When Esra Bilgic, the 27-year-old star of the popular Turkish television drama Dirilis: Ertugrul ("Resurrection: Ertugrul"), posted a picture of herself in a bralette and blazer on Instagram, she couldn't have anticipated the collective lamentation that would follow. Bilgic, who plays Halime Hatun, a Seljuk warrior princess married to the titular Ertugrul Ghazi and the mother of Osman, eventual founder of the Ottoman Empire, received thousands of comments, but the response from a certain segment of fans was doleful, to say the least. "Where is halima Sultan i saw yesterday night," one commenter inquired, echoing the distress of his compatriots and noting that he had been seeking repentance for himself as well as for the actress. "What will you do when Allah will ask you about your this posture. … Stay blessed Love from Pakistan."
Today, Turkish dizi—television dramas—are second only to American ones in terms of global distribution. Turkish is now the most watched foreign language in the world, beating out French, Spanish, and Mandarin. Ertugrul, which began filming in 2014, first became popular on Netflix and has since been licensed to 72 countries.
When its finale aired on TRT, Turkey's national public broadcast channel—serendipitously on the anniversary of the Ottoman capture of Constantinople and the fall of the Byzantine Empire—more people searched YouTube for Ertugrul than for the Game of Thrones character Jon Snow, whose own show had ended 10 days earlier. The series is set in 13th-century Anatolia as Ertugrul Ghazi, a warrior leading the Kayi tribe, battles Byzantines, Crusaders, and Mongols. It is a superbly shot, emotive drama that plays out all of Turkey's—and the Muslim world's—fantasies and anxieties.
Ertugrul, played by Engin Altan Duzyatan, inhabits a time in which the sons of the Muslim world have never been humiliated. It is some 600 years since the Prophet Mohammed received the word of God, and Islam's dominion has expanded from Iberia to the Indus and promises to stretch across the Earth itself. Ertugrul is portrayed as an honorable man, deserving of the glory and respect people and strangers alike bestow on him; he is righteous, unafraid, and just, even as he is beset by spies and traitors. Series after series, Ertugrul confronts avatars of today's global forces—the Mongols, or China; Byzantines, or the West; and the Knights Templar as a general stand-in for Christian powers.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has celebrated the show for "entering the nation's heart" and is an enthusiastic supporter. Its producer, Kemal Tekden, is a member of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the show's creator, Mehmet Bozdag, is, if not a member, an open admirer. "Eighty-six years of longing has come to an end," he tweeted after Erdogan and his cabinet offered the first Muslim prayers at the Hagia Sophia after a court annulled the sixth-century Byzantine church's status as a museum. Nelson Mandela's grandson, a member of South Africa's parliament, visited the set and posed for photos decked out in Ertugrul's Kayi tribal kit as did Venezuela's head of state, Nicolás Maduro. Maduro was so moved, Bozdag claimed, that he even considered converting to Islam after his visit.
Pakistan is not the first country to lose itself to Ertugrul hysteria—Urdu is the fourth language the show has been dubbed into, following Arabic, Spanish, and Russian—but its affinity has broader geopolitical implications. Pakistan and Turkey have long held each other in reverence and call each other "brother countries." Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Pakistan after its founding in 1947 and lobbied for its membership in the United Nations.
Even before Pakistan's independence, Muslims of the British Raj banded together under the Khilafat Movement of 1919-1922 in support of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The Khilafat—or Caliphate—was a symbol of global Muslim unity, and though the movement collapsed after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk deposed Mehmed VI, the last sultan, Indian Muslims sent financial aid to the empire on its last legs.
As Asia grapples with sectarian strife, religious extremism, and geopolitical shifts—from Saudi Arabia's rivalry with Iran to Narendra Modi's India, which is tilting away from its secular roots and toward Hindu majoritarianism, to the specter of a rising China—Pakistan has grown closer to Turkey, identifying with its particular brand of Islam-inspired modernity rather than the harsher alternative of Saudi Wahhabism.
Though bilateral relations have focused on political, military, and economic engagement, today Pakistan and Turkey are deepening their cultural connections. Ertugrul's popularity in Pakistan isn't spontaneous in the way other dizi have been—Muhtesem Yuzyil ("Magnificent Century," known in Pakistan as Mera Sultan) and Ask-i Memnu ("Forbidden Love," known as Ishq-e-Mamnoon) were also both huge hits. More than 55 million people watched Ishq-e-Mamnoon's finale in Pakistan—about one-fourth of the country's population. It was the first time in Pakistan's history that a foreign show drew such high numbers.
Unlike previous dizi, Ertugrul's popularity has a deeper political significance, however. It is liked for all of the standard reasons—sophisticated production, dramatic tension, and conservative messaging that the whole family can enjoy together—but its widespread following in Pakistan, where it is known as Ertugrul Ghazi, is also a sign of the country's fraught position at this particular moment.
"The West has had far greater cultural import on Pakistan than anyone else," said Shaheryar Mirza, a Pakistani executive producer at TRT World, who spoke to me in a personal capacity, noting that today Pakistan finds itself in an unusual position as a cultural and political battleground between Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others. "Pakistan is a fault line. … From its birth until now, it's swung in wildly different directions."
Pakistan Television (PTV) began broadcasting Ertugrul's first season this year during Ramadan after a request by Prime Minister Imran Khan. Khan often mentions the show in his speeches and sermons. He recently bemoaned the "thirdhand culture" that was infecting Pakistan through Hollywood and Bollywood. "We have a culture with romance and history, as well. However, it is also filled with Islamic values," Khan said. TRT gifted Ertugrul to Pakistan, free of licensing costs; it was a gesture that has more than paid off.
Pakistan makes up 25 percent of Ertugrul's global audience on YouTube, and in the last week of May, TRT Ertugrul by PTV was YouTube's 33rd-most watched channel in the world. Mirza doesn't think the Turks set out with the idea of capturing Pakistan's affection as a cultural goal, "but if it wasn't before, it probably is now." Bozdag, Ertugrul's creator and scriptwriter, has promised "world-shaking deals" between Pakistan and Turkey, noting that even if the countries have separate borders, "the souls are of one nation."
"I am not doing this for Hollywood or Bollywood or anyone who hates Islam," Bozdag has said, echoing Khan. "We need to reexplain the art of Islam and the Islamic world because this art and history is a transcendent art, from the Taj Mahal to the Alhambra. Today, we have to tell the whole world about the beautiful voice of Islam."
The blistering and bombastic Erdogan may be divisive at home, but abroad, whether one likes him or hates him, he possesses a charisma that has been absent in the Muslim world for decades. And he is making a play to restore Turkey to its historic role as the leader of Sunni Muslims, displacing Saudi Arabia. After all, it was only after Mehmed VI was deposed that the House of Saud took custodianship of the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina. The Ottoman Empire was once the custodian of the two mosques and thus the de facto leader of the Islamic ummah for 400 years—and it is this position to which Erdogan seeks to return.
When the United Arab Emirates, a key Saudi ally, announced its recognition of Israel in August, Erdogan suggested that he might cut diplomatic ties and recall Turkey's ambassador to Abu Dhabi. Speaking in Pakistan's parliament in February, he lambasted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's communications siege of Kashmir. "There is no difference between Gallipoli and Kashmir," Erdogan thundered, comparing the struggle of Kashmiris to the Ottoman Empire's fight against Allied powers during World War I.
This tussle between Saudi Arabia and Turkey is playing out across numerous fronts, and Pakistan finds itself caught squarely in the middle. Despite Pakistan's love for Turkey, Khan was the first world leader to welcome Saudi Arabia's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, after the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed and dismembered at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul—a crime that Erdogan helped expose after repeated Saudi denials and cover-ups. Khan even received the crown prince in a gilded, horse-drawn carriage.
In August, on the first anniversary of Indian-administered Kashmir's internet shutdown—the longest communications blackout imposed by any democratic country—Khan's government called on Saudi Arabia to support Pakistan's position on Kashmir, or it would be forced to seek support from other states in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Riyadh's response was swift: It demanded that Islamabad cough up a $1 billion payment for oil deliveries and ended the loan and oil supplies agreement between the two countries, making clear how economically dependent Pakistan is.
Rumors abound that Saudi Arabia also demanded that Pakistan stop airing Ertugrul. The UAE and Saudi Arabia, in a joint production, have spent $40 million on Kingdoms of Fire, a show about Arab resistance to the Ottoman Empire, going so far as to hire Peter Webber, a British director, for added cachet. It was an expensive salvo against Turkey's cultural neo-Ottomanism, but it has apparently failed; no one seems to be watching.
Pakistan would like to be a leader of the Muslim world but finds itself weakened by endemically corrupt governments, inept institutions, and terrorism. On top of its many woes, it is beholden to a military establishment that ultimately determines the course of the country regardless of which prime minister is in office or what the people want. As it depends on humiliating loans from the International Monetary Fund and US aid, Khan's Pakistan sees models of aspiration in Turkey and Malaysia. Khan has called Erdogan, along with former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, a personal hero.
Yet even as his admiration is often proclaimed, it is clear that he is unable to follow in their footsteps. At the 2019 UN General Assembly meeting, Khan announced that the three countries would together create a television channel aimed at combating Islamophobia. But for all his declarations of brotherhood, Khan abruptly pulled out of a conference on the Muslim world organized by Malaysia in December 2019. "Unfortunately, our friends, who are very close to Pakistan as well, felt that somehow the conference was going to divide the ummah," Khan said, hinting at but not naming Saudi Arabia. Erdogan was blunter. "Unfortunately, we see that Saudi Arabia pressures Pakistan," he said at the time. No mention has been made of the television channel since last fall.
Pakistan remains confused over just what it means to be Pakistani. For the 73 years of the nation's life, there has been no consensus over how modern or Islamic it ought to be. Modernity is both desired and feared as a Western export, and there is uncertainty over which version of Islam it should follow—the Sufi Islam of the subcontinent or the intolerant orthodoxy of Saudi Wahhabism.
Ertugrul may be the No. 1 title on Pakistani Netflix, as of late July, but Dark Desire, The Kissing Booth, and the Polish soft-core porn caper 365 Days occupy spots five, seven, and eight—an illustration of the constant conflict between values, desire, and curiosity among the country's more than 200 million people.
This confusion is most pronounced among Pakistan's elite. But the middle-class Pakistanis who make up Khan's political base are less torn: They are simply Muslim and proud. And they see their version of Islam, for the most part, strikingly illuminated by Ertugrul. The show is built on deeply conservative values, and there are no salacious love stories or scantily clad women. Here, love stories are told through marriage or through chaste, polite yearning. Many female characters wear tribal head coverings. (In the hundreds of hours I spent watching dizi for my book, New Kings of the World, until Ertugrul, I had come across only a few seconds of a woman in a hijab.) Ertugrul himself can often be found kneeling in prayer. Even as he deals with Byzantine spies and advancing hordes of Mongols, Ertugrul's mother is there to remind him, after Halime's death, that he really ought to get remarried. "It's time to find a nice lady," she says around the time he has chopped off a Mongol's hand for being fresh with a woman.
As with any adoration, there are shocks—such as Bilgic's Instagram post. Duzyatan, the man who plays Ertugrul, also elicited criticism after posing in an anniversary photo with his wife. "Pakistanis love you," one commenter wrote, "but not in these kinds of pictures." (His wife was wearing a tank top.)
Strangely, for all the fidelity Pakistanis profess for Ertugrul and its values, they seem to pay little attention to the show's message of religious pluralism. Ertugrul is not only benevolent but generous to believers of other faiths. It's a lesson Pakistan would do well to learn from. While Pakistan's Punjab province recently banned 100 books that it considered blasphemous, including school textbooks with illustrations of pigs, and passed legislation mandating exactly how the Prophet Mohammed must be referred to, Turkey is doing more than reimagining the Muslim ummah; it is shaping it in its image.
Turkey understands the power of narratives. It is a smooth employer of soft power, savvy to all the manipulations and delicate handling necessary to build a new image, rewrite history, and erase both the slander and the truth about a nation's past. Viewers see the Ottomans in their strongest and most capable avatars—never as sultans at the helm of a dying empire.
Riyaad Minty, the director of digital content at TRT, whose focus is the internationalization of the brand on digital platforms, told me that the broadcaster, whose mandate is "value-based, family-friendly content," sees itself as "the channel for the next 5 billion." The question for TRT is not how many viewers shows like Ertugrul can pull in but, as Minty says, "Can a show like this inspire a generation of people?"
Soft power only works if the power behind it is seen as credible. Turkey's government certainly has many problems—Erdogan has overseen a steep decline in press freedom, to cite just one example—but it still fares well in comparison to Saudi Arabia. After all, the Turks don't behead teenagers for attending protests or dismember journalists at their consulates.
If Pakistan is anything to go by, for now it doesn't look as if Saudi Arabia's heavy-handed but clumsy efforts will succeed in unseating Turkey as the victor of the Muslim world's 21st-century culture wars.
Fatima Bhutto is a writer based in Pakistan. Her most recent books are The Runaways, a novel, and New Kings of the World, a nonfiction reportage on global popular culture. Twitter: @fbhutto
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement