Decoding the "Payitaht Abdülhamid"

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak discusses the impact of the recent Turkish soap opera, Payitaht, on Turkish society and the Erdoğan administration's desire to reshape the country's historical narrative.
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Poster for Payitaht (Trt1)
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During the last decade, the Turkish film and television industry has experienced significant growth, producing numerous soap operas popular in Turkey and abroad, particularly in the Middle East. This popularity stems from the series' non-obscene, family-friendly themes. Moreover, the length of each episode, typically two to three hours with commercials, means that viewers spend whole nights watching the same channel. Combined with this consumer behavior, high ratings have paved the way for a broad commercial market, profitable for soap opera producers. This cycle enables producers to launch more expensive and ambitious projects.

On February 24, Turkey's state run TRT-1 (Türkiye Radyo ve Televizyonu - Turkish Radio and Television) launched one such project, a new television series called "Payitaht - Abdülhamid" (Capital - Abdülhamid). The new series sympathetically portrays the reign of Abdülhamid II (1876-1909), one of the Ottomans' most controversial sultans. Until today, his supporters, mostly composed of Islamists, dub him "the Supreme Sultan" (Ulu Hakan). In contrast, his adversaries, pioneers of Turkey’s secularization and Westernization movement, refer to him as "the Oppressor" (Müstebid) or "the Red Sultan" (Kızıl Sultan), due to his bloody campaign against the Armenians.[1] Analysis of "Payitaht" provides insight into the ruling elite's utilization of Abdülhamid's historical legacy. 


Responding to this history, both supporters and detractors of the sultan, see Turkey's current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the twenty-first century heir to Abdülhamid II's legacy. The secular camp uses the slogans of their nineteenth century comrades, such as "Down with oppression! long live freedom!" (Kahrolsun İstibdat! Yaşasın Hürriyet!).[2] Meanwhile, the conservative pro-government channel, "A Haber" (A News), produced a documentary on Abdülhamid II, highlighting positive similarities between Erdoğan and the Ottoman Sultan.[3] Abdülhamid's centralized state, his grandiose 1,464 kilometer long Hejaz Railway,[4] and his other reforms were portrayed as directly parallel to Erdoğan's desired presidential system and pharaonic projects. One such project, the "Marmaray," an under-water subway tunnel connecting Europe and Asia, was initiated by Abdülhamid. Today, Abdülhamid's portraits overlook the Marmaray stations.


As Turkish history textbooks curate a pro-Western, anti-Abdülhamid history, the pro-Abdülhamid narrative of the pro-government circles represents another challenge to the established secular historical narrative.

Necip Fazıl Kısakürek, a former lecturer at the University of Ankara, pioneered this pro-Abdülhamid narrative. Kısakürek was an anti-secular, Turkish-Islamic nationalist who spent many years in prison because of his critiques of the secular political system, which he called a cheap imitation of the West.[5] In his work, Kısakürek openly described the Ottoman Tanzimat reforms (1839), which officially launched the country's Westernization campaign, as the beginning of the corruption of the Ottoman system. Kısakürek portrayed the Pan-Islamist Abdülhamid II, who used the title of caliph more than any other sultan, as the only ruler who sought to protect the empire's integrity. Kısakürek glorified Abdülhamid as his “historical friend,” while implicitly disparaging his "historical foe," Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of secular Turkey.[6]


Kısakürek summarized his view towards Abdülhamid with the well-known slogan: "Understanding Abdülhamid is the key to understanding everything" (“Abdülhamid'i anlamak herşeyi anlamak demek olacaktır”). In other words, Sultan Abdülhamid functioned as a litmus test for Turkish political attitudes. Kısakürek asked people to disregard the constant defamation of  Sultan Abdülhamid by secular governments. By doing so Kısakürek attempted to neutralize pro-Western critiques of the sultan. In order to defend Abdülhamid, Kısakürek targeted critics' supposed underlying motives, rather than the content of their critiques.[7]


Having been raised and educated in conservative religious circles, it is no secret that President Erdoğan is deeply influenced by Kısakürek's work. In the first Necip Fazıl Kısakürek Prizes ceremony, initiated in 2014 by the pro-government newspaper Star, President Erdoğan openly praised Kısakürek for his effort to disrupt the secular Kemalist single-party period's "alienated, non-traditionalist way of thinking."[8] Today, the last remnants of this way of thinking and its narrative in history textbooks are being eliminated. Ambitious reform by the Turkish Ministry of National Education seeks to diminish the position of secular Atatürkism in the Turkish curriculum, while expanding content on the public’s resistance to the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016.[9] In light of this education reform, the timing of the new television series "Payitaht" is no coincidence.


The series' portrayal of the sultan is steeped in Kısakürek's narrative. Seeing Abdülhamid through this lens develops viewers' sympathy for the implementation of Abdülhamid's harsh policies against the press, journalists, and intellectuals. "Payitaht" underscores Abdülhamid's virtues with a contrasting demonization of the Ottoman intellectuals of his period, including Abdülhamid's nephew, Prince Sabahattin - an important Ottoman intellectual who defended individualism and pragmatism against the forces of excessive centralization.[10]  


In the first two episodes of "Payitaht," Prince Sabahattin is portrayed as a traitor, undermining the empire in the name of "freedom." In order to cope with this threat from within, Abdülhamid's sophisticated system of informers is presented as essential to the state's protection from the global superpowers - controlled by mysterious, covert societies - and their internal collaborators, like Prince Sabahattin. Each scene of "Payitaht" is designed to be reapplied to current Turkish politics, whitewashing viewers' perspectives on Erdoğan's hardline stance vis-à-vis the press.


