The PM and the Sultan: Sacred history and expression collide in Turkey

Original text of translated chapter: “Il premier e il sultano: il conflitto turco tra storia sacra e libertà de espressione.” In The Turkish touch: Egemonia neo-ottomana e televisione turca in Medio Oriente. Le monografie di Arab Media Report N. 1 – Dicembre 2013, pp. 33-36.

MY poster

Publicity poster for Magnificent Century, 2012.

Suleiman the Magnificent was the longest-reigning Ottoman sultan, holding power for 46 years and overseeing massive expansions of the Empire’s territory during the 16th Century. His TV counterpart, Turkish actor Halit Ergenç, has actually conquered more of the globe, but his reign over ratings bas been threatened by the man some are calling Turkey’s next sultan, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan.

On 25 November 2012, while speaking at the opening ceremony for an airport in the city of Kuthaya, Erdoğan veered from his remarks on the progress Turkey has seen under the past decade of his Justice and Development Party’s (AK-Party) rule to lambast one of the country’s most popular TV shows, the sometimes sultry Ottoman costume drama Magnificent Century. Noting that opposition leaders had criticized his government’s foreign policy, Erdoğan responded by saying, “We know our responsibilities. We’ll go everywhere that our [Ottoman] ancestors went, but I think some may be imagining the ancestors in Magnificent Century. People watch that show and believe it’s a documentary. We don’t recognize that Suleiman. The real Suleiman spent 30 years of his life on horesback, not in the palace like you see on the TV show. I condemn the directors and the owner of the channel and, since they’ve been warned, I expect a judicial decision on the matter.”

Though the PM didn’t detail his concerns with the show, he tapped into a discourse about respect to sacred figures that has plagued Century since its premiere. Critics feel that the show delves too deeply into speculation on the Sultan’s private life, particularly with regard to his interest in women and the significance of harem intrigues. They are also worried that the Turkish public takes the show as fact, and is therefore getting a skewed sense of this heroic figure.

Erdoğan is arguably the most popular and powerful Turkish leader since the founder of the country, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, so when he speaks, things happen. Within a few days, a tour guide from the city of Konya had filed a law suit against the show, claiming that it misrepresents history and distorts Turkish values. The following week, an AK-Party MP, Oktay Saral, introduced legislation to amend the constitution of the country’s censorship board, RTUK. Taking cue from a statute that already protects the memory of Atatürk, this new law was to ensure that, “historical events and characters that contribute to national values shall not be diminished, disrespected, or shown in manners other than they were.” Days later, Saral appeared on TV promising that Century would be taken off the air in 2013 and, the following day, Turkish Airlines canceled its plans to offer the popular program as in-flight entertainment.

Erdoğan’s opponents were far from silent on the matter. Many claimed that this was simply another example of the PM trying to distract the public from more pressing issues. Just as six months prior he had come out against abortion to silence critics of a military operation that killed 34 Kurdish civilians, critics said, he was now trying to divert attention from increasing Turkish/Kurdish tensions and serious problems on the border with Syria.

Some historians pointed out the PM’s historical nescience, saying that archive documents indicate Suleiman spent about eight years on (horseback) campaign rather than 30, and suggested that his speech was simply an attempt to rewrite Ottoman history for political ends.

A number of critics noted that iconoclasm was nothing new for Erdoğan. On a visit to the eastern city of Kars in 2011 the PM had attacked a sculpture dedicated to Turkish/Armenian friendship, calling it an “abomination” both because it was ugly and because it was near a religious site. The sculpture was quickly torn down.

Perhaps the most damning critique, however, linked the PM’s attack on Century with a December 2012 report on press freedom by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which noted that Turkey had more journalists in prison (49) than any other country in the world. Adding to these the hundreds of students, politicians, and activists rounded up on questionable charges of terrorism, critics claimed that Erdoğan’s volley was just the latest in a series of AK-Party attacks on freedom of expression in recent years.

At present, the fate of TV’s Suleiman looks brighter than that of the journalists. The show, which reaches an estimated audience of 150 million viewers in 44 countries throughout the world, made some quick changes to its format. Female characters began to dress more modestly in the weeks after the PM’s remarks, and Suleiman’s wife, Hürrem, took to praying. Whether in response to these actions or not, the so-called “Suleiman” law seems to have stagnated in parliament, at least for the moment. The show is slated to end in June of 2014, and it is unlikely that any law will come into effect soon enough to harm it, though such a law could be a concern for the latest big-budget Ottoman drama, Fetih, which premiered in September of 2013 and tells the story of Istanbul’s conqueror, Mehmed II.

Suleiman, Mehmed II’s great grandson, was called “magnificent” throughout the world for the strength and expanse of his empire. In Turkey, however, he is known as the “law maker” because he codified a set of rules regarded as strict on the one hand, but also as reasonable and just. Erdoğan, Turkey’s strongest leader in years, may be pondering his own epithet as he contemplates his abortive assault against the Sultan of the airwaves.

August 2013

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