“Ertugrul” and Turkey’s Soft Power Influence on South Asia

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A promotional photo from the Turkish TV show Dirilis: Ertugrul. Tekden Film (Image Collected)

Soft power has always existed as a factor in influencing relations between nations and peoples from time immemorial. Use of culture- i.e., the arts, epics, literature, theatre- have been used by political entities on the global matrix to expand perceived interests. It was conceptualized in the modern context as a foreign policy tool by Professor Joseph Nye. He introduced the term as we now understand it in his writings in the 1980s and 1990s, fully expanding its connotation in his 2004 book “Soft-Power: The Means to Succeed in International Politics”. To him basically it implied the capacity of a state actor to get others to behave in a desired fashion, without resorting to “hard power” or military force. A perfect example of this in contemporary times is the use for this purpose of the Film “Dirilis Ertugrul”, by Turkey.

It is a historical fiction set in the 13th Century based on the life of a heroic figure Ertugrul, the father of Osman the founder of the Ottoman Caliphate whose empire lasted till the early 1920s. The storyline is one of near-epic struggle and journey of the Turcic nation, a Turkish version of the tale of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey”, with the central character Ertugrul representing the sensibilities of the Trojan Prince Hector and the valour of the Greek hero, Achilles. It conjures up nostalgic memories of a glorious and romantic past of ethnic and religious halcyon days of the Turkish people. The empire’s last Sultan Abdul Majid was removed by the Turks themselves under their “father of the nation” (Ataturk) Mustapha Kemal Pasha. By then the Ottoman empire had declined to the point of having earned the cognomen of “The sick man of Europe”. For Kemal Pasha the Ottoman Caliphate had outlived its utility, and he was persuaded that it needed to be supplanted by a nationalist, modern and secular polity, in a bid to anchor itself more to the European ethos. These values of Kamal Pasha and the “Young Turk revolutionaries” were preponderant in Tukey almost till the coming to power of the current President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. When the shift towards Islam occurred, almost as a slow and inexorable process, the new post-Kemalist Islamic-oriented leadership saw merit in harkening back to the past and tapping history to advance Turkey’s global projection as a key Islamic power.

The earlier developments, the disintegration of the Ottoman empire and the rise of the “young Turks” was having a considerable impact on the global Muslim Community, including the Indian Muslims, of the north, northwest and Bengal in the subcontinent. Muslim Leaders like the Ali brothers- Muhammad Ali and Shawkat Ali -the Aga Khan in Bombay and Syed Amir Ali in Bengal initiated what has been called the “Khilafat movement” which Mr MK Gandhi sought to incorporate into India’s freedom struggle. The dedication with which Indian Muslims espoused the cause of the Caliphate which the Turks themselves rejected was puzzling. It was obviously a yearning for the heyday of Islam as perceived by them, even though the Turks themselves seemed to have other views. These Indian leaders petitioned Kemal Pasha to restore the Sultan, even assume the throne himself, but the pleas went unheeded. The historian RC Majumdar underscored that by endorsing extraterritorial allegiance of an issue Mr Gandhi believed to be vital to the Muslims he was subscribing to the view that they, even though they lived in India were a separate nation.

Interestingly, Mr Mohammed Ali Jinnah and some secular Muslim leaders were not that supportive, and instead showed admiration for Kemal’s leadership. In Calcutta, the Bengali Muslim poet Kazi Nazrul Islam sang paeans of praise to Kemal Pasha, and of the “Young Turks” like Enver Bey. It was a bit like the older Bengali version of “soft power”, this one of an Indian flavour, directed at Turkey’s new nationalist leaders. The point is Indian Muslims, including the forebears of the current Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, resonated with the two distinct traits of Turkish influence, the imperial and the modern. By India’s Partition in 1947, Turkey was seen as a beacon of secular Islam, the values with which then Subcontinental Muslims wanted to shape their lives.

Politically, post Indian Partition, Turkey was an ally of the territories which today constitute Pakistan and Bangladesh. As sovereign nations their politics, instead of being confined to the subcontinent, were now being played out on a global matrix during the US-Soviet rivalry of the Cold War period. Those days the influence of the impoverished Arab nations on South Asian Muslims was minimal. Intellectual interactions were almost non-existent. The Economist in a recent issue has said that no Gulf Arab reads a book for fun (The Levant is different). Somehow Indian Muslim culture was imbued more with Persian (Farsi) and Turcic influence than Arabic, whether during the Mameluke Sultanate or Mughal Imperial era. Turkey and Iran had opted for the West in the Cold War line-up, opposed to the Soviet Bloc or the Non- Aligned Movement. Note the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD), groupings of which Turkey, Iran and Pakistan were most enthusiastic members. In fact, then Pakistani Prime Minister Mr HS Suhrawardy, once Premier of undivided Bengal, mocked the NAM stating, “zero plus zero equals zero”. In then- East Pakistan, the two of the major foreign dignitaries to visit Dhaka, then a provincial capital ( I recall seeing them as a cheering schoolboy lined up on the roadside) were Emperor Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran and Prime Minister Adnan Menderes of Turkey, who was later overthrown and executed following a Coup. The elites of Karachi, Lahore and Dhaka displayed secular traits in their behavior pattern. And importantly the Army in Pakistan was intensely Kemalist, secular to the bootstrap, President Ayub Khan was a case in point. The same values appeared to have percolated to the Bangladesh Army after the nascence of the new Republic in 1971, evidenced in its first Commander-in-Chief, General MAG Osmany.

