How will the revival of Ottomanism shape Turkey’s future in the Muslim world?

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Turkey’s Islamic identity is an indisputable fact. Since the dawn of Turkic dynasties that took control of former Abbasid territories at the end of the tenth century, the “Turks” became the main face of Muslim empires for the best part of 800 years. The decisive victory for the Seljuk Empire against the Byzantines in the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 CE opened the doors for Turkic tribes to the region known as Anatolia, which stood at the gates of Christian Europe.

Fast forward two centuries from Manzikert, the birth of the Ottoman sultanate in 1299 CE eventually superseded the Mamluks, Seljuks, Ayyubids and Abbasids as the largest Sunni Muslim empire for six centuries, especially when it assumed the position of the Caliphate over the Islamic world in 1517 CE under Selim I.

The Ottoman Empire’s distinct Turkish identity shaped the way this Muslim superpower dealt with respective European polities. From the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 CE to the siege of Vienna in 1529 CE, right up to the Battle of Gallipoli during World War One, the “Turks” will forever be remembered by their European neighbours as the Muslim thorn at the heart of Europe.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. War and trade necessitated alliances, albeit short-lived, between the Ottoman Empire and mainly France and Britain, usually against the Habsburg and Russian empire. However, due to the Ottomans siding with a defeated Germany in WW1, the Sykes-Picot agreement led to the carving up of the Middle East into small nation-states which remain until today.

The Turkish Republic and Europe 

After the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate on 3rd March 1924 and the declaration of a secular republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey looked towards Western Europe as a political model to emulate.

During its formative years, the new Turkish republic saw a period of forced assimilation to secularism, and the censorship of Turkey’s innate Islamic identity and culture. The Kemalist regime imposed several draconian policies which included the banning of the hijab, outlawing the public call to prayer, the closure of religious schools, and the abandonment of the Arabic language from the education curriculum.

The authoritarian crackdown on anything overtly Islamic lasted for nearly 70 years with numerous military coups taking place when the “security” and “unity” of the secular republic was threatened. And throughout this period, the historical remnants of the Ottoman Empire were generally erased from public life, as the higher echelons of Kemalist power perceived it as a regressive chapter of Turkey’s past.

For a Muslim majority country with a population of 80 million, one of the strongest standing armies in the world, and with social norms that are not entirely palatable to secular liberal Europe, Turkey’s desire to be accepted into the European Union was destined to be problematic. The accusations of human rights abuses and censorship of freedoms are frequently levied against Turkey by some EU members when opposing their bid to join the bloc. And whilst it may not be politically correct to say this, Turkey’s historical track record with Europe during the Ottoman era makes its Muslim identity an elephant in the room.

Consequently, it is safe to say, for now, that Turkey under the leadership of the charismatic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP) is now looking towards the Middle East and North Africa to gain political influence and economic prosperity.

Revival of Ottoman history

The popular likening of President Erdogan and the AKP to the Ottoman Empire is a fallacy. This “link” between “Sultan Erdogan” and the Ottoman Empire was born out of the reality that for decades Turkey was structurally suppressed from the public recognition of its Islamic heritage, something commonly attributed to the Ottomans and the Seljuks before them. Inevitably, when a seemingly unapologetic Muslim leader emerged from the gradual decline of Kemalism, a logical outcome was for some to liken Erdogan and the AKP to modern-day Ottomans.

While this comparison to the Ottomans has been parroted by Western journalists and Turkish secularists, comparing Erdogan and the AKP to the Ottomans can neither be substantiated from a political rhetoric point of view, let alone policies.

However, Ottoman nostalgia is certainly on the rise in Turkey. During my two visits to Istanbul since 2015, I noticed a consistent level of cross-spectrum positive sentiments of Ottoman history among the hotel staff, taxi drivers, restaurant waiters, shopkeepers and university students I interacted with—and some were ardent critics of Erdogan and the AKP.

As stated earlier, whilst it would be incorrect to even figuratively compare Erdogan to the Ottoman sultans of the past, there is no denying that the AKP has played a key role in normalising Ottoman nostalgia in Turkey. From commemorating historical battles like Gallipoli to welcoming world leaders with Ottoman-dressed guards, it is fair to say that much of Erdogan’s rhetoric and the AKP’s social policies would make Ataturk turn in his grave.

In addition to calling on Muslim youth in Turkey to wed young, urging married couples to have at least five children, rhetoric in support of the oppressed PalestiniansSyrians and the Rohingya, another indicator of Erdogan and the AKP’s role in reviving Ottoman history is their support for popular Ottoman TV shows.

