The holy month of Ramadan is also prime season for television in much of the Muslim world. As Muslim families from Morocco to Malaysia feast on their iftar meals after a long day of fasting, they often watch new serial television dramas. This Saturday, the state-run Pakistan Television (PTV) launched an Urdu-dubbed version of the hit Turkish series “Dirilis: Etrugrul” or “Resurrection: Etrugrul,” months after Prime Minister Imran Khan’s personal request. It’s been an instant hit. The first episode of “Ertugrul” received more than 400,000 views in the first 24 hours after it was posted on the YouTube channel of PTV Home.
When the “Ertugrul” series was first aired on Turkey’s state-run TRT 1 channel in 2014, its primary intended audience was domestic. The series tells the pre-history of the Ottoman Empire, centering on the plight of the nomadic Kayi Oghuz Turkic tribe, led by Ertugrul, the father of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire. The Kayi are surrounded by hostile forces and without a permanent settlement. But they are more than just hapless nomads in a struggle for survival. The Kayi have been endowed with a bigger purpose: to unite the fractious Turks and lead the Muslim world amid the tumult (fitna) of the 13th century.
A Founding Myth for the Ottoman Empire and a Metaphor for Turkey Today
With the Mongol invasions, the Kayi fled the Turkic heartland in Central Asia for Anatolia. But they receive no respite there. The Kayi are threatened by Crusaders to the west, thrust into palace politics of the Seljuk and Ayyubid Empires, impacted by the chaos in Syria, and face treachery from within. If that sounds similar to Turkey’s challenges today, that is very much the intent. “Ertugrul” not only presents a founding myth of the Ottoman Empire, but also frames contemporary Turkey’s strategic predicament in the post-Arab Spring, multipolar era and the role the Turkish republic ought to play in the Muslim world.
Before the Arab Spring, Turkish Prime Recep Tayyib Minister Erdogan sought to pursue a policy of pragmatic engagement with its periphery. Ankara, for example, took steps to reconcile with the Kurds and join the European Union. But Europe closed its doors to the predominantly Muslim country. And with the Syrian civil war, the “zero problems” policy devised by former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was hit by a tsunami of problems. Turkey now feels abandoned by the West, despite being a long-time member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Russians continue to befuddle and haunt the Turks, as they have for centuries.
These themes of abandonment and the need for self-reliance are features of modern Turkey’s political and strategic culture. The “Ertugrul” series provides it with “Islamic characteristics.”
‘Ertugrul’ Is More Than an Islamic ‘Game of Thrones’
“Dirilis: Ertugrul” has been available with English subtitles on Netflix and YouTube. As a result, it has become popular far beyond Turkey, with a devoted audience across the Muslim world and even in Western Muslim diaspora communities. Its popularity stems partly from it filling an emotional or psychological void in the Muslim world: the protagonist Ertugrul is the type of hero many Muslims yearn for in today’s era of fitna. The show also appeals to many by reflecting Islamic values.
The series been described as a Turkish or Islamic “Game of Thrones.” But it’s by no means a crude, amoral epic about the lust for power. Unlike most Netflx-style serials these days, the main character Ertugrul is a hero, not an anti-hero. He epitomizes traditional Islamic chivalry or futuwwa. He displays courage (shuja’ah), unflinching faith in God, and obedience as a son. Though young, he practices patience (sabr) and possesses wisdom (hikmah) in judgment. And he is guarded over by a wali or friend of God: the famous Muslim mystic Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi, who—in this fictional depiction—acts as a kind of patron saint of the Kayi tribe, interceding (shafa’ah) before God on their behalf.
Erdogan’s Soft Power Push into South Asia
Ertugrul’s Kayi tribe are an embattled people with a purpose. And so are Erdogan’s Turks, who inhabit a rough neighborhood and have few friends to call on. During Erdogan’s tenure, Turkey has incorporated elements of Muslim nationalism into its grand strategy. Critics call it “neo-Ottomanism,” though Ankara has by no means entertained imperial delusions. Erdogan’s Islamic populism, including his advocacy for persecuted Muslim populations in Kashmir and Palestine, has propelled his rise to the most popular Muslim leader in the world.
Erdogan’s popularity has grown over the past year as Turkey has become more outspoken on behalf of Kashmiris facing India’s occupation. And his advocacy on the Kashmir issue is rare for a Muslim leader outside Pakistan. Gulf Arab leaders, for example, have remained silent in recent years. In the 1970s, King Faisal bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia and Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates were perhaps the two most respected foreign leaders in Pakistan, due to their moral stature and advocacy of Muslim causes. Turkey’s Erdogan has assumed a similar status in Pakistan today. Indeed, in February, during Erdogan’s state visit to Islamabad, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan quipped that the Turkish leader could easily win an election in Pakistan.
The Pakistan-Turkey relationship precedes the long precedes their existence as modern republics. In the 1920s, many Muslims in British colonial India offered moral support to the besieged Ottomans through the Khilafat Movement. During the Cold War, both Pakistan and Turkey stood out as anti-Soviet flanks in the Muslim world. The two countries were part of the Central Treaty Organization.
Today, Ankara and Islamabad have a budding strategic partnership. Pakistan is procuring defense hardware from Turkey, including naval vessels and combat helicopters. And they have flirted at aligning as part of a bloc of non-sectarian Muslim countries.
The popularity of the “Ertugrul” series in Pakistan owes itself in part to the deep reservoirs of goodwill for Turkey in Pakistan and strengthens its soft power. “Ertugrul” feeds off of the Muslim nationalism that has prevailed in Pakistan since its origins. And in neighboring Indian-occupied Kashmir, it provides inspiration for the persecuted, where locals see their own story in that of the Kayi Oghuz Turks and hope for the emergence of a real-life Ertugrul of their own. When India imposed a draconian lockdown and communications ban last August after it annexed Kashmir, local Kashmiris turned back the clock and resorted to using flash drives to share episodes of “Ertugrul.” Unsurprisingly, the Turkish state-run news channel TRT World was among those banned in Kashmir by the Indian government last August.
The wide popularity of the “Ertugrul” series is a testament to the power of narratives. Set over seven centuries ago, the show provides entertainment for many, and for some, fuels hope that new alignments and rising powers—including Erdogan’s Turkey—can perhaps change their destiny in this era of fitna.
Watch the first episode of season one of “Dirilis: Ertugrul” in Urdu: