It is not unusual for the residents of Lahore’s Marghzar Colony to find themselves surrounded by religious symbolism. One of the many intersections in the colony, Dua Chowk, features an enormous sculpture of two hands raised in prayer. There are Ameer Hamza Road and Hazrat Ali Road (Prophet Mohammad’s uncle and cousin respectively, both prominent figures in the Islamic world.) There are parks named after Prophet Mohammad’s first wife, Khadijah, and his companion, Hassan ibn Thabit.
There is a new addition to these symbols though: a fibreglass statue of a man riding a horse with a sword in hand, erected at one of the busiest intersections of the colony. Whether you are passing by in your car, peeking out of the windows of the neighbouring school, or having a cup of tea at the dhaba nearby, you will see the statue. There is no inscription on it to satiate the curiosity of an unknowing passerby. However, the new name of the intersection will answer all questions: Ertugrul Ghazi Chowk.
The statue pays homage to the 13th-century Oghuz Turk warrior, Ertugrul Ghazi, known to be the father of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman empire. The historical figure has become a household name in Pakistan, following the surge in popularity of the Turkish historical fiction series, Dirilis: Ertugrul, based on the life and times of its namesake. The statue was commissioned by the president of the Maraghzar Housing Scheme, Muhammad Shahzad Cheema. Speaking to Turkish national TV, he said that the statue was symbolic of Pakistan’s love for the Ottoman empire, adding that Ertugrul’s jihad was a source of respect for Muslims around the world. An avid history buff, Cheema believes that the statue has helped develop interest in Islamic history and values among the children of the colony, just as the show has done for children across the country. However, he is not the only one to hold this opinion. Rather, it is one that echoes in Pakistan’s corridors of power.
Pakistan’s love affair with Ertugrul
Ever since his behind-closed-doors meeting with Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan and former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad at the United Nations General Assembly session in September 2019, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has been vocal about the importance of media content which not only counters the Islamophobic depictions of Muslims in Hollywood and Bollywood but also allows the Muslim youth to learn about Islamic history and values. There was even talk of establishing a TV channel run jointly by Turkey, Malaysia and Pakistan to this end.
It is not even the first time the Pakistani state has actively sponsored historical fiction on television. In fact, one could argue that this has been one of the more prominent tools in the Pakistani state’s nation-building arsenal.
In the short term, however, Khan’s contribution to this cause has been to import Dirilis: Ertugrul to Pakistani screens. His feelings for the series are no secret; he has declared his love for it on multiple occasions and went on to commission an Urdu-dubbed version of the show to be telecast by the state-run Pakistan Television (PTV) to increase its reach.
To say that the public’s response has been positive would be an understatement; it is one of the most-watched series ever telecast on PTV. The show’s official Urdu Youtube channel, TRT Ertugrul by PTV, has 9.27 million subscribers, while the episodes collectively have over one billion views. The series has also been a big hit on Netflix in Pakistan, being consistently ranked among the three most-watched shows in the country since January 2020. Offscreen, the show has acquired a life of its own; Cheema’s statue is just one example of the show’s surging relevance in Pakistani culture. On Twitter and Facebook, the show continues to receive glowing endorsements from Pakistan’s politicians, athletes, and the general public alike. On video-sharing platform Tiktok, videos of men claiming to be doppelgangers of the show’s characters, riding horses with the show’s theme music playing in the background are commonplace. On Youtube, one can find fan-made videos with clips from the show interlaced with local spiritual music.
Pakistan’s love-affair with Dirilis: Ertugrul is not one-sided either. Whether through the frequency of moral-policing comments on their Instagram posts or through mainstream news, the show’s growing popularity has been noticed by its cast and crew as well. Engin Altan Duzyatan, the actor playing the titular character of the show, has sent out multiple videos acknowledging his Pakistani fanbase, wishing them for Eid, and appreciating the friendship between Turkey and Pakistan. Cengiz Coskun, who plays Turgut Alp, one of the most popular characters from the show, appeared on a talk show on Pakistani news channel ARY, with Pakistani cricket star, Shahid Afridi. Coskun spoke fondly about his wish to visit and work in Pakistan. His wish has come true for his fellow actress, Esra Bilgic. The woman behind the lead role of Halime Hatun has already signed advertisement contracts with multiple brands in Pakistan. Given Pakistan’s increasing international isolation in recent years, the show has sparked the first real semblance of cultural exchange in the country’s media industry since the highly anticipated but short-lived Aman ki Asha initiative with neighbouring India in 2010.
It is not just that a large number of Pakistanis seem to absolutely love this Turkish historical fiction show. It is not the first time a Turkish show has found popularity in Pakistan. It is not even the first time the Pakistani state has actively sponsored historical fiction on television. In fact, one could argue that this has been one of the more prominent tools in the Pakistani state’s nation-building arsenal.
