EDMONDS, Washington — “Diriliş: Ertuğrul” (or “Resurrection: Ertuğrul,” in English) is at first glance a Turkish show about the origins of the Ottoman Empire. However, since its debut in 2014, Turkish political figures have referenced the show on a national level. “Diriliş: Ertuğrul” has changed the country’s political landscape. It caused a new awakening of the identity of modern-day Turkey, with an emphasis on national unity and a return to basic compassion. But, with millions of non-Turkish refugees in need, the political interpretations of the show’s core message are now glaringly absent for much of the country’s needy.
The Turkish Political Landscape
For years, Turkey’s political landscape has become increasingly polarized, with a number of issues proving divisive among Turkish citizens. In a recent joint study by İstanbul’s Bilgi University Migration Research Center and the U.S.-based German Marshall Fund, a new political phenomenon has gripped Turkey’s population. This phenomenon, dubbed Political Sectarianism, describes a high level of political conflict within the country, making meaningful civic dialogue and policy reform very difficult.
One of the greatest contributing factors to the public’s political opinions has been media, specifically media and press crackdowns under the current administration. The Justice and Development party (or AK Party, in Turkish) originally gained public attention around 2002, with current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan representing the party and its conservative values. Since taking office, Erdoğan has gained attention from Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch for his media and press censorship, spanning all the way back to 2013.
As a result of rising polarization, an increase in Turkish nationalist sentiments has been tracked throughout the years. One study from the Center of American Progress found that, when asked whether international elites have too much power and should be resisted, nearly half of all Turkish respondents answered with a strong yes. Moreover, the same study found that 55% of Turks strongly favored isolationism over international cooperation.
Turkey’s Refugee Crisis
With the rising numbers of Syrian refugees in the country, misinformation, media censorship and rising nationalism have the potential to wreak disastrous effects. A whopping 77% of AKP voters believed that Turkey spends too much on the country’s refugees, and another 47% strongly agreed with the statement.
The same study found that negative attitudes towards Syrian refugees and refugees overall were at all-time highs, regardless of party or political preference. To add to the tension of the situation, Syrian refugees in Turkey now total 3.6 million according to the U.N. Refugee Agency, a figure which is like higher due to additional unregistered refugees.
“Diriliş: Ertuğrul” and the Revolution of Neo-Ottoman Television
In the midst of this increasingly turbulent political and social landscape lies a seemingly harmless stream of media content: soap operas. Turkish soap operas are a source of Turkey’s pride, with shows like the 2006 “Binbir Gece” (or “1001 Nights,” in English) dominating Turkish airtime. These shows often cover themes like family, honor and compassion, called Dizi in Turkish.
In 2011, an Ottoman-period show called “Magnificent Century” aired, and almost immediately gained a viewership of one-third of Turkey’s audience. The show was one of the first to feature Ottoman-inspired themes and values of honor and justice, overlapping with the beliefs of Turkey’s majority Muslim population. Scholars and historians point to Magnificent Century as a landmark in the birth of Neo-Ottomanism, a political resurgence of nostalgia for Ottoman-like policy and governance.
“Magnificent Century” was the beginning of a string of Turkish dramas emphasizing the Ottoman period and Turkish national pride, culminating in one of Turkey’s biggest television successes, “Diriliş: Ertuğrul.” Upon its release in 2014, the show became immensely popular both in Turkey and abroad, especially in places like Pakistan. For many, “Diriliş: Ertuğrul” highlights what are considered to be Islamic values and Muslim heroes throughout history while preaching kindness and compassion for those in need.
“Diriliş: Ertuğrul,” the AK Party and International Implications
In addition to promoting positive Islamic portrayals, the show has also aligned with the AKP’s core campaigns of national pride, according to Omar Al-Ghazzi, Assistant Professor at the London School of Economics. President Erdoğan was also reported to be a fan of the show, visiting the set in 2015 in a highly-publicized outing and inviting cast members to his birthday in 2020.
However, some have pointed out that “Diriliş: Ertuğrul” and the AKP’s core messages of compassion and understanding are now conflicting with the party’s rising nationalism. In fact, the show has been banned in the UAE, Egypt and Saudia Arabia for its portrayal of what fatwa organizations consider Turkish nationalism.
What are the Impacts of Neo-Ottoman Sentiments and Nationalism on Refugees?
While bolstering the AKP’s promotional campaigns, the effects of “Diriliş: Ertuğrul” and the association of the AKP’s increasingly nationalist supporters have been blatant for Syrian refugees. In addition to a boom in anti-Syrian sentiments throughout Turkey, legislation like the 2019 suspension of refugee registration and the subsequent removal of non-registered refugees has made life even more difficult for refugees in Turkey.
Instances of violence against refugees have also been on the rise, with one 2017 study by the International Crisis Group showing that anti-Syrian crimes had tripled from the previous year. Since then, that figure rose even higher, with multiple instances of vicious attacks recorded last year alone. One such attack involved a Syrian woman, Suyouf Aref, and a child being beaten in broad daylight, while others include brutal stabbings, shootings and targeting of refugees.
While “Diriliş: Ertuğrul” ended in 2019, spin-offs like the highly-popular “Kuruluş: Osman” have taken over in its place. Despite the end of the show, Syrian refugees still feel the effects of “Diriliş: Ertuğrul” and its contribution to nationalist attitudes in Turkey through AKP promotion. While political sectarianism and rising Turkish nationalism have cost many refugees their lives, survivors of harassment like Suyouf Aref are spreading their stories in the hopes of raising awareness.
– Maddie Youngblood