Dirilis Ertugrul (Resurrection: Ertugrul)

Dirilis Ertugrul was launched in 2013, and the fourth season is rumoured to release later this year. The show’s conservative producer and director, Mehmet Bozdag, is a celebrated filmmaker in Turkey whose affiliation to the AKP is no secret. The show was an acclaimed hit with Turkish audiences when it aired on TRT—the national Turkish broadcaster—while being an even bigger hit with non-Turkish viewers who watched the show on Netflix.

The fantastically produced programme has even been dubbed by some as the “Turkish Game of Thrones”, but whilst I feel that is a bit of an exaggeration, the series was certainly very well acted with epic fight scenes and nail-biting plots.

“Ertugrul Gazi” was the father of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire. Very little is known about the life of Ertugrul except that he was the son of Sulaiman Shah of the Kayi tribe who migrated from Central Asia and settled in Anatolia due to the Mongol raids. The character of Ertugrul is played by Turkish heartthrob Engin Altan Duzyatan, who executed the role to perfection.

The show follows Ertugrul’s struggle to find a permanent homeland for the Kayi tribe from Aleppo to Erzurum, whilst simultaneously fighting the Knights Templers, the Mongols, treacherous Seljuk governors and generals, and internal spies. As a loyal servant to Seljuk Sultan Alladeen Kaykubad, Ertugrul serves to protect and expand the Seljuk Empire with the long-term plan of establishing his own principality that will take over the bastion from the Seljuks.

Throughout the series, Ertugrul is guided by religious scholars, Sufi mystics, his mother Hayme, and his Seljuk wife Halime. The series consists of strong themes pertaining to the establishment of an expansionist state that will rule with justice, as well as the Islamic concepts of unity, jihad, martyrdom, patience and hope, which is coupled with an unadulterated hatred for the Crusaders and their spies from ‘within’ the tribe. I could not help but feel the Crusaders and their Turkic agents fitted perfectly with Erdogan’s official coup plot narrative—an act of treason that was orchestrated by the West and carried out by the treacherous Gulenists.                  

Payitaht Abdulhamid (The Last Emperor)

Payitaht Abdulhamid follows the concluding years of Sultan Abdulhamid II’s rule, which was marred with separatist rebellions, coup plots by the Young Turks, as well as external threats from European powers, which the show implies were being orchestrated by Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism. The character of Abdulhamid is played by Bulent Inal, who perfectly delivers the stern and uncompromising personality of the 34th Ottoman sultan.

The programme received much praise from President Erdogan and conservative sections of Turkish society, as well as being warmly received by Shahzade (prince) Abdulhamid Kayıhan Osmanoğlu—Sultan Abdhulhamid’s great grandson who helped with the show’s production. However, Payitaht Abdulhamid caused uproar on social media among some members of the Jewish community who accused the show of peddling anti-Semitism. Lobbyists successfully prevented Netflix from airing the show, whilst staff members from the ‘Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ claimed that Payitaht Abdulhamid promoted an “antidemocratic, anti-Semitic and conspiratorial worldview”.

However, historically speaking, Abdul Hamid II was widely regarded by Muslim historians as the great Ottoman Caliph who singlehandedly drove the empire to survive for another 40 years. Dubbed by his European critics as a regressive monarchist who prevented the modernization of the empire, when in actuality, Abdulhamid implemented major educational, military and economic reforms which resulted in the empire surpassing its expected “sell by date” by half a century until his removal in 1909.

The first season of Payitaht Abdulhamid aired on TRT earlier this year, and it is the latest pro-Ottoman programme on mainstream Turkish TV.

Muhtesem Yuzyil (Magnificent Century)

Magnificent Century is a soap drama that depicts the life of Sulaiman ‘The Magnificent’—one of the greatest Ottoman sultans who led the empire to its zenith in the sixteenth century. In stark contrast to Dirilis Ertugrul and Payitaht Abdulhamid, Magnificent Century mainly focuses on the sultan’s womenfolk—his jealous wives, competing concubines and controlling mother—all of whom were seeking to gain influence within the palace.

Magnificent Century, which was aired on Show TV and Star TV, was also a mega hit in Turkey; however, the Turkish broadcasting regulator RTUK stated that they received more than 70,000 complaints due to the show’s depiction of the sultan’s personal sex life, of him gambling, and the extravagance of the royal family. Erdogan also weighed in on the criticisms calling the soap “disrespectful” towards a revered historical figure. The show covers the meteoric rise of Hurrem—the former Orthodox Christian slave from Crimea—who went onto to become Sulaiman’s wife and one of the most powerful women in Ottoman history.

