By S. Berk
On the eve of Turkey’s military operation in Afrin, Syria, a new state-sponsored TV show made its debut. Mehmetçik: Kut’ül Amare is about the WWI Battle of Kut in modern-day Iraq, in which the Ottoman armies were victorious against the British Empire. Among other state-sponsored TV shows, such as The Last Sultan and Revival: Ertugrul, this latest series also serves as an ostensible instrument for the government agenda. The main themes of its first episode fall perfectly in line with the populist narrative of the AKP, which includes an anti-Western worldview, a fusion of Turkish nationalism and Islamism, and an emphasis on “enemies from within”.
The show promotes an anti-Western ideology and presents a world in which all Western nations, despite the strifes between them, share the common goal of bringing down the Ottoman Empire. This enmity is not only towards the Ottoman Empire’s enemies in the war but extends to all European nations, including Germany, which was the ally and the main benefactor of the Ottoman armies during the war. When the protagonist, Husrevoglu Mehmet, tells his father that the Ottoman fleet had bombarded Russian docks in Sevastopol — when the Ottoman Empire formally joined the war alongside Germany, against Russia, Britain, and France — his father smiles in satisfaction. However, his face goes sour when Mehmet informs him that it was a German commander who initiated the attack and says “we don’t even know who is the ally and who is the enemy”.
In the first episode, Mehmet, who is a student at the university in Istanbul, gives speeches on the upcoming war against the “cannibal, barbarian, savage Europeans”. Meanwhile, British spies, who aspire to secure the transportation of British-sponsored weapons to Cilicia to aid Armenian rebels, run wild in the city. The chief villain, agent Cox is a sworn anti-Turk and often expresses his wish to see the destruction of the Turkish state and the extinction of the Turkish race.
Of course, the show would be lacking one of the most important tenets of the new state ideology without the infamous “enemies-from-within”. Agent Cox is a close friend of Armenians, especially of a rich merchant called Yervant. Yervant hides Cox in his factory on the outskirts of the city and puts him in contact with Armenian rebels. Cox appears to be very religious, and as an Englishman, he is peculiarly fond of praying in an Armenian Orthodox Church, in which he asks God to destroy Turkey. He is hopeful about his dream to pray to Jesus in Hagia Sophia Cathedral, as to this end “the vast majority of Armenians and Greeks” are on his side. In a way, he deems the destruction the Ottoman Empire as a religious mission.
Not surprisingly, one of the main motives of the show is to show the virtues of being a martyr. The plot revolves around a battalion named “Osmancık”, created and led by Ottoman commander Süleyman Askeri. Patriotic Ottoman youth, who happen to be common men (and of course, exclusively Muslim) rush to join Osmancık and hope to die as martyrs in the war. Husrevoglu Mehmet also strives to join them, which itself proves to be a very challenging task. There is even immense competition between him and his younger brother, both of whom are encouraged by their patriotic father who wants to sacrifice his children. Unfortunately, Mehmet gets wounded in an effort to save fellow Ottoman soldiers from a bomb terrorist attack initiated by Armenians and gets ruled out from any potential military position unless he recovers.
In the show, the messages are given to the audience rather directly. Almost all scenes include a patriotic tirade and dramatic music accompanying the speech to further excite the viewer. Needless to say, there a lot of things that do not make sense — even when you ignore the lack of historical accuracy and the overly politicised narration of events. For example, the rich factory-owner Yervant literally blows himself up in a suicide mission, as if he has nothing to lose after telling Turks how the rightful owners of the land, i.e Armenians will one day succeed in wiping out the Turkish race.
While all TV state-sponsored historical fictions contain the aforementioned conspiratorial aspects, they deal with a different contemporary issue. The Last Sultan, for example, deals predominantly with an imagined Jewish conspiracy to overthrow the patriotic and religious ruler Abdulhamid II, linking Abdulhamid’s fate with that of Erdogan’s, thus tells the audience that coup attempts were always being conspired by Turkey’s enemies. Mehmetçik: Kut’ül Amare, deals with a military operation in modern-day Iraq, and it is thus very easy (and indeed intended) for the audience to draw parallels between the war of Kut and Turkey’s military operation in Afrin, Syria. Accordingly, Turkey is surrounded by enemies, Europeans are categorically bad and any criticism of government policies are either due to a lack of patriotism (represented by characters who look more educated and who apparently aspire to be “more European”), malign intentions, or stupidity. The university students who criticise the Ottoman government’s involvement in the war as “unnecessary adventures” when the country is “dealing with so many problems in itself” represents the popular voice of many supposedly idiotic, yet not sinister, Turks.
The first episode ends with commander Süleyman Askeri reading out loud a famous poem of Ottoman poet Ziya Gökalp, called “Asker Duası” (Army Prayer). The dramatic poem is filled with nationalist and Islamist elements and contains praises to the Sultan while asking for God’s help in the war effort. Praising self-sacrifice for Islam and the fatherland, the poem claims that the Ottoman Army was the army of Islam:
In my hand a gun, and in my heart my faith
I have two wishes: Islam and the fatherland…
The army is my lodge, the Sultan is my elder.
Help the Sultan, o Lord
Make his years plenty, o Lord
Minarets are our bayonets, the domes our helmets The mosques our barracks and faithful our soldiers My religion this holy army protects
God is great, God is great [Allahu Ekber]
Reciting the very same poem was the reason why Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was imprisoned during his term as the Mayor of Istanbul. As another interesting sidenote, it should be noted that Süleyman Askeri, the supposed heroic commander of the Battle of Kut, was conspiring to overthrow Sultan Abdulhamid II by carrying out an assassination against him. We do not yet know if Süleyman Askeri will appear in the series “The New Sultan”, but it would certainly be interesting to see the same character as a patriotic war hero in one show and a foreign-aided traitor in the other.
S. Berk is a third-year undergraduate student at Sciences Po who is broadly interested in the Middle East.