is more than just a Turkish delight

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. File   | Photo Credit: AP

As Turkey’s geopolitical and regional ambitions grow, its soft power influence through its most popular television export, Diriliş: Ertuğrul (Resurrection: Ertuğrul), does not seem to wane. Recently, its first publicly-owned floating liquefied natural gas (LNG) storage and regasification vessel — also named Ertuğrul Gazi — was inaugurated. Present at this momentous event, which would enable the country to cover much of its energy needs, was none other than President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Returning to its Islamic roots and re-establishing the Ottoman glory have been a top priority for Mr. Erdoğan and his AK Party. Hence, last September, while commemorating the 739th death anniversary of Ertuğrul Ghazi, he reiterated the “goal of preserving Anatolia as a homeland” and “further strengthening this country in peace and prosperity”. Ertuğrul reflects that ambition for prestige and national assertion.

Produced by Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT), the national broadcaster, this historical extravaganza, set in the 13th century, has been inspired by the life of Ertuğrul Ghazi, whose son, Sultan Osman, became the first Caliph of the Ottoman Empire. His heroic acts managed to capture the hearts of billions of viewers across 72 countries and became popularly known as the Muslim Game of Thrones.

Mr. Erdoğan, a great proponent of this show, has been playing an active leadership role in the Islamic world — whether it is in Afghanistan, supporting Bangladesh with regard to the Rohingya issue, aiding Azerbaijan against Armenia or extending its presence in North Africa. For someone who has been modelling himself as an Ottoman sultan and focusing on growing Turkey’s geopolitical clout, a drama series like Ertuğrul is an effective communication vehicle.

In 2019, Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia had proposed setting up a dedicated television channel to promote Muslim heroes and counter Islamophobia. While that did not take off, the following Ramzan, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan recommended the show to his youth. Soon, a quarter of the global audience were Pakistanis and by July 2021, Pakistan Television Corporation’s (PTV) YouTube channel gained 14.9 million subscribers, garnering over 4.3 billion views.

Extending beyond its political leadership, the Turkey-Pakistan ‘brotherhood’ is witnessed across shops and hotels in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan, where the two flags fly together. A fibreglass statue of the swordsman was erected in a residential colony in Lahore, while its intersection has been named Ertuğrul Ghazi Chowk.

Recently, Bangladeshis turned fans after some Bengali-dubbed episodes became available. The Turkish Ambassador there, Mustafa Osman Turan, after visiting Deepto, the popular private TV channel, said such shows would help bring two fraternal countries together, developing a cultural bond. Meanwhile, Deepto has planned to purchase the series. Incidentally, Bangladesh has become the fourth-largest arms buyer from Turkey, reportedly receiving weapons worth about $60 million in the first quarter of 2021.

The historical conquests of the hero have also resonated with Kashmiris in India, who relate to its customs and mannerisms. The story of a small tribe of Turkish nomads gallantly fighting the Crusaders, Templers, Byzantines and Mongols is inspirational to the youth there. In May 2020, a TRT official tweeted that more Indians searched for these videos on YouTube than for Shah Rukh Khan. Many parents in Kashmir have even chosen to name their newborns Ertugrul, and a restaurant in downtown Srinagar is themed around it.

In August 2020, Azerbaijan became a major gas supplier in Turkey. A month later, the latter supported the former after intense fighting broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Mr. Erdoğan said Turkey would stand with “friendly and brotherly Azerbaijan with all our means and heart”. During this time, it was also announced that Ertuğrul would be dubbed in the Azeri language and aired on its state television channel, AZ TV. Subsequently, in June this year, Turkish and Azerbaijani armies held a five-day joint military drill.

However, not the entire Muslim world has taken to it. In a bid to curb Turkey’s soft power influence, some religious organisations in Egypt and Saudi Arabia called for a ban. They suspected Mr. Erdoğan’s “sinister plans” to influence and conquer the Arab world. In retaliation, Saudi Arabia, which holds a grudge against the Ottomans, launched a big budget production titled Mamalik el-Nar (Kingdoms of Fire) that has not caused any ripple.

The popularity of Ertuğrul is in a way reflective of Turkey’s growing influence around the world, including faraway Venezuela where Mr. Erdoğan shares a warm relationship with President Nicolas Maduro. Mr. Maduro not only endorsed the series but also visited the sets during his trip to Turkey in 2018. While the interest of people living in countries that were part of the Ottoman Empire or have a large Muslim population is understandable, its popularity elsewhere is rather unusual. But for now, it seems that wherever Mr. Erdoğan goes, Ertuğrul follows.

With the christening of an LNG vessel, it wouldn’t be wrong to assume that Ertuğrul, which has become a symbol of Turkish power, has expanded beyond being a historical hero to other critical sectors of its society and economy. At the inauguration, Mr. Erdoğan said his government was “determined to ensure a more prosperous life” for each one of its 84 million citizens.

Nithya Subramanian is an Editor at the Institute of South Asia Studies (ISAS), an autonomous research institute at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

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Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 4:54:16 PM |

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