Turkey, a relatively new power broker in the larger Middle East region, has been on the cutting edge of regional entertainment for some time. The media complex of Turkey, now rivaling Egypt’s, exports numerous movies and television shows throughout the Middle East, attracting viewers in 70 plus countries. Turkey has excelled at one genre of television in particular– the soap opera– and wet-lipped Turkish melodramas can now be seen from Morocco to Pakistan.
One extremely popular Turkish soap opera about the life and times of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (d. 1566) however has apparently drawn the ire of Turkish Prime Minister Racep Tayyip Erdogan, who has denounced the show, claiming “we don’t recognize these leaders.”
Suleiman was the tenth and, at 46 years, the longest reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. He is known for his annexation of Hungary and for laying siege to Vienna in 1529. However, Suleiman (known as Kanuni, the ‘law-giver’) is perhaps best remembered in Turkish history as a devout defender of Sunni Islam and as creator of a series of legal reforms in the Ottoman Empire that sought to reconcile and unify Ottoman custom with Islamic law, the product of which, the kanun-i Osmani, or Ottoman laws, structured the Empire well into the modern age.
Apparently, the Turkish soap opera based on the Sultan’s life is true to its genre, and features prominently Sultan Suleiman’s life in the Harem and the intrigues that surrounded the beautiful women who attended him there.
It is this aspect of the Suleiman serial that has drawn the attention of Turkey’s Islamist contingent, of which Erdogan is a member. (The yellow streaks running down the picture of an advertisement for the show above are egg, thrown at the poster in protest.) According to the NPR article cited above,
Soon after Erdogan’s criticism, Turkish Airlines yanked The Magnificent Century from its in-flight entertainment, and a lawmaker said he would push to make it a criminal offense to “misrepresent past leaders.”
Perhaps this threat is simply an example of political bluster and an ill-fated attempt to legislate decency of a type not uncommon to our own political culture. Nevertheless, it does raise interesting questions about the purposes of history and the process of identity formation in the modern nation-state.
For Erdogan and the unnamed lawmaker who seeks to make historical misrepresentation illegal, representing the ‘truth’ of Suleiman the pious Muslim and lawmaker becomes of paramount importance, especially as Erdogan plans to run for reelection in 2014 and needs to shore up his democratically inclined Islamist base against persistent claims of a slide towards limitations of freedom and human rights abuses by Turkey’s secularist and leftist camps. Part and parcel to Erdogan’s claim to both Islamist and democratic identity is a complementarity between state law and Islamic law.
Enter Suleiman the Law-Giver. The historical memory, or the pious fiction, of Suleiman as a Turkish symbol of the unification of state (Ottoman imperial) law and religious law serves Erdogan and his peeps in that they see themselves, and attempt to portray themselves, as Suleiman’s direct heirs–ethnically, religiously, and politically. In an important sense then, to portray Suleiman any other way (as, for example, the main character in a racy soap opera) is to at least implicitly undermine the historical narrative, and the political discourse, that Erdogan and the Islamists claim for themselves.
To be sure, the secularist or liberal-leftist parties in Turkey have their own stories to tell, their own authorized histories that consciously or unwittingly, malevolently or benignly, underwrite their own agenda and their own idea of what Turkey and Turkish-ness is. And in case you were wondering— yes, you have your own preferred narrative as well. Part of what we will attempt to do in this class is to untangle and understand these often conflicting narratives so as to understand the modern Middle East a little more clearly. And maybe, we will understand ourselves a little better too.