Anti-Ottoman TV show just another chink in Erdogan’s armor

But that wasn’t how the neo-Ottomans believed it. For them, Arabs – the most precious of all Muslims – were admired and cherished.

POLICEMEN WALK near the national flags of Pakistan and Turkey displayed along a road ahead of a visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Islamabad in 2016.  (photo credit: FAISAL MAHMOOD/REUTERS)
POLICEMEN WALK near the national flags of Pakistan and Turkey displayed along a road ahead of a visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Islamabad in 2016.
(photo credit: FAISAL MAHMOOD/REUTERS)
Mamalek al-Nar (Kingdoms of Fire), a mega-production aired at MBC TV, portrays a tyrannical Ottoman sultan. The show is the latest blow on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Ikhwani dreams and soft-power rhetoric.
Dina, a Syrian refugee in the upscale and Islamist Basaksehir neighborhood of Istanbul, spoke in whispers when I called her. Her family was watching a new show with headphones, as they didn’t want any of their Turkish neighbors to know. Kingdoms of Fire is new name of a show that since November 17 has aired on one of the most popular Arabic channels, MBC TV. The production is estimated to cost $40 million, and it is expected to be one of the biggest Arabic-language productions of 2019. The slogan of the show was reported in Turkish media as follows: “One empire led by bloody law. That has been their curse!”
Kingdoms of Fire has definitely angered the neo-Ottomans, as it has been critical of Ottoman rule. The theme is centered on the Ottoman-Mamaluk war of early 16th century, and it portrays the wars quite differently than the Turkish high school text books. The war ended up incorporating Egypt, the Levant and Hajez into the empire.
I belong to a generation (1990s) who studied in high school that the Arabs would then “stab us in the back” during the World War I and show “their ungrateful faces” as the empire crumbled. The secular establishment always kept their distance from the Arabs as they turned their faces to Europe.
But that wasn’t how the neo-Ottomans believed it. For them, Arabs – the most precious of all Muslims – were admired and cherished. They took it on themselves to complete the hajj (yearly pilgrimage to Mecca) on government funds and reserved visas. They tried to learn Arabic. They loved Saudi Arabia particularly. Erdogan visited the Mecca and Medina frequently, and Turkey declared a day of national mourning when the Saudi king passed.
Most Turks did not quite understand why the Ikhwani (Muslim Brotherhood) elites loved Arabs so much. The times were good. Money was abundant, and Erdogan was loved more than he was feared back in those days.
Times have changed for the neo-Ottomans, or Ikhwanis and the other Turks. The news about the show made it out first from pro-Erdogan media outlets in Turkey. They follow Arab media much more closely, but filter carefully what they would report. The filter, as one can imagine, goes through the Turkish President’s Palace. Erdogan has been careful in not directly targeting Saudi Arabia despite all the curve balls thrown at him, including the nightmare of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. If and when AKP elites have to complain about the Gulf states, they focus mainly on the UAE. The excellent lobbying skills of the UAE ambassador to Washington is also a deep concern for Erdogan.
For Erdogan, who has provided a safe haven to the exiled Ikhwanis in Turkey, to be loved by the Arabs or as they frequently refer as “by the Arab public” is important. Turkish public support for Erdogan and economy deteriorate in sync with each other, and Turkey’s relations with Arab countries have failed as well. Most of the AKP elites have long wanted to portray the problem as the “corrupt Arab states,” not the people. However, the reactions of Arab countries to the Turkish invasion of northern Syria have made it rather clear that this was not the case. Therefore, Erdogan and AKP have decided to be mute about it all, except for Qatar. The show makes this silence unbearable. Erdogan’s years long arguments centered on Ikhwan is challenged at its core.

STILL, OVER FOUR million refugees from Syria, Iraq and other places – all branded as “Arab Muslims” – are subjected to daily discrimination and increasing violence in Turkey. As Erdogan repeatedly initiates campaigns blaming the West for growing white supremacist terrorism and Islamophobia, surviving as an Arab inside Turkey is becoming increasingly difficult. Only five to six years ago, speaking Arabic was praised and valued. Today, we are back to the 1990s, when all things Arab were second rate.
Most Turks haven’t watched the show or heard of it yet. However, those who have reacted in two main categories. One group was saying “We told you so. You cannot be friends with Arabs. They aren’t our brothers.” The other group decided to put the blame on UAE and Saudi Arabia specifically, and Western powers that control them. Yes, it was the Western powers who used the Arab countries as puppets to create divisions among Muslims.
Turkey has been making quite a bit of profit from its state-supported shows that glorify Ottoman history and culture beyond comprehension. Ankara has discovered this power and utilized it. Erdogan has spoken about which shows he enjoys and advised directors on how they should portray the Ottomans.
And now, Arabs are following the same path. Consider this: Erdogan was critical of the directors of Suleiman the Magnificent for portraying the sultan as having too much sex. That “was not what our ancestors are about,” he angrily told the masses. The directors of Kingdoms of Fire are not likely to take artistic advice from the Turkish president. That isn’t good news for the palace.
However, it could be good news for Turkey. As my Syrian friend, Dina, was busy watching the show, I called a Turkish friend in Istanbul. She is an AKP voter, a pious Muslim who speaks fluent Arabic. She also told me she was watching the first episode of Kingdoms of Fire. She then said “We think it will be banned soon, Ottoman tyranny [as portrayed in the show] resembles too much of Erdoganistan.” I agree, a show in modern standard Arabic that criticizes Ottomans is another chink at Erdogan’s armor. Most likely, its access will be banned in Turkey.
The writer is a visiting scholar of political science at Cal Poly Pomona College in Los Angeles, and is a columnist for Al Monitor.