When the pendulum swung back in Turkey, and the authorities turned to Islam, there was great empathy in Pakistan and Bangladesh. True, Arab nations by now were wealthy. They had become a source of material nourishment through employment of vast number of South Asian Muslim workers. The Saudi King was deeply respected as the keeper of the two holiest shrines of Islam. Yet some Arab leaders were being viewed as playing second fiddle to Western powers, whose conflict with the Muslim world and support for Israel against Palestine eroded their popularity and dented their public acceptance in this region. To the man in the street in among many South Asian Muslims Erdogan seemed to stand out as a hero. And Ankara made full use of the movie series Ertugrul to stir up public spirits. The Turkish government launched a state-endorsed vigorous promotion of Islamic revivalism. However, some Turkish intellectuals like the writer Orhan Pamuk and some moderates in Turkish society opposed it. As they did the re-mosqueing of the “Haga Sofia”. By and large South Asian Muslims felt inspired by “Ertugrul”, just as the Indian television serial “Ramayana” influenced the burgeoning Hindu nationalism in some political quarters. Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan publicly praised the movie, describing the hero Ertugrul as “Ghazi” or “victor in war” and recommended it to the Pakistanis. It was translated into Urdu. In Bangladesh the series draws a huge audience as well. There are those who believe it serves the purpose of diverting the populace away from the stricter Wahabi variant of Gulf Arab Islam toward a more tolerant Sunni belief -system. As a matter of fact, it is also true of countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and even the Maldives. These point to an incipient bonding among non-Arab Muslim nations on the global scene.

In Bangladesh, following Turkey’s recognition of the country in 1974, close collaboration continued through the period of all governments both in Bangladesh and Turkey. I myself had close rapport with my Turkish counterpart Foreign Minister Ali Babacan. In New York for years Bangladesh Mission to the UN occupied two floors of the Turkish Representation, which contributed to close ties in multilateral fora. However, there was a slight bump in the relationship when Ankara criticized the sentences passed during war criminal trials in the early years of the Awami League led government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. But in 2016 she issued statement in strong support of President Erdogan after the failed Coup against him. In return President Erdogan has lent the strongest possible endorsement of Bangladesh on the Rohingya refugee crisis, both at the United Nations and at the Organization of Islamic countries. The First Lady of Turkey visited the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar to demonstrate her solidarity with the Rohingyas. Trade has received a fillip, expecting to hit US $ 2 billion, not that it is the most significant factor in the relationship. Importantly a new Government to Government Defence Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the two countries on 21st June 2021, following the visit to Ankara of the new Bangladesh Army Chief of Staff. This will help Bangladesh diversify sources of military procurement, and Turkey being a NATO country, would be a particularly welcome as a supplier of modern weaponry. For a variety of complex reasons, thus, Turkey is an emergent significant partner for Bangladesh. This relationship accords a genuine sense of comfort to Bangladeshis, and the government is quite happy to go along. Turkey for Bangladesh seems to satisfy the requirements of both nostalgia and necessity.

These current cross-regional relations are being carried out on the backdrop of rising tensions between the two superpowers, the older one the United States and the rising China. The world seems poised to enter the phase of Cold War 2.0. These are being exacerbated by alliance buildings by the rivals, increasing the possibilities of wider conflict of both kinetic and non-kinetic varieties. Bangladesh may not be a key protagonist but given its positive economic and sociopolitical indices is a noteworthy international actor. Its foreign policy primarily has a development-orientation, with a sharp preference for conflict-avoidance. As a plethora of security alliances appear to be emerging in and around the region, so a policy of this nature this is not necessarily an easy maneuver for Bangladesh.

The regional organization in South Asia, SAARC, appears to be failing due to Indo-Pakistan rivalry. Multilateralism and plurilateralism have been important platforms for the conduct of Bangladesh on the international stage. As ties with Turkey widen and deepen, a forum of potential importance to Bangladesh which increasingly comes to the fore is Developing 8, an economic grouping comprising the eight largest Muslim majority countries. The headquarters of D 8 are located in Istanbul. It may be time to resuscitate it. Like any country, Bangladesh needs friends from among key global actors. Turkey satisfies the bill in diverse ways. Navigating through the rough waters of current international politics would doubtless be a challenge for Dhaka, but I believe Bangladesh diplomacy has adequate intellectual resources to pick up the gauntlet.

Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President & Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg

  • Bangladesh-Turkey Relations
  • Soft Power Influence on South Asia
  • Dirilis Ertugrul
  • Turkey
  • Ertugrul
  • Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina
  • Father of the Nation

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