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.