TV for legitimacy
Historical fiction first appeared on Pakistani screens in the 1980s, in the form of the TV series Aakhri Chattan (The Final Rock). It was based on a novel of the same name, written by Naseem Hijazi. Hijazi is considered one of Pakistan’s most prolific historical fiction writers in Urdu. His books were inspired by major events in Islamic history from Muslim Spain to India. While his novels had a large readership before being adapted to screen, the pan-Islamic nature of his work resonated with the ideologically motivated military government of General Zia ul Haq. It was as a result of this resonance that Aakhri Chattaan found its way to the silver screen.
Aakhri Chattan was based largely on the 13th-century Mongol conquests of Khwarezmia, the region encompassing much of modern-day Central Asia, Afghanistan and Iran. The main protagonist is Jalaluddin Mingburnu, the last Khwarezmi Sultan resisting the Mongol onslaught. In the show, as in real life, Jalaluddin would escape towards the Indus with the Mongols hot on his heels. They would clash on the bank of the river, near Nizampur in modern-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan. Here, following a heavy defeat, Jalaluddin would make his famous leap into the raging river to escape. To this day, that spot is called Ghora Trup (The Horse’s Leap). Jalaluddin would then proceed to make alliances with multiple dynasties in Punjab to rebuild his army and attempt to take back his kingdom.
Aakhri Chattan depicted a rampaging army taking over Central Asia and Afghanistan, and Muslims escaping with their leftover forces towards the land that is Pakistan, seeking an alliance to take back their homeland. With Pakistan acting as an ally to Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion in 1979 (due to their common ally, the US) it is no surprise that the show found its way to Pakistan Television in the same time period. This was a time when Pakistani television as a whole was going through a process of Saudi-sponsored Islamisation. Historical fiction thus acted as a tool to raise awareness among the public of the state’s position in the Afghan conflict, by painting parallel images of non-Muslim powers attempting to undermine Muslim interests, a trope which features heavily in Pakistani political consciousness. The same trope is sprinkled generously in Dirilis, with the protagonist Turks consistently thwarting Christian and Mongol efforts to trigger a decline of Muslim powers.
The military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf had a categorically different Islamisation agenda compared to the one in which historical fiction found its footing.
The use of television as a legitimising tool was not without precedent; this had been done locally earlier as well. After 1981, the Pakistani state was facing civil disobedience in the Sindh province, calling for an end to General Zia’s martial law. Subsequently, forces had been deployed against ‘rebels’ on the grounds that a counter-insurgency was being carried out against dacoit groups engaged in kidnapping and extortion. However, the targets of the forces were largely protestors against the state. What followed soon after was a series on Pakistan Television titled Deewarein (1984), which would depict the ‘violent ways’ of the dacoits of Sindh. Where Deewarein legitimised the state’s position on the conflict in Sindh, Aakhri Chattaan achieved the same in the case of Afghanistan. Although the former was not historical in nature, it laid the ground for television as a political tool.
Historical fiction would be utilised again by the Pakistani state for political posturing in the form of Labbaik, an adaptation of Khan Asif’s novel of the same name, released on television in 1993. The show starts with the dramatisation of the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in 1992. What follows is a warning reminding Hindus of how their oppression of Muslim travellers brought the Ummayad General Muhammad Bin Qasim to the shores of India in the past. The rest of the series is a flashback to the events of Bin Qasim’s conquest, starting with the hijacking of a Muslim ship by Raja Dahir’s army and the subsequent kidnapping of a Muslim woman. This trope also features in Dirilis; the conflict which pulls Ertugrul and his tribe into larger regional politics and Muslim-Christian rivalry is his killing of a squad of Templar Knights attempting to rape a Muslim woman.
Like Aakhri Chattaan, Labbaik was indicative of Pakistan’s stance on a relevant political issue of the time. Babri Masjid was demolished on the grounds that it was built on the ruins of a temple marking the ancient birthplace of Ram. Following the demolition, India faced severe backlash from Muslim countries across the world. For Pakistan, however, the stakes were higher. The event and the subsequent violence against Indian Muslims validated the very foundations of Pakistan as a separate nation-state for the Muslims of Southasia, and Labbaik proceeded to pay homage to the earliest of these foundations.
As discussed by Manan Ahmed Asif in his book, A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia, the historiography of the Subcontinent portrayed the arrival of Muhammad bin Qasim as the origin of Muslim presence in the region. Thus, for Muslim Pakistan, it marks its origin story. For some Hindu Indian nationalists, however, the event was the first of several foreign Muslim invasions which destroyed the sanctity of Bharatmata. Hence, where the Indian right-wing attempted to unearth India’s Hindu foundations by erasing the palimpsest of foreign Muslim presence, Pakistan attempted to consolidate its foundations by harkening to Muhammad Bin Qasim’s arrival.
