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Tue 19 May 2020:

Ertugrul, for those of you that haven’t seen it and I cannot imagine that’s many of you, is a show about the legendary father of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Sultanate. Very little is known about Ertrugul, except that he paved the way for the nascent Ottoman rule through his heroic commitment to the then Seljuk empire. Since the fall of Baghdad at the hands of Mongolian hoards, the seat of the Abbasid Caliphate, in 1258, the Islamic world was without central leadership, instead falling into several smaller and often competing sultanates. The Ottoman’s, through their rule, not only reunited these disparate sultanates but, through skill and focus, expanded northwards, liberating Constantinople from the cruel Byzantine emperor.

The show’s success in the Muslim world leaves many, especially those with liberal leanings, perplexed. Its recent airing in Pakistan has taken the country by storm. Prime Minister Imran Khan has tweeted about the show, suggesting all young Pakistani’s can gain a sense of lost history and Muslim unity. At the same time, Pakistani liberal elites deride the show, bizarrely highlighting on social media the less than perfect lifestyles of its cast. Saudi Arabia has banned the show, citing its malign influence and Egypt’s “High Fatwa Council” (Dâru’l-İftâ), published a statement that accuses Turkey of trying to create an “area of influence” for itself in the Middle East via its soft power. Saudi Arabia has undertaken a broader initiative to undercut Turkish influence, recently changing its education curriculum to depict the Ottoman rule as an ‘occupation’.

The show, produced by Turkish filmmakers over five high octane seasons, fictionalises the life and travails of Ertrugul, his Kai tribe and its sometimes uneasy relationship with Seljuk officials as they jostle for power but also with Christian Crusaders and Mongolian marauders as they plot to gain dominion over Muslim territories. Some say it is the Muslim answer to Game of Thrones, with it’s choreographed battle scenes and others liken it to an Islamic political drama, with its focus on hypocrisy within and the machinations of power-hungry princes that construct elaborate plans to undermine Muslim unity. In many ways, the show can be a parable for our predicament today, a fractious Muslim world, rife with internal conflict, with a leadership more interested in serving western hegemonic powers than pursuing policies to further Muslim unity and progress.

It is hard to criticise the show. But one cannot divorce its aims from that of the Turkish state, embarked upon a project of soft power. President Erdogan looks to ride the wave of pan-Islamism in the Muslim world, capitalising upon the discontent Arab and Muslim masses have shown with their leaders. Is the show a part of this cultural offensive and if so, has it been utilised for more nefarious political ends?

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