Why Is Turkey’s Prime Minister at War with a Soap Opera?

A Turkish soap opera based on the life and reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the 16th century Ottoman sultan might at times appear gaudy, predictable, and rife with historical inaccuracies. But, to Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it’s blasphemy.

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Murad Sezer / Reuters

An egg-stained and damaged billboard advertising the Turkish soap opera Magnificent Century in Istanbul on Jan. 9, 2011, following a pro-Islamist protest against the popular TV series

Crammed with trinkets, eunuchs, wine, giggly harem girls, seduction and intrigue, Magnificent Century — a Turkish soap opera based on the life and reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the 16th century Ottoman sultan — might at times appear gaudy, predictable and rife with historical inaccuracies. To the show’s estimated 150 million viewers, spread across Turkey, the Balkans and the Middle East, however, it’s nothing more than good entertainment. To Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, though, it’s blasphemy.

During a speech in late November, Erdogan rained fire and brimstone on the show’s makers. “That’s not the Suleiman we know,” he said, referring to the depiction of the Ottomans’ great ruler as a drinker and womanizer. “Before my nation, I condemn both the director of this series and the owner of the television station. We have already alerted the authorities, and we are awaiting a judicial decision.”

(MORE: Turkish P.M. Erdogan: We Cannot Deny Our Ottoman Past)

Erdogan has had little reason to complain about the wave of Ottomania that has propelled programs like Magnificent Century to record ratings. Intent on restoring Turkey’s links with the Balkans and the Middle East, and just as keen to use his country’s newly assertive foreign policy to win votes at home, the Prime Minister has probably done more than anyone else to rekindle Turkish nostalgia for the age of empire. (Critics allege that he likely fancies himself a modern-day sultan.) What Erdogan appears to resent, however, is any interpretation of the Ottoman past that is less than adulatory — or at odds with Islamic values. A sultan on horseback is fine. A sultan on a bender is not.

Within days of the Prime Minister’s remarks, Turkish Airlines, the national air carrier, reportedly scratched Suleiman and his dancing girls from all of its in-flight programming. At roughly the same time, Oktay Saral, a lawmaker from Erdogan’s mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), announced that he would table a law banning programs that infringe on “national values” by “insulting, denigrating, distorting or misrepresenting” historical personalities and events. (An existing law already prescribes prison terms for those guilty of “denigrating the Turkish nation.”) “Magnificent Century will be banned from the airwaves in 2013,” Saral gravely announced.

To Ihsan Dagi, a columnist at Today’s Zaman, a newspaper that until recently tended to toe the government’s line, the Turkish leader’s vendetta against Magnificent Century is emblematic. “The very top of the [ruling] party, Erdogan, acts as if he is entitled to interfere in the lives and choices of the people, as if he is responsible for their choices,” Dagi wrote in a recent article. “The mandate to rule seems to have been interpreted as a blank check to transform the identities and lifestyles of the people.”

Fittingly, the day that Dagi’s article appeared, news broke that Turkey’s media watchdog had decided to fine a private channel $30,000 for airing an episode of The Simpsons in which God was depicted as being under the sway of the devil. The program “made fun of God” and “encouraged young people to drink alcohol on New Year’s Eve,” the Radio and Television Supreme Council said in a statement.

Erdogan is not the first to express his criticism for Magnificent Century. Since the show first aired two years ago, thousands of Turks — conservative Muslims and nationalists alike — have protested its irreverent portrayal of Suleiman. Now, however, the row, while still about values, is also about power — or, more specifically, about the degree to which Erdogan has begun to rule Turkey by fiat.

(MORE: Fetih 1453: Turkish Epic Revels in Ottoman Past)

Several years ago, it was still possible to argue, as some did, that it’s not what Erdogan said that mattered, but what his government actually did. Today, the two are slowly becoming indistinguishable. What the Prime Minister says, or thinks, is what goes.

The chemical reaction that began with Erdogan’s contempt for Magnificent Century and ended in his associates’ bid to pull the plug on the show is just the latest example. Two years ago, during a visit to the eastern province of Kars, the Prime Minister called a local statue to Turkish-Armenian reconciliation a “monstrosity.” A year later, the statue was torn down. Earlier this year, Erdogan declared that abortion was tantamount to “murder” and cesarean births were “a procedure to restrict Turkey’s population.” Within a week of the speech, the Health Ministry announced that a regulation placing new curbs on abortion was in the works. (After a public outcry, the draft law was eventually shelved.)

Protests notwithstanding, Erdogan has also pushed ahead with a number of pet projects, including the construction of a mosque in the middle of Istanbul’s entertainment district and another, a much larger one, on a hilltop overlooking the city. He hasn’t taken kindly to criticism either. Journalists who knock or lampoon the Prime Minister routinely face lawsuits, fines or dismissals — this in a country that jails more reporters than China and Iran, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Erdogan’s popularity, boosted by a decade of rapid economic growth, shows few signs of abating, however. Having pledged not to run for another term as Prime Minister, Erdogan is now attempting to consolidate his legacy by transforming Turkey into a U.S.-style presidential system. Well short of an absolute majority in parliament and facing resistance from the sitting President himself, he may be facing his toughest challenge to date. Undaunted, the Turkish leader doesn’t shy from suggesting that he has found a perfectly suitable candidate for the 2014 presidential election — himself.

86 comments
Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky like.author.displayName 1 Like

The destruction of Islam would be the greatest thing to ever happen to the middle east... likewise the destruction of all religion that believes in the silly and stupid premise of a personal God would only help the planet.

