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Muhtesem Yuzyil: Why Prime Minister Erdogan is at War With Turkey's Top Soap Opera

At first glance, the image of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, spending political time and capital to ban the soap opera Muhtesem Yuzyil (The Magnificent Century), a drama depicting life in the imperial court of Suleiman the Magnificent, seems a bit ridiculous. Surely, in a period when the country is dealing with an increase in unemployment, a presidential election in 2014, and a constitutional overhaul, the last thing anyone would be interested in is a soap opera-esque drama about soap operas. But, in the larger scheme of things, there are several larger political takeaways from this drama. Here are six:

1. The prime minister’s disapproval is sometimes enough to get things dismissed.

Whether or not Erdogan manages to get Muhtesem Yuzil banned, the mere fact that he disapproves of it has already caused action. Turkish Airlines, the country’s flagship-carrier, was planning to begin offering the show as in-flight entertainment. However, they’ve shelved the idea now, citing the prime minister’s comments as the reason why.

2. This is not an isolated incident.

Two years ago Erdogan, during a visit to the eastern city of Kars, described the “Statue of Humanity” a 35-meter tall sculpture meant to promote peace between Turks and Armenians, as a “monstrosity.” The city soon thereafter tore the statue down. Likewise, after the prime minister said he felt abortion was equivalent to “murder” and that he opposed cesarean births, the country’s health ministry announced it would begin considering new draft laws restriction both procedures. (It’s since walked back on that statement.)

3. Erdogan is happy to get involved in all sorts of issues he could avoid.

With a presidential election he wants to win coming up in 2014 and a massive constitutional overhaul about to get underway, one would think the prime minister would be too busy to make something like banning a soap opera a political priority.

Yet Erdogan has a history of getting involved where he doesn’t need to. Despite now being prime minister, Erdogan continues to cheerlead municipal projects in Istanbul, the city of his childhood and his rise to political fame. (He was mayor from 1994 to 1998.) The prime minister has, among other things, been closely involved in the reconstruction of the city’s central Taksim Square, a mooted project to build an enormous canal to reduce Bosporus traffic and the construction of a mammoth mosque on a hilltop park overlooking much of the city. Istanbul’s municipal authorities often look to be playing catch-up with Erdogan’s vision for the city.

4. The government has a clear preference in the type of media it likes.

While Turkey’s government may not be so keen on shows like Muhtesem Yuzil, it’s certainly been willing to cheerlead other fictional portrayals of bygone days of Ottoman grandeur. Fetih 1453 (The Conquest: 1453), which depicts the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople received positive reviews from much of the Turkish government. The prime minister called it “well-done”, while a former Turkish diplomat tweeted that the film was “a must-see for showing the glory of Turkish history and the games being played over today’s Turkey.” More modern films have also received government support. Anadolu Kartallari (The Anatolian Eagles), a film about Turkish air force pilots, received an unprecedented amount of support from the country’s military, though that still didn’t stop it from being terrible.

5. Government officials’ history is a bit shaky.

One of Erdogan’s charges against Muhtesem Yuzil is that it’s historically inaccurate, with far more attention paid to court intrigue than Suleiman’s conquests abroad. “That’s not the Suleiman we know,” the prime minister has said, referring to the drinking and womanizing shown on the series. (Instead, Erdogan has expressed a preference for the sultan’s “thirty years in the saddle” conquering foreign lands.) In reality, Suleiman is remembered for both of these things — he did marry a harem girl, after all. Besides, in Turkish Suleiman’s title is “Kanuni Sultan Suleyman” meaning “Suleiman the Lawgiver”, instead of the Western title “Suleiman the Magnificent.” You’d think he’d have to spend at least some time intriguing at court to get all those laws written.

Turkish films that are praised by the government are no less equally shaky, of course. Fetih 1453 is filled with historical inaccuracies. Constantine XI Palaiologos, the last Byzantine Emperor, is depicted as a despot ruling a decadent court, though his court was a bankrupt shadow of itself by the time of the conquest. Likewise, large sweeping scenes of the entire Ottoman Army taking part in Muslim prayer before attacking don’t pass the historical test either — at the time of the conquest, a sizeable part of the Ottoman Army was Christian.

6. Turkish TV finally has a following far beyond Turkey.

The one positive note from all this may be that developments in Turkish television and film are finally being followed from abroad. The country earned more than $60 million in 2011 from exports of its television series, and Muhtesem Yuzil is set to soon see distribution in 40 countries worldwide, including 22 in the Middle East. Not bad for a film industry that was once known for making the most over-the-top death scene in all of YouTube.

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