In October 2019, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan reportedly directed the state broadcaster, PTV, to screen the Turkish show Diriliş: Ertuğrul. The series began running in April 2020 and has become a huge hit in the country. It is being screened there for the third time – it was earlier broadcasted by the Hum Sitaray channel in 2015 and has been available on Netflix since 2019 – but for the first time has appeared on public television.
Set in the 13th century and mostly in Anatolia, the series tells the story of the half-legendary Turkish hero, Ertuğrul, the father of Osman I, whose deeds and campaigns were to prepare the ground for the establishment of the Ottoman empire. While it is an action show with a historical backdrop, the series clearly puts emphasis on the Turkish identity of the protagonists and their faith – Islam. Why, therefore, was it important for the Pakistani prime minister to promote this particular show?
As Pakistan was created in 1947 as a country envisaged for Indian Muslims, it is important for a part of the country’s political elite to present the history of Islam in South Asia as theologically leading to the creation of this Islamic Republic in the 20th century. While historically the first Muslims appeared in that corner of Asia in a peaceful manner – as Arab merchants who reached the Malabar coast and gradually started to settle in the area – there is no denying that throughout the centuries worshippers of Islam had arrived in India as invaders. Many of them were Turkic.
Between the 11th and the 16th century, Turkic Central Asian rulers often sent their armies to India, first to plunder, but gradually to extend their rule there. In time, this led to a creation of separate sultanates in South Asia, principalities which were mostly ruled by Turkic elites. And yet there is hardly any “Turkishness” that Pakistan’s politicians could now claim as inheritance from those times.
More importantly, most of Pakistan’s citizens cannot claim (or unearth) direct descendence from Turks; Pakistanis also do not speak a Turkic language as their first language and not many seek to learn such languages. The country’s dominant language, Urdu, is crowded with Arabic and Persian words, but the vocabulary of Turkic origin occupies little space in it (although the very name of the tongue – Urdu – happens to be a Turkish loanword).
Historically, the military predominance of Turkic peoples in India did not translate to the endurance of their cultural, ethnic, or linguistic heritage in the region. One of the reasons for this is that they did not survive as a separate ethnic group in South Asia, having eventually merged into the local population. Even at the time of their rule, however, the Turkic elites cultivated Persian culture and language. Most of the literary works written at their courts were in Persian, not Turkish. Persian was also often the administrative language. Seen from a broader perspective, east of Iran the Persian tongue used to be the lingua franca of Islamic literary groups all the way from Central Asia to central India. It thus becomes less surprising that Pakistan’s national anthem is composed nearly entirely of Persian words.
A historical connection with the period of Turkic sultanates is important for Pakistan’s politicians and they do seek to cultivate it – but based on a wider Islamic foundation, rather than a narrow ethnic one. As I mentioned in one of my previous texts for The Diplomat, Islamabad has used the names of various Islamic rulers that ruled over India or attacked it, as well other names from Islamic history and mythology, to name its weapons systems.
By promoting Diriliş: Ertuğrul, Imran Khan was thus seeking to highlight the common denominator of Islam. He was also probably trying to score political points in Turkey, a country with which Pakistan is strengthening its partnership, but that is a different story.
It is thus little surprise that for the Pakistani edition, the title of the show has been changed to Ertuğrul Ghazi, where “ghazi” stands for the warrior for Islam (the original title means “Ertuğrul: Resurrection”). When in December 2019 it was announced that PTV would air the show, one of Khan’s advisors, Iftikhar Durrani, praised this move as “glorifying Muslim heroes and Islamic history.” Later, in April 2020, Khan explained his choice in a very clear way: he wanted to promote a work that shows “Islamic culture.” The worst elements of Western cinematic culture were transmitted from Hollywood to Bollywood, Khan claimed, from where these “dirty” films are making a negative impact on Pakistani society. Thus, he declared, he wanted a show that would be both interesting, contain romance and history, but at the same time promote “Islamic values.”
To be sure, Diriliş: Ertuğrul is mostly action and fiction; it can neither be termed a religious nor a historical movie. It certainly contains Islamic values, but it is debatable whether it really promotes them. Religion is shown as an important part of the characters’ lives, but is not the main hero of the story. There are, however, moments when faith is emphasized. The Turkish military efforts are projected as a struggle to unite Muslims and raise the flag of Islam over the world – such statements appear both at the beginning of the series and at its very end. Most of the time, however, the story is about Ertuğrul fighting his enemies (including other Muslims) and facing other challenges, and there is not much “Islamic” about the way he does this.
For Pakistan’s politicians, the above elements may have been significant enough, however. Imran Khan’s mention of Bollywood reminds us that the Pakistani audience has a love-and-hate relationship with Indian cinema. Many Indian films are popular in Pakistan, but they are often only available illegally, and bans on them are an echo of political tensions between the countries. For Pakistan’s Prime Minister, the show was indeed a safe alternative: it is neither Hollywood nor Bollywood, but offers entertainment with an Islamic coating. There is love, but no nudity; there is bloodshed and cynical politics, but it does not cloud the idea of Muslim unity. There is action, but without the ideological trappings of Western or Indian movies (trappings from the perspective of Pakistani politics). While religion often serves as an addition to action, Ertuğrul is at least a hero that exclaims Ya Allah, rather than God Bless America before vanquishing his enemies.