More meaningful than magnificent: Reading Turkish politics from soaps

More meaningful than magnificent: Reading Turkish politics from soaps

The shoe finally dropped. What critics of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP government were expecting since the prime minister’s denouncement of the widely popular television series Muhteşem Yüzyıl (The Magnificent Century) as an inappropriate depiction of Turkey’s ancestry finally happened. An AKP MP prepared a legislative initiative that would ban the series – the majority of whose dramatic content consists of palace intrigues rather than the battlefield endeavors Erdoğan deemed proper – on the grounds that it distorts and demeans personalities intrinsic to Turkish national values. Following a flurry of responses, including a criminal complaint filed against the series’ directors for “mocking our historical values” and the removal of the series from Turkish Airlines inflight entertainment, Saral’s move represents the first step at the parliamentary level to legislate Erdoğan’s preferences on this issue of media representation.

While this move might be dismissed as mere political grand-standing, it is worth noting Mehmet Ali Birand’s point that moves to institutionalize the prime minister’s preferences often follow their public articulation. Birand cites the Çamlıca mosque case; initiatives to restrict abortion rights and reintroduce capital punishment – following Erdoğan’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 to mind. Further, while Erdoğan’s government has been criticized by those citing Turkey’s high number of jailed journalists as proof of media censorship, entertainment media’s fictional creations might be assumed to remain outside the scope of political sanction. The recent 50,000TL fine against a Turkish private broadcaster for airing an episode of The Simpsons that was deemed blasphemous by the Supreme Board of Radio and Television disproves this assumption.

 For many objecting to Erdoğan’s remarks, it is the word fictional, as used above, that is the main sticking point. As Kürşat Başar noted (29 November, Cumhuriyet) television serials are not documentaries. It is not the aim, nor the responsibility, of such works to chronicle history. As an entertainment product designed to maximize viewership, the fact that harem dramas constitute a large part of the series’ content speaks more to viewers’ preferences than it does to the directors’ historical interpretation.

Perhaps the most interesting take-away from this debate – and one that is much more relevant to 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. Reflecting the main opposition party’s concern with Erdoğan’s consolidation of executive power – particularly given his likely ascendance to the even more powerful position of president in the newly redesigned system – CHP MP Umut Oran targeted the scope of Erdoğan’s political reach. Oran suggested Erdoğan’s statements infringed on the principle of separation of powers, drily questioning whether the supervision of television series falls within the constitution’s description of prime ministerial duties. The Kurdish BDP, long advocates of native-language education and legal defense as well as subjects of inquiry into suspected links with the PKK, framed its criticism within a narrative of cultural suppression. BDP MP İdris Baluken characterized Erdoğan’s comments as indicative of the AKP’s tyranny over art, which claims to find terrorism reflected in poetry and on canvas. Finally, the MHP adhered to its tradition of rebutting with more rhetoric than substance. Finding Erdoğan’s critique a disingenuous attempt to change the political agenda, and emphasizing that the series has been on-air for more than a year, MHP MP İsmet Büyükataman quipped: “This just 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 practice. 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 visiting research fellow in Ankara’s Bilkent University