The age of enlightened moderation
In the years that followed, multiple other historical fiction shows would find a consistent audience through Pakistan Television, ranging in content from the Muslim conquest of Visigothic Spain in the 8th century to the life and times of 18th-century Mysori commander Tipu Sultan, to the horrors of Partition. In the 2000s, however, with the liberalisation of media and proliferation of private TV channels under General Parvez Musharraf’s martial law, Pakistan Television saw its audience cut down significantly. “Musharraf had a greater affinity for private media channels in the early years of his tenure, and this affected PTV’s position as the exclusive mouthpiece of the state,” said seasoned PTV newscaster and producer Muhammad Zubairuddin.
While Zia’s Islamisation centred Saudi Arabia as the cultural model, Khan’s compass points to Turkey – Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman Turkey, to be exact.
Furthermore, the military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf had a categorically different Islamisation agenda compared to the one in which historical fiction found its footing. In the wake of the US-backed war on terror against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, it was no longer in the interests of the Pakistani state to propagate pan-Islamic ideas. If anything, the state was attempting to distance itself from the very aftermath of its earlier stance. “The state’s focus had shifted from Islamic historical fiction. If I had to estimate, production dropped by more than half of what it was before,” added Zubairuddin. Instead, Musharraf’s “enlightened moderation” agenda centred a modernist rethinking of Islam, for which the state provided patronage to religious scholar Javed Ahmed Ghamidi in the form of religious talk shows on television. However, it was testament to Musharraf’s preference for private media channels that Ghamidi’s shows aired on Geo Television, rather than on the state-run PTV. Thus, as a result of a significantly reduced audience, and Musharraf’s categorically different approach to religion, Islamic historical fiction saw a decline in its significance on state-television.
Just over a decade after Musharraf’s ousting from office, however, Imran Khan has revived the use of historical fiction as a political tool to put into motion a different kind of pan-Islamic agenda. While Zia’s Islamisation centred Saudi Arabia as the cultural model, Khan’s compass points to Turkey – Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman Turkey, to be exact. Both leaders have been vocal in their condemnation of violence against Muslims around the world – something they admire each other for. Erdogan’s support for the Muslim cause in Kashmir was lauded by Khan, who the former thinks is a legitimate representative of the Muslim Ummah. In his attempts to revive a Muslim bloc in global politics, Khan has found an ally in Turkey – one with an extensive capability to exert soft power.
Turkey’s soft power, and the role of Turkish television shows in it, is a well-documented phenomenon. Dr Miriam Berg, an expert on the same, argues that dissemination of Turkish television to foreign audiences has an economic impact, helping to promote tourism while fostering an awareness of Turkish culture. Lately, however, television has increasingly been used as a way to promote Turkey as a major player in regional and global politics, as well as to reconnect with audiences in former Ottoman territories. Television has thus become a major component of Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman agenda, and Dirilis is his crown jewel. Produced by Kemal Tekden, who is a member of his own party, the AKP, the show has received praise from the Turkish president.
Dirilis is not the first mark of Turkish soft power in Pakistan. It is by no means the first show to take Pakistani audiences by storm. Another Ottoman historical fiction show, Muhteşem Yüzyıl (The Magnificent Century), and soap opera, Aşk-ı Memnu (The Forbidden Love) also became extremely popular on Pakistani screens. These shows had better production value, and better audio and video quality than the ones on Pakistani Hum TV and Geo TV. In addition to this, the scenic beauty of Turkey enthralled Pakistani audiences. Compared to the rather monotonous and repetitive themes and motifs of local television serials, the shows were a refreshing experience for many.
Through historical fiction, the Pakistani state has kept the public looking for a Saladin.
Their cultural impact, however, was not nearly as widespread as that of Dirilis. For one, none of the earlier shows had been directly endorsed by the political and cultural elite of Turkey and Pakistan. In fact, Muhteşem actually incurred the wrath of Erdogan, who thought the show portrayed Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I in a negative light. Furthermore, cultural experts also argue that while past Turkish soap operas had been as popular in Pakistan as Dirilis has been, but their popularity did not turn a lot of heads because their target audiences were primarily women. Dirilis, on the other hand, taps into more historically patriarchal themes such as war, monarchy, politics, and religion and, as a result, has amassed a large following of Muslim men.
Yet Dirilis also has a large fanbase among Pakistani Muslim women. Cultural rhetoric researcher Dr Elif Guler writes that the show subverts the historically orientalist fetishisation of Ottoman and Turk women as passive objects of desire confined to the harem, arguing that the show’s women have active roles in society as advisors, leaders, warriors and peers. But the show doesn’t resonate with everyone. Aqsa (name changed), a law student in Karachi, says that while the show’s portrayal of women is a breath of fresh air compared to the Akbari-Asghari (colloquial for “Good Woman-Bad Woman”) binary that plagues Pakistani television, it is far from feminist. While the women in Dirilis are key movers in the plot, at the end of the day, their actions are always in service to their tribes and cults – and their men. The show, hence, does not do much to stretch, let alone shatter, the socially acceptable contours of Muslim womanhood in Pakistan.
