Reading Turkish politics from a soap opera

Amidst intense public controversy, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is moving to ban the widely popular television series Muhtesem Yuzyil (The Magnificent Century). Critics of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP government have been expecting, with a fair dose of cynicism, such a move ever since he denounced the series as an inappropriate characterization of Turkey's ancestry. The series has already been removed from the inflight entertainment system of Turkey's national air carrier; yesterday a Turkish Airlines official cited Erdogan's remarks as the reason for this removal.

Muhtesem Yuzyil, now in its third season and watched by nearly 150 million viewers in Turkey and its neighbors, takes inspiration from the life and adventures of Sulieman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire's longest ruling sultan (1520-1566). While Sulieman is lauded in history textbooks for his many battlefield conquests that led to the great expansion of Ottoman-controlled territory and for being the architect of the empire's "Golden Age" of military, legal, and cultural development, the majority of the dramatic content of the series consists of palace intrigues involving assassination plots and competition among women in the palace harem. 

Erdogan took issue with precisely this creative choice of content in a November 25 speech, spiritedly reminding his audience that Sulieman spent his rule not embroiled in palace affairs but on horseback in battle, and condemning the makers of the series for distorting the nation's forbearers. Following a flurry of responses both countering and supporting the prime minister's comments, including a criminal complaint filed against the series' directors by a tourism agent in the traditionally conservative city of Konya for "mocking our historical values," on Tuesday AKP Istanbul MP Oktay Saral prepared an initiative that would ban the series on the grounds that it demeans personalities and events considered intrinsic to Turkish national values. Saral's move represents the first step at the parliamentary level to realize in concrete political terms Erdogan's expressed preferences on this issue of media representation.

This legislative move might easily be dismissed as political grand-standing on an of-the-moment topic that will quickly fade from memory without lasting effect. However, this initiative can be regarded as indicative of a broader trend in delimiting the boundaries of what is acceptable in public creative expression according to the prime minister's socially conservative tastes. After Erdogan deemed a statue in northeast Turkey a "monstrosity," for example, the AKP-dominant local municipal council voted to demolish the supposedly offending sculpture in February 2011. Earlier this year Erdogan also supported Istanbul AKP Mayor Kadir Topbas's move to take control in selecting which plays would be staged by the Istanbul City Theaters troupe after conservative critics expressed outrage at the content of a play dealing with themes of sexual deviance.

In considering the potential political ramifications of a debate sparked by a soap opera, it is also well worth noting Mehmet Ali Birand's recent point that moves to institutionalize the prime minister's personal preferences have traditionally followed the public articulation of those preferences. Birand cites the Camlica mosque case -- in which Erdogan's public defense of a nearly 50,000 square foot mosque to be constructed on Istanbul's Camlica Hill pushed the project through despite significant protest against the mosque's scale and design -- as one example. Initiatives to restrict abortion rights and reintroduce capital punishment -- following Erdogan's heated remarks on the subjects at the AKP Women's Branch Congress in May and the Bali Democracy Forum in November, respectively -- are two others that spring instantly to mind.

For many objecting to Erdogan's position toward the television series it is the word fictional, as used above, that is the main sticking point in this debate. As Kursat Basar has noted, television series, novels, and other fictional works are not documentaries. It is not the aim -- nor, more importantly, the responsibility -- of such works to chronicle history. These works aim to provide sources of entertainment for those who choose to watch or read them. As an entertainment product designed to target and maximize viewership, the fact that palace intrigues and romances constitute a large portion of the series' content speaks more to the interests and preferences of the viewing audience than it does to the directors' particular interpretation of history.

Perhaps the most interesting take-away from this debate, and one that is significantly more relevant to the current constitutional reform process and the future of politics in Turkey than the proportion of time a sultan may have spent in battle to that in bed, is found in the framing of opposition parties' responses to the prime minister's comments. Reflecting the main opposition party's concern with Erdogan's consolidation of power in the executive branch -- particularly given his likely successful candidacy in an even more powerful position as president in the soon-to-be-redesigned system -- Republican People's Party (CHP) Deputy Chairman Umut Oran targeted his criticism toward the scope of Erdogan's political reach. Speaking in parliament, Oran posed the rhetorical question of whether the supervision of television serials falls within the description of the duties of the prime minister as outlined in the constitution, following up by asking whether Erdogan's statements didn't infringe on the principle of separation of powers.

The Kurdish-comprised Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), long advocates of the rights to education and to legal defense in one's native language as well as subjects of inquiry into suspected links with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK -- outlawed by Turkey and classified as a terrorist group by the United States), framed its criticism of the prime minister's position within a narrative of cultural suppression. BDP Group Deputy Chairman Idris Baluken characterized Erdogan's comments as indicative of the AKP's approach that strives to establish tyranny over art, an approach that Baluken argued claims to find terrorist sympathies reflected in Kurdish poetry and on canvas.

Finally, the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) adhered to its tradition of rebutting positions articulated by parties in power with more rhetoric than substance. Finding the prime minister's critique of the television series a disingenuous attempt to change the political agenda, and emphasizing that the series has been on-air for more than a year, MHP General Secretary Ismet Buyukataman quipped: "This only occurred to him now?"

The questions of media freedom, artistic expression, ideological contestation, and political power happened to be raised in the current Turkish debate over a soap opera. They are also questions fundamental to democratic institutions and discourse. The Magnificent Century, as it did in history, will inevitably conclude -- with or without the influence of the Turkish prime minister. What it leaves behind will be meaningful, if perhaps not magnificent, for the future of Turkish democracy.

Lisel Hintz is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at George Washington University and is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at Bilkent University in Ankara. Her research investigates the relationship between Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy, with a focus on contestation of national identity understandings. She can be reached at Lhintz@gwmail.gwu.edu.

ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

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