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"Ottomans on the Moon!" Pious Conservatism and Neo-Ottoman Nostalgia in Turkish Popular Culture

Session I-03, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, December 1 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
Nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire has always been an integral part of right-wing nationalist discourses in Turkey. However, under President Erdoğan’s leadership, Neo-Ottomanism has become a key component of Turkish foreign policy and domestic politics alike. For the past two decades, Turkey’s ruling elite has sought to shed the legacy of Kemalist modernity and establish a re-imagined version of the Ottoman past that will guide the Turkish nation towards a glorious future. President Erdoğan’s recent announcement of plans to bring Turkish astronauts to the moon is just another metaphor of the ruling elite’s vision of expansionism and revival. Neo-Ottoman worldviews and nostalgia are particularly fostered and disseminated in the field of popular culture. The re-enactment of Ottoman history in Turkish cinema and TV series (Fetih 1453, Diriliş Ertuğrul, Payitaht: Abdülhamid, etc.) but also in sports (Etnospor Festivali), urban architecture (Hamamönü Urban Renewal Project), and fine arts (Yeditepe Bienali) has provided various role models and references for Erdoğan’s autocratic rule. The significance of popular culture in emotionalizing and mobilizing the Turkish populace for the ideological struggle the present regime established a new era of authoritarian populism which should not be underestimated. The purpose of this panel is to bring together several case studies that critically assess how neo-Ottomanism as represented in popular culture contributes to the attempt to persuade the Turkish public to conform with and incorporate the political agenda and views of the ruling elite and, thus, consent to the emergence of authoritarian populism.
  • Professionally produced agitprop videos have become an integral part of Erdoğanist state propaganda. These state-funded, high-profile agitprop videos are replete with references to Ottoman greatness and the iconographies of Turkish nationalism and modern Islamism. The recital of popular myths, such as the victimization of the Turkish nation at the hands of ‘the West’, or the nation’s resurrection in the face of despair are common features within these videos. With fulsome praise of the past and an even brighter vision for the future, Erdoğanist state propaganda seeks to frame present-day political conflict within the context of an imaginary eternal struggle of the nation; a struggle that is guided by the quest for freedom, power, justice, and piety under the leadership of one strong man, who is Erdoğan himself. The adversaries in this struggle are also being identified: the nation’s treacherous enemies from within and the imperialist ‘West’ from the outside. Against this backdrop, this talk seeks to analyze the metaphoric implications of Turkish agitprop videos and, thus, contribute to a better understanding of the rise of authoritarian populism and the decline of democracy in Turkey. It will also reflect on the role of contemporary agitprop videos in what Walter Lippmann once referred to as the “manufacture of consent”.
  • Recently, Turkish political elites introduced two very aggressive notions of homeland covering seas and outer space: the so-called Blue Homeland (Mavi Vatan) and the Cosmic Homeland (Uzay Vatan). The first one covers Turkish maritime rights, and the Cosmic Homeland relates to Turkey’s sovereignty in outer space. Turkish foreign policies are reframed in the light of these newly introduced concepts of homeland leading to confrontations in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. A new assertive space program was introduced with fanfare to claim Turkey’s extra-terrestrial rights in cosmic space. Secular and pious nationalism, irredentist dreams of Neo-Ottomanism and military expansionism constitute the pillars of these fresh notions of homeland. In the introduction process mostly produced by state media and apparatuses Turkish public is exposed to various material like anthems, video-clips, op-eds, infographics, TV programs, animations, and agit-prop pieces for the promotion of Blue Homeland and Cosmic Homeland. These various propaganda materials were well-received and appropriated by the masses. In this presentation by examining the variety of the material produced I will shed some light on the highly politicized concepts of homeland and discuss the dreams of the Turkish elite and the masses which in essence are yearning for a militarized, expansionist and Turkish Sunni empire.
  • Abstract: Superhero fiction in contemporary Turkey can be said to have started during the 1930s with the translation and adaptation of Flash Gordon comics into Turkish. This inspired a generation of Turkish  filmmakers in the 1960s and 1970s to make their own versions of Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, often creating characters that are assemblages of various American superheroes. Yet eventually, through productions such as Ayhan Başoğlu’s Malkoçoğlu or Suat Yalaz’s Karaoğlan, the genre became vernacularized into the cultural context of Turkish society. One defining characteristic of this adaptation is a preoccupation with using the superhero as a bridge to connect with either the Ottoman or Turkic past. In its adapted form, one can argue that Turkish superhero fiction bears intimate ties to imagined nationhood and nationalist mythologies, making it particularly open to revisionist interpretations of history. Examining Netflix’s Hakan Muhafız (2018-) and ATV’s Akıncı (2021-) television series, this paper discusses how both in their own ways, use the figure of the superhero to (re)connect to audiences with an Ottoman past as imagined by those invested in building the hegemonic undertaking of “New Turkey”. Particularly within the example of Akıncı, one can argue these Neo-Ottoman representations of the past set the stage for the emergence of a pious conservative Turkish superhero, who embodies both the physical and ideological virtues idealized by the ruling elite. The incorporation of Neo-Ottomanism and pious conservatism into the realm of superhero fiction demonstrates a hegemonic shift in the collective structures of feeling in Turkish society.
  • The present paper will focus on the intertextuality of contemporary Turkish and Arab historical series. The popularity of television series has increased significantly in recent years on a global scale. The disseminated texts and images thereby assume different meanings of (soft)power relations both in the countries of production and transnational consumption. For decades after the end of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish-Arab relations/perceptions were characterized by distance. This context, however, has begun to change since the beginning of the 2000s, resulting in a re-negotiation process of common, particularly Ottoman history. One of the main platforms of this conflict is popular culture, specifically television series. Turkish TV series have become increasingly popular in the Arab world over the past decade; it is now one of the largest series exporters worldwide. The broadcast of "Resurrection Ertuğrul" (Diriliş: Ertuğrul, 2014-2019), for example, reflects a narrative of history in which the Ottoman Empire (implicitly Turkey) holds role with the ambition to end the crisis in the Islamic world. In the perception of Arab viewers this has led to Turkey and the Ottoman Empire appearing in a new positive light, combining elements such as "Islamic, secular, modern, economically successful, being conscious of its own history.” Scholarship has so far focused on the political meaning of these series within Turkey and the popularity among Arab audiences. This paper will, therefore, argue that there is also an “Arab” narrative emerging as an alternative to the “neo-Ottoman” Turkish cultural productions. The Saudi-Emirati broadcaster MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Center), for instance, broadcasted in 2019/20 "Kingdoms of Fire", which explicitly aims to reduce the media presence of Turkish series among Arab viewers, referring to the history of the Ottoman Empire in the region. This contribution aims at understanding contemporary popular culture by merging the disciplines of Turkish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies.