In the last three years Western media have described Turkish foreign policy as "neo-Ottoman." Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his allegedly "moderate Islamist" Justice and Development Party or AKP are perceived as seeking to revive the historic influence – if not the once-extensive territorial borders – of the Ottoman empire. The Ottomans ruled most of the Middle East from the end of the 13th century CE to 1923, when the Turkish republic was established.
During the latest controversies over "neo-Ottoman" ambitions, Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu has denounced tirelessly, as nonsense, all claims of wishing to restore the empire. According to Davutoglu, a new "opening to the East," directed to the former Turkish provinces in the Arab lands, as well as Armenian, Kurdish, and other cultural zones, represents mere normality. Turkey has, it is said, legitimate interests in common with its neighbors. This view seems intended to give Erdogan's policy a less expansionist and aggressive flavor, making it appear rational and pragmatic.
Erdogan's "Eastern strategy" may also be defined, however, as "rejection of the West." Turkey's bid to join the European Union appears to have been discarded or forgotten.
Nonetheless, Foreign Minister Davutoglu has lately been undermined by his chief in his efforts to repudiate "neo-Ottomanism." Erdogan proclaimed in a speech on November 25, 2012, as reported by the leading Istanbul daily Hurriyet, "We move with the spirit that founded the Ottoman empire."
Erdogan was questioned about this rhetoric by opposition politicians, who demanded that he explain more clearly his government's involvement in the 2010 Gaza coast clash, as well as in Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, and Libya. Erdogan even become involved in Sudan. There Ankara had pretensions to mediating the local crisis between Khartoum's Islamist dictator Omar Hassan al-Bashir, whom Erdogan favored, and the victims of infamous human rights violations in Darfur. Al-Bashir was welcomed to Turkey in 2009 while the Sudanese leader was the first serving head of state indicted for genocide at the International Criminal Court.
Prime Minister Erdogan declared, "We must go everywhere our ancestors have been." Does this mean that Turkey has designs on Hungary, Yemen, and Algeria, to say nothing of its original homelands from the Caspian Sea eastward in Central Asia?
The precedents of Turkish domination in the Balkans, and a campaign by Erdogan's government to reestablish Turkey's importance in the former Ottoman possessions there, have been overlooked. The AKP administration pursues such an agenda through economic investment, no less than the growth of the teaching system run by AKP ally Fethullah Gulen throughout the world. Gulen schools operate in nearly every country, including a system of institutions in the U.S., outwardly promoting secular education and especially science but also advancing Turkish cultural and political penetration. Earlier on, foreign minister Davutoglu, in a 2009 speech in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina, stated, "We will make the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle East, together with Turkey, the center of world politics in the future."
Meanwhile, in an apparent expression of this "neo-Ottoman" fantasy, the Turkish public has been enchanted for two years with a television serial, "The Miraculous Century" ("Muhtesem Yüzyil," in Turkish), which has also been notably popular in the Balkans.
The program, which runs for three hours every Wednesday, portrays the period from 1520 to the close of the 16th century, when Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent commanded the Turkish empire and achieved its greatest extent. The show glorifies the Ottomans and should fit perfectly with the AKP propaganda about the past, reinforcing widespread commentary on "neo-Ottomanism" as the theme of the moment. In the television production, the sultan is benevolent and his advisory grand viziers are intelligent, while competitors including wives and lovers vie for his favor.
"The Miraculous Century" is broadcast by the Star television channel, owned by Turkish billionaire Ferit Sahenk. Conservative and religious elements, however, have criticized the production. Their main complaint is that the central figure in the series is not Suleyman the Magnificent himself, but his main concubine, later his wife, Hürrem Sultan (1506-58), a Christian captive known in the West as Roxelana. To the critics of the television production, Ottoman power in "The Miraculous Century," rather than reflecting the personality of a successful military leader, exhibits the outlook, intrigues, and supremacy of the harem.
Religious attacks on "The Miraculous Century" have diminished because of its popularity, but in the same November 25 discourse in which he promoted unabashedly his "neo-Ottoman" conception, Erdogan condemned the show. Then, on December 6, according to Hurriyet, the Prime Minister blasted the series in detail, mainly for its focus on women and harem life: "Some people claim that our history is nothing but wars, swords, machinations, strife and, unfortunately, harems." Erdogan went on to describe the series as an intentional distortion of Ottoman history, backed by unnamed foreign interests.
Referring to the television series, Erdogan threatened on November 25, "Those who toy with these values should be taught a lesson." Hurriyet reported that the AKP is preparing a law to ban the serial. The newspaper quoted AKP Istanbul deputy Oktay Saral, arguing, "The new law aims to forbid humiliation of historical figures or perversion of real facts." The proposed censorship would also deal with fictional works; a parliamentary vote on it is promised soon.
Saral denied that the projected suppression was motivated by Erdogan's comments, and told other Turkish media that "the matter has been on (AKP's) agenda for a long time." Some opposition politicians have also questioned "The Miraculous Century" for purportedly deceiving Turkish youths about their history. Turkish Airlines, which is 49.1% state-owned, has removed the series from its domestic in-flight entertainment.
Erdogan, who views himself apparently as more a sultan than an elected political leader whose term in office may end, refuses to accept that Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, whom Erdogan considers his model, should be shown by "The Miraculous Century" in a manner the prime minister considers "absolutely incorrect." By this he means, above all, depiction of a ruler manipulated by a woman. Turkey will suffer, however, if this seemingly absurd squabble does not stimulate an authentic and new examination of the epoch of Suleyman the Magnificent, which also included court murders and other atrocities.
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While the Turkish public prosecutor has yet to initiate a legal case against the producers of the series, and aside from its disappearance from Turkish Airlines flights, the broadcaster of "The Miraculous Century" has rushed into self-censorship, announcing that the production of its episodes will be shortened, and the series will come to an earlier conclusion than intended.
A version of this article first appeared on Gatestone Institute.