Sultan Erdogan: Turkey's Rebranding Into the New, Old Ottoman Empire

In the eyes of secularists, the Europe-facing, Western-dressing, cocktail-toasting modern nation-state is being replaced by a religiously conservative one, headscarf by headscarf.
Topkapi palace banner.jpg
Sailing yachts cruise through Bosphorus waterways past Istanbul's Topkapi palace, once a home for Sultans in the Ottoman empire, on July 25, 2000. (Reuters)

The cities might not seem similar today, but one thing Tripoli and Thessaloniki, Basra and Beirut, Sarajevo and Sana'a all once had in common is that just a little over a century ago they were all part of the Ottoman Empire. A second thing they all have in common is that until just a few years ago they harbored a certain disdain for Turkey ... due in large part to the aforementioned empire.

Yet former rivals to the south, east, north and even west now attend Turkish business summits, watch Turkish shows, and purchase Turkish groceries. Interestingly and perhaps contrary to common sense, this recent shift seems to come not as a product of "time healing old wounds" but rather at a period when Turkey has embraced its Ottoman heritage to an unheard-of level.

The most popular television show, Magnificent Century, is essentially a soap opera set in the court of Suleiman the Magnificent, a bit like the Tudors but with even more imposing facial hair.

The foreign media loves to toss around the term "neo-Ottoman" when discussing the transformation of 21st century Turkey, particularly in reference to its increasingly assertive foreign policy and regional presence, much to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's chagrin.

The minister has time and again dismissed charges of neo-Ottomanism, pointing out that Turkey's neighborly attentions are simply pragmatic foreign policy and do not harbor imperial ambitions. He scoffed at the idea yet again during a speech last month: "Why is it that when the whole of Europe is casting off its borders and unifying they don't become the Neo-Romans or the New Holy Roman Empire, but when we call for the peoples who lived together just a century ago to come together once again, we are accused of being Neo-Ottomans?"

But beyond foreign policy there lies a much more significant domestic transformation, one that is also driven by history. In that same speech, the foreign minister spoke of the need for a "great restoration" where "we need to embrace fully the ancient values we have lost." Praising the historic bonds that connected the peoples of Turkey over the "new identities that were thrust upon us in the modern era," Davutoglu maintained that the road to Turkey's progress lies in its past - an assertion that has terrified the government's detractors enough for them to make it a losing political platform each new election.

Turkey's new direction has become the topic of fervent internal debate, with tension growing between the secular establishment -- in charge for the republic's first 80 years -- and the rising conservative bourgeoisie represented by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has ruled the country for over a decade. The term "neo-Ottoman" might not pop up as often in the Turkish press as it does in foreign media, but the prime minister and his party are often accused by opponents of a certain Otto-philia for their Islamic sentiments and sympathetic view towards the old empire -- a disgraceful entity that represents every problem the modern republic was meant to solve, according to many secularists. After all, the past decade has had Erdogan and the AKP preside over (and according to critics, openly foster) an Ottoman cultural revival.

The most popular television show, Magnificent Century, is essentially a soap opera set in the court of Suleiman the Magnificent, a bit like the Tudors but with even more imposing facial hair. The highest grossing film, Conquest 1453, is about Mehmed the Conqueror's conquest of Istanbul in 1453 and features decadent Byzantines and an ambitious, albeit magnanimous, Sultan Mehmed. Just last month mock-ups of a potential redesign of Turkish Airlines' uniforms were leaked, with one notably Ottoman redesign featuring fezzes and thick, conservative outfits for the female cabin crew, to replace their proudly secular pencil skirts. All these events, plus countless other Ottoman-inspired fashion shows, art exhibits, and university seminars have lead to the reestablishment of a brand forgotten nearly a century ago.

And while the Ottoman brand might be on the rise, it is not without its critics. Conquest 1453 was panned by the liberal democratic intelligentsia for its two-dimensional portrayal of Mehmed's enemies and the idea that peace comes only after subduing all opposition. Meanwhile, the secular establishment erupted in a furor over the Ottoman-esque airline uniforms, just the latest in a series of betrayals of the secular republic. In their eyes, the Europe-facing, Western-dressing, cocktail-toasting modern nation-state established in 1923 by founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is being replaced by a religiously conservative one, headscarf by headscarf. Many have even taken to calling the prime minister Sultan Erdogan.

The prime minister, rarely holding back on criticisms himself, has in turn lambasted Magnificent Century from the other side of aisle: his issue being not that it is too Ottoman, but not magnificently Ottoman enough - too much soap opera, not enough might and traditional values. Such a sentiment, along with many others like it, are consistent with his opponents' narrative of Erdogan as an archconservative who derives his motivation not from the West like Ataturk but from the East like, well, a religious Muslim would.

Presented by

Cinar Kiper

Cinar Kiper is a Turkish writer living in Istanbul. 

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