HTS 2041: The Modern Middle East

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Who Owns the Past? Ottoman History Becomes a Battleground for National Identity in Modern Turkey

Eggs streak down a billboard advertising the popular Turkish soap opera The Magnificent Century. The show focuses on palace intrigue during the 16th-century rule of Suleiman the Magnificent. Some Islamists have protested the show's depiction of the sultan's harem.

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.

–Anthony Byrd



  1. akranc3 says:

    Making historical misrepresentation a criminal offense seems a bit ridiculous, Effectively, someone in politics could could fine or imprison anyone that says something that they don’t like, whether it be about themselves or someone else. This seems to be tending towards America’s anti-defamation laws, but has taken a turn towards the absurd.

  2. jkipp3 says:

    I am surprised that politicians are still trying to play this type of game today. Any responsible Turkish voter who feels strongly one way or the other on this subject will use Google to find more information, rather than rely on campaign propaganda or the media.

  3. kolson23 says:

    It seems as if the government, Erdogan and his party, are the ones that are misrepresenting history. They want to place emphasis on the good that Suleiman did during his reign and ignore the potential of any wrongdoing just because they claim to be his descendants. Does this mean that, if misrepresenting history is a crime, that the government is breaking their own law? Or that they can simply say that their “version” of history is the right one? Leaving history slanted in their favor. I feel that the government needs to take the show with a grain of salt, it is only a soap opera after all.

  4. nathanieljonesenglish1102 says:

    It’s really interesting that a popular soap opera could play such an important role in Erdogan’s next election. Haha, I can’t imagine that happening in the United States today. However, I do agree with the idea that history should be kept as accurately as possible. It’s important to everyone that we know what has happened in the past. Unfortunately, I’m sure that much of the history that we know today is given in a fairly biased manner. As the saying goes, “History is written by the victors”.

  5. jdowling6 says:

    Isn’t it funny that films regarding history (documentary or fiction) always strike so much controversy? Actually, I think not. My point is many movies may or may not lie or create controversial claims bending evidence to support their messages. Even if there is little misrepresentation in a historical/patriotic film, leaders of countries can say whatever they want about films using the fact that the movie industry has a bad rep when it comes to accuracy in order to send some kind of message. I agree with Kolsen23’s comment that the Turkish government here is denying the accuracy of the film is a bit ironic with regards to their own law. A film is just a film, but the reaction of a leader sends a strong message. In China in 1950, Mao banned a documentary of the life of a beggar, Wu Xun. Long story short, he had his plan for a communist government that differed slightly than the government portrayed by the one in the film. The focus of the film, hardly was of politics at all. So why bother making a mountain out of a molehill? Whatever the message Turkey is trying to send, I believe would make a good discussion.

  6. tdkohlbeck says:

    Americans are certainly used to hearing outcries over our media (TV, videogames, what-have-you), and often in similar contexts of mis/representation. What strikes me as strange about this situation is that such a high-up political figure would jump into the fray. We don’t bat an eye when congresspeople make ridiculous threats or claims because we’re used to it. But if a president were to take issue with something like Erdogan has done with this TV show, all our ears would perk up. Perhaps something similar to this has happened in the United States before?

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