That being said, the show casts Prince Sabahattin and his fellows as proxies for the Zionist Jews and Freemasons, portrayed as the main culprits of the empire's accelerating decline. The ideological father of political Zionism, Theodore Binyamin Ze'ev Herzl, is characterized as an obsessive personality seeking to establish a Jewish state "from the Nile to Euphrates." In order to sidestep accusations of antisemitism, the producers of "Payitaht" sought to distinguish between their desired type of Jew, one that was not seeking independent statehood, and the Zionist Jew, who was seeking a territorialized national identity. In the show, Theodore Herzl imprisons his father, Jacob Herzl, due to anti-Zionist political views. In reality, Jacob Herzl was a delegate in the second Zionist Congress. However, in the show's first episode, Jacob Herzl preaches that Judaism does not command the establishment of the state of Israel. The father reveals his son to be a heretic, plotting to establish a Jewish state in the land of Israel by controlling global media. In a subplot, a failed assassin named Hiram - bearing the Freemasons' Grandmaster's name – even seeks to mobilize traitorous Ottoman soldiers by using a coin engraved with the Star of David.


These storylines are derived from Kısakürek, who claimed that the Jews, the Dönmes (the Jews who converted to Islam), and the Freemasons' hidden agendas were at the root of the Ottoman's problems. According to this worldview, these groups successfully mobilized the Ottoman Army to overthrow Abdülhamid II in 1909, with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's participation as a young officer. Kısakürek went even further, designating Turkish Jewish statesman Hayim Nahum as the political actor solely responsible for the establishment of a secular, instead of Islamic, Turkish state.[11] Kısakürek's emphasis on clandestine activities is echoed in current Turkish politics. For example, Erdoğan's well-known "Mastermind" (Üst Akıl) accusation locates mysterious external actors' so-called interventions in the interplay of daily Turkish politics.[12]  


To target Turkish citizens outside the classroom, it seems that the Turkish government seeks to integrate television into its re-indoctrination campaign. Its approved television series, broadcast by state run television channel TRT-1, instills a pro-government historical narrative. Like viewers of the "Magnificent Century," a television series that covered Süleyman the Magnificent's reign (1520-1566), many who watch ""Payitaht" unquestioningly accept its contents as historical fact.

Marketed through billboards, as well as traditional and social media, "Payitaht" is having impact beyond the realm of television. By providing the sultan with a saintly afterglow, the show attempts to repair Abdülhamid's badly damaged reputation and crown him a role model in competition with Atatürk. This proliferation of the sultan's new image continues with the probable naming of Istanbul's third airport after Abdülhamid, while Istanbul's Atatürk airport is soon to be shut down.

 


Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak is a junior researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies (MDC), Tel Aviv University. He serves as Turkey analyst for Beehive: Middle East Social Media, the periodical publication of the Doron Halpern Middle East Network Analysis Desk, and is co-editor of Turkeyscope. He can be reached at hayeytan[at]tauex.tau.ac.il.


[1] François Georgeon, Sultan Abdülhamid (Istanbul, İletişim, 2015) pp. 423-428 (François Georgeon, Abdulhamid II, le sultan calife)

[4]  Metin Hulagu, The Hejaz Railway (Izmir, Blue Dome, 2010) p.xxv

[5] Fahrettin Altun, "Alternatif Tarih Yazmak: Necip Fazıl Kısakürek'in Hafıza Siyaseti" in Asım Öz and et.al (Eds.), Necip Fazıl Kitabı, Sempozyum Tebliğleri, (Istanbul, Zeytinburnu Belediyesi, 2015)  pp.325-361

[6] Mustafa Armağan, "Necip Fazıl'da Tarihin 'Dönüş'ü" in Asım Öz and et.al (Eds.), Necip Fazıl Kitabı, Sempozyum Tebliğleri, (Istanbul, Zeytinburnu Belediyesi, 2015) p.317

[7]  Mustafa Armağan, "Necip Fazıl'da Tarihin 'Dönüş'ü" in Asım Öz and et.al (Eds.), Necip Fazıl Kitabı, Sempozyum Tebliğleri, (Istanbul, Zeytinburnu Belediyesi, 2015)  pp.315-317

[8] "Cumhurbaşkanı Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Necip Fazıl ile olan anısını anlattı", Hürriyet, November 3, 2014, http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/cumhurbaskani-recep-tayyip-erdogan-necip-fazil-ile-olan-anisini-anlatti-27506507

[9] "MEB'in yeni müfredatı; Atatürkçülük kalktı; 15 Temmuz geldi", T24, January 15, 2017,  http://t24.com.tr/haber/mebin-yeni-mufredati-ataturkculuk-kalkti-15-temmuz-geldi,383165

[10] Yahya Akyüz, Türk Eğitim Tarihi, (Ankara, Pegem, 2015) p. 313

[11] Fahrettin Altun, "Alternatif Tarih Yazmak: Necip Fazıl Kısakürek'in Hafıza Siyaseti" in Asım Öz and et.al (Eds.), Necip Fazıl Kitabı, Sempozyum Tebliğleri, (Istanbul, Zeytinburnu Belediyesi, 2015)  pp.325-361

[12] Burak Bekdil, "Turkey's Supposed Nemesis: "The Mastermind"", April 27, 2015,  https://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/5608/turkey-antisemitism-mastermind