AhmetKoç
AhmetKoç

@Hadrewsky i would rather have a destruction of you, frankly :) one less idiot on the face of the earth.

eminechloe
eminechloe

When I read this article I didn't find any relation to the title. The main statement of this article is in my opinion the prejudices against Islam and the Turkish Prime Minister.  I think it's quiet normal to construct a mosque in the middle of Istanbul, because 99 % of the Turkish population are Muslims. Actually, if  I read articles like this, I think many people are afraid of the Turkish Prime Minister. Keep Calm and don't care so much about it ;)

gavur
gavur

@eminechloe    At most 80% of Turkish citizens are Sunni Muslim. Their mosques and their clerical staff are paid for by the government's Religious Affairs Directorate - paid for by all citizens. The 20 million or so Alevi Turks get no government support, only discrimination. The AK party has been on a mosque-building bender, even planting them in Alevi villages and towns that have no Sunni citizens, who would rather have schools. The proposed mosque is a vanity project for Erdogan: Turkey has thousands of empty mosques.

AsimCanGunduz
AsimCanGunduz

I live in Turkey I am not a fundamentalist Muslum whacko just a normal Turkish citizen like most of the people here and I too do not feel that the soap opera does justice to Turkish history. While yes there where harems for the sultans of Turkey its is very wrong to portray them as solely Harem mongers . That fact is that the Turkish sultans where highly educated philosophers and social developers who ruled for 500 years during the Proud Ottoman empire that rules more than half of the civilized world. To get TV ratings these soap operas concentrate on targeting frustrated house wives by over playing the harem aspect of the sultans life . Its not fair to the legacy of the proud Sultans of the Ottoman Empire to be used for TV rating by portraying them solely as womanizers and overlooking their other fine points as legendary leaders. I think this is the point that our Prime minister is making. And should not be viewed as fanatic muslum censorship.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@AsimCanGunduz 

The middle east did quite well for itself until it allowed Islam to become a cancer of increasing fundamentalism... The glories of the middle east were not achieved with the help of Islam... that were able to achieve in spite of Islam.

AsimCanGunduz
AsimCanGunduz

@Hadrewsky @AsimCanGunduz 

Another muslum hating born again christian :)

Who believes that islam is a cancer .. I have had may share of you hateful people all over the net brainwashed zombies who attack everything muslum as barbaric, evil , cancer etc... So I will pass educating you on your own history and genocides because I know you@ll never except reality. I simply write that all muslums are not extremists etc... but you dont care, you just want to vent.your hatred....

I will pass....

go fight with someone else...






bulentyusuf
bulentyusuf

@TIME @TIMEWorld My mum's a big fan of this show, she follows it via satellite here in London. She'll be VERY upset if it gets cancelled!

iso_G
iso_G

@CaptainCaplis @TIME hahahhahaha eastenders with harem and more sex :)))

Nisrine_Chalak
Nisrine_Chalak

@TIME " based on the life and reign of Suleiman"? actually the only credible thing is names, everything else is crap.

monicawharton
monicawharton

@TIME @TIMEWorld Is it because he's not in the Soap Opera?

kaisrolls
kaisrolls

@TIME @TIMEWorld The head TURKEY doesn't like the SOAP they use to slip them into the "DEN of INIQUITY?"

meyuksel
meyuksel

@tokcem o degil de ayse hur'un de gorevine son vermiş TRT. 'Kanuni at üstünde 40 yıl degil 10 yıl kaldı' dedi diye.

Harbibaba
Harbibaba

@tokcem Basbakanliktan anlamiyor , Secimlerde bozguna ugrayinca , Dizi kritikleri yazari olmaya soyunuyor bence :)

danhan
danhan

Having not been able to vote for him (yet), I should sincerely appreciate and congratulate him because of Turkey's success, that Turkey has not seen since it's establishment. A country in the middle of war around it's border, the world's economic crises, hostile deep secret state within a state, etc. His enemies must be desperate to get him down in all direction. I wont wish them luck here hey!.  

dygynr
dygynr

@serrafine @timeworld

suatkoz
suatkoz

@serrafine rte nin italya seyehatinde cevirmenligini ve kultur danismanligini kim yapmisti?

sebfco
sebfco

@zallypedia @serrafine @TIMEWorld @resentidaagogo ploshhh

theramma
theramma

@didemdedim padisahim cok yasa

buyukkayaumit
buyukkayaumit

@levent_kazak bunlarin iyi gunlerimiz oldugunu dusunuyorum

burcuuudem
burcuuudem

@serrafine @TIMEWorld the most popular news from the world de bu haberle 3.sırada olmak! ancak RTE ye yakısır!

mrwgnyl
mrwgnyl

@levent_kazak utanan yine bizleriz

resentidaagogo
resentidaagogo

@zallypedia @serrafine @TIMEWorld @sebfco que no huevee y q alguien la subtitule al español.

zallypedia
zallypedia

@resentidaagogo cachaste la teleaudiencia que tiene la serie? 150 millones! :0

resentidaagogo
resentidaagogo

@zallypedia ya, me puse a verla con subs en inglés. se parece cualesquier cantidat a the tudors.

zallypedia
zallypedia

@resentidaagogo la sultana es linda, la colorina.

zallypedia
zallypedia

@resentidaagogo es lentita. Pero los minogoss...uyy

AliÖzören
AliÖzören like.author.displayName 1 Like

erdogan is anything but Islamist.. he is just using islam to make his zillions through businesses of his family... 

BeniMbeNgAiA
BeniMbeNgAiA

@serrafine @TIMEWorld Gündem dediğin böyle değiştirilir zeki adam vesselam ...

shatroopa
shatroopa

@serrafine @TIMEWorld cause he wants to be a hero in any fields that he doesnt belong to.

feizzo
feizzo

@serrafine boyle bi yaziya konu olmak,utanc verici..resmen kafalamislar mukayeselerle..