Whilst Magnificent Century is a far cry from Dirilis Ertugrul and Payitaht Abdulhamid, the show still managed to illustrate—in consistent snippets—the glory of the Ottoman Empire, and Sulaiman as the great Caliph of Islam who took Shariah law and jihad very seriously. Considering the directors and producers of Magnificent Century are widely regarded as secularists, their inclusion of Islamic concepts and the historical distrust of Christian Europe in a soap that has been described as the Turkish ‘Sex and The City’ was surprising, and very telling of the religious sensitivities in Turkey.

The future of Ottomanism in Turkey 

Kudos and criticisms of political figures and parties should be proportionality based on policies and reality, as opposed to rhetoric alone. In the same way that Ataturk did everything in his means to eradicate Islam from Turkey’s public sphere, including Ottoman history, similarly Erdogan and the AKP cannot be exclusively praised for the recent revival of Ottoman history. Ataturk on numerous occasions criticised Islam and the influence of the “backward” Arabs on the Turkish nation, in the same way that Erdogan has clearly stated that he has absolutely no intention to govern by Shariah law or to establish a Caliphate.

The Ottoman Empire makes up 625 years of Turkey’s history. Therefore, 70 years of Kemalist oppression or 20 years of AKP’s so-called “Islamification” can neither diminish nor revive such a vast legacy overnight. The truth of the matter is that it is physically impossible to erase Ottoman history because it dominates the very landscape that Turks see every day, along with the plethora of cultural norms among the indigenous people that date back to the Ottomans.

However, the exact details of Erdogan and the AKP’s influence aside, one must question where this “revival” of Ottomanism in Turkey will lead to? Surely, if the masses are being shown via mainstream TV a glorious Islamic empire that existed only 93 years ago, which ruled large swathes of the Middle East, North Africa, the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and assumed overall leadership over the Muslim world, it will naturally influence the psyche of Turkey’s population.

Turkey’s selective military involvement in Syria, its ongoing skirmishes with Kurdish separatists, the formation of military training camps in Somalia, Erdogan’s purging of coup plotters and Gulenists, the war against ISIS, and the AKP’s warm relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood are a mere spectacle compared to the militaristic, expansionist and religious narratives being disseminated in Dirilis ErtugrulPayitaht Abdülhamid and Magnificent Century.

Whether the revival of Ottoman heritage is a passive AKP “Islamification” policy or a genuine celebration of Turkey’s history, if a government allows the masses to be constantly reminded of their historical glory and accomplishments, many will begin to yearn to see a repeat of those achievements. It happens in the Western world all the time. In the U.S., Britain and France, the masses are frequently reminded by the mainstream media about of how “great” their colonial forefathers were in shaping the modern world, which strengthens the population’s sense of global importance and interventionism.

With the consistent themes of military conquests, Islamic unity, Jewish conspiracies, and the concept of jihad as a mechanism to liberate occupied lands embedded in TV shows like Dirilis Ertugrul and Payitaht Abdulhamid, it can only lead to two things: the subconscious desire to return to such glory, and the conscious comparison between celebrated Ottoman sultans and Turkey’s contemporary leaders. And this may also manifest in the Turkish public being more receptive and supportive of military interventionism in the region, and even expansion of its borders.

Inevitably, if such a situation were to occur, there will always be domestic opposition to military interventionism and expansionism from anti-war activists and opposition parties, but it cannot be ruled out. In recent years, nation-state borders have been altered: the breaking of the border between Iraq and Syria by ISIS, the accession of Crimea to Russia, the breakaway of South Ossetia from Georgia, and the formation of a de-facto autonomous Kurdistan are a testimony that nation state borders can shift.

However, it is important to note that the cultural revival of Ottomanism isn’t necessarily an “Islamic” sentiment that could lead to the re-establishment of a Turkish-headed Caliphate or a neo-Ottoman Sultanate—for some it may be, but for many others, it really isn’t.

While there is a distinct link between the Ottoman Empire’s Islamic authoritative legitimacy and Turkey’s inescapable Muslim identity—neo-Ottomanism has recently been promoted by Turkish nationalists to justify pan-Turkism. The fact that the Ottomans were unapologetically Turkish and had ruled vast lands inhabited by Turkic people, the current Ottoman nostalgia could lead to widespread acceptance and support for Turkey to involve itself in the political and economic affairs of former Turkic Ottoman territories.

As an admirer of Ottoman history, I perceive the current resurgence in Ottoman heritage as a positive and refreshing change for Turkey since the dark days of Kemalist tyranny. It would be unfortunate if such a legacy was suppressed by Kemalists or manipulated by opportunistic “Islamists” when there is a wealth of lessons that Turkey can learn from their Ottoman predecessors in order to progress as an emerging superpower in the region.