Ertugrul and the National Narrative

on the role played by the Turkish TV series as Pakistan strives for a greater role in the Muslim world

Ertugrul and the National Narrative
The need to frame the “national narrative” and connect it with something elusive and historical has always served governments since times immemorial. It was rejuvenated with celluloid and propaganda literature. This trend has been particularly popular in Pakistan.

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is a country where theocratic tendencies have confused people as to the actual rationale for the country’s creation. One such example, from the not-so-late chapters of history is of the playwright Ashfaq Ahmed. As written by Nadeem F. Paracha, Ahmed’s mention triggers two responses: “repulsion or reverence.” General Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorship categorized the playwright to narrate stories of the supposed obscenities and trivialities of the urban elite or modern life generally. In an attempt to align with a concrete, uniform national narrative, Zia in particular applauded such plays regularly such as Manchale ka Sauda, Aik Muhabbat Sau Afsane etc.

Consumption of such overtly propagandist plays and literature usually overpowers one’s thinking and views. A very palpable urgency to act on such motivations comes over the individual.

At the tomb of Ertugrul - Sogut, Turkey

Recently, the popularity of the famed Turkish series centered on the father of Ottoman founder Osman, Ertugrul (a character purely based on fiction), has gained an unprecedented following in Pakistan. The ‘Islamic’ medieval setting of Muslim men fighting the Byzantines, Mongol invaders and Christian crusaders resonates with the need to counter the growing tide of Islamophobia globally.

But the Turkish series which started airing during Ramazan has Prime Minister Imran Khan’s backing and support. Khan, with the aim to project the ‘proper’ image of Islam, wants to collaborate with Malaysia and Turkey on such projects, and has even expressed the need to start a television channel to that end.

Domestically, what seems troubling is the kind of trend it is setting. A glance at the social media imprint of the series suggests that far from encouraging a healthy pride in the Muslim past, it may have instead triggered radically reactionary sentiments in the youth (especially males). Meanwhile, recently, in Lahore, two statutes of Ertugrul have graced the city!

The airing of the drama has sparked a debate on the need for Pakistan to recognize its own fractured history instead of covering it with historical amnesia. It has also sought to look into the notion of narrative building which is strongly and profoundly centered on history again.

Pakistan has had a troubled past with an even more troubled history. The constant need to connect its history with the Middle East, giving it an ‘Arabic’ or at times even Salafist character, has distorted the social and cultural landscape. Ever since the 1947 partition, Pakistan’s ruling elite (both political and military) have been eager to establish a connection with what they see as the Islamic tradition, sanctifying their own growing control, and also to appeal and project to a global audience (this time connecting the local and the diaspora’s aspirations, making headlines in Western media).
A glance at the social media imprint of the series suggests that far from encouraging a healthy pride in the Muslim past, it may have instead triggered radically reactionary sentiments in the youth (especially males)

This connection presents the creation and ideology of Pakistan as imbued a ‘holy’ purpose that distinguishes it from India. Essentially, it is aimed at giving a ‘purpose’ to the national narrative.

The politics of identity and narrative shaping are more crucial than ever in contemporary Pakistan, especially given the way in which the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is dealing with it all. Ertugrul has been presented in a way such that it resonates with the narrative of the PTI’s election campaign and slogans such as “Allah pe iman, bale pe nishan” - which literally invokes our Muslim identity in an effort to ask us to vote for a certain party. This level of hyper religiosity by a ‘civilian’ government in Pakistan has taken a worrying turn, when considered alongside other aspects of the ruling party’s narrative. One cannot help but think of the PM’s insistence on labeling Osama bin Ladin a “martyr” in the same context.

Imran Khan and PTI’s collective attempt to make Pakistan “Riyasat e Madina” itself raises the need to propagate an ideology that is strictly based on religion but with ‘modern’ characteristics. The ruling party’s endorsement of the Turkish series is driven by a need to be more ‘global’ (appealing to the wider ‘Muslim ummah’) in their approach, whilst adhering to ‘Eastern’ notions of spirituality.

This idea of nationalism mixed with religion is explained by Ammara Maqsood in her book The New Pakistani Middle Class – referring to the very strata of society that Khan and his party want to appeal to. Maqsood in the first chapter of her book establishes the basis of how the ruling elite in Pakistan (especially the overtly pro-Establishment strand) wants to connect with a sense of modernity which is also ‘Eastern’ in character:

“It is this sense of being seen on a global stage that provides nostalgia narratives with authority, turning a class-specific experience of the past into normative claim.”

Here, although Maqsood is talking about the urban elite who wants to benefit out of this nostalgia, it can be very well applied to the PTI’s narrative-building strategy, the social strata they belong to and the Establishment’s desire for repeatedly invoking the glorious past of Islam –  ultimately legitimizing their own authority and control. This is in turn connected with the need to break Pakistan off from its own history (which connects it with a shared South Asian past) and instead link it with this bigger cause (here, that of defending Islam).

Aatish Taseer refers to the very bourgeois instincts that Khan represents:

“But as much as his rhetoric resembles that of other populists—from Narendra Modi next door in India, to Erdogan in Turkey and Bolsonaro in Brazil—there is one important difference: Khan is not of the people. If anything, he belongs to an elite even more glamorous and rarefied than the one he routinely attacks.”

In Khan’s case it is this very class which claims the right to put the national purpose and ideology “back on track.”

The rationale to air Ertugrul is explained by commentator Mosharraf Zaidi when he notes, “Turkish history and South Asian history are not ‘faraway’ by any stretch of the imagination.”

This may have merit, but we must consider the fact that Pakistan’s origin does not lie in Turkey, Saudi Arabia or any Middle Eastern country but with the South Asian Subcontinent. Pakistan’s desire to shine on the stage of the world with an Islamic banner, with an overwhelming desire to play an important role in the Muslim world, though undersdandable, raises the unfortunate possibility of yet more historical amnesia.