For Pakistani Christians, the show’s popularity across the country is no cause for celebration. Christians are some of the most prominent antagonists in Dirilis, and are portrayed as conspirators aiming to destabilise Muslim empires from within. As a result, Khan’s endorsement of the show has prompted criticism from the country’s Christians, who argue that not only does the show represent their faith in a negative light but that it also features scenes which desecrate the cross. In a country where violence against religious minorities is frequent and well-documented, the immense popularity of a show with Muslim supremacist undertones would be a cause for concern even without the prime minister’s endorsement. Nonetheless, it would not be far-fetched to say that this is exactly what has prompted the state’s sponsorship of the show, and its subsequent viewership.
The search for Saladin
One of the lesser considered factors in Dirilis’s popularity, however, is the timing of its release. The show started airing in Urdu on PTV on the first day of Ramazan, with Khan taking to Twitter to urge the Pakistani public to spend the holy month watching the Turkish series rather than ‘vulgar’ Hollywood and Bollywood productions. Khan wanted it to be clear that the show should be viewed as a religious symbol. Apart from the religious posturing, the fact that the audience was confined to their homes in a pandemic-enforced lockdown may have contributed significantly to higher viewership. In light of these factors, it is unsurprising that Dirilis attained the popularity that it did.
However, there is more to why the show has resonated so much with Pakistani Muslim audiences. It is the same reason why Aakhri Chattaan and Labbaik resonated with them. It is the same reason why stories of Muslim conquerors and warriors, from the Berber Tariq ibn Ziyad to the Turk Mahmud Ghaznavi, feature so heavily in our national consciousness. It is the same reason why, from primary school to college, we learn of history as the actions of these “great men” rather than as an outcome of social forces.
Dirilis is not the first mark of Turkish soft power in Pakistan.
In his book, Jinnah, Pakistan, and Islamic Identity: The Search For Saladin, Akbar S Ahmed argues that, along with the rest of the Islamic world, Pakistan’s postcolonial experience was marked by a crisis of authority. Who was to speak for the Muslims? Ahmed called this “looking for Saladin,” ie, Salahuddin Ayyubi, as he is known in the Islamic world. For Ahmed, the name of the 13th-century Muslim conqueror of Jerusalem functions as a metaphor, an embodiment of a pious and strong Muslim leader who can carry the cause of Islam and single-handedly attain huge victories. Sadly, in popular memory, Salahuddin’s conquest of Jerusalem lives on as a great man’s individual feat.
Ahmed argues that for the Muslims of Pakistan – at least the ones who had migrated – Jinnah was Saladin, which is to say he embodied the qualities that the postcolonial Islamic world looks for in a leader. Jinnah’s Saladin status – someone who “single-handedly” secured Independence for Pakistan – is one that is perpetuated in Pakistan’s history books, its media, and its political discourse. And it is this perpetuation that has reinforced the search for another Saladin: the idea that in every time of crisis, there will come a hero who will carry the sword of Islam and lead the nation out of misery.
The reason why a show about a 13th-century Oghuz Turk has found such popularity among the Pakistani Muslim audience is because it satisfies the search for a Saladin. And Ertugrul is every bit a Saladin figure; he is just, powerful, carries the sword of Islam with pride, and is victorious every single time. It is no surprise then that in May of this year, Pakistani Twitter trended #ModiNeedsErtugrul, highlighting the Indian state’s atrocities in Kashmir. Where diplomacy and international mediators are failing, Pakistani Muslims hope an Ertugrul Ghazi will come in and free Kashmir.
Through historical fiction, the Pakistani state has kept the public looking for a Saladin. What’s wrong with wanting a hero? In a time of crisis, it is a normal human instinct to wish for someone to intervene and make our lives better. However, when taking a closer look at the Saladins that the Pakistani state, through historical fiction or national commentaries, has promoted to its citizens, something unsettling becomes apparent. Be it Muhammad Bin Qasim, Jalaluddin of Khwarezmia, or Mahmud of Ghazni, our Saladins do not reflect our identities, in what is now Pakistan. They don’t look like us. They don’t speak our language. They never called our lands home. They’re not Hosh Muhammad Sheedi, the Sindhi general who sacrificed his life protecting his homeland and people from British invaders. They’re not Ranjit Singh, who united the warring misls in Punjab to form a self-governing Sikh kingdom. Ertugrul Ghazi is the latest in a line of foreign Saladins that Pakistan has claimed as its own. And when you tell a nation to look for a Saladin beyond its borders, who knows if it will ever accept a Saladin from within, or if it would even matter if it did.