At the end of a day as summer camp counsellor last year, I was saying goodbye to the kids as their parents came to pick them up. A father then approached me and recognized my Ertuğrul theme ring. We immediately hit it off and started talking about the show and the characters. This interaction is part of a global fascination for a Turkish historical drama that shows (finally!) a positive portrayal of Muslims in mass media.
The show in question, Diriliş: Ertuğrul (Resurrection: Ertugrul), sets in 13th century Anatolia. It portrays the story of Ertuğrul Ghazi and his quest to find a permanent homeland for his tribe. Ertuğrul Ghazi is the father of Osman I, who is remembered as being the first sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The first episode aired in 2014 and ever since, the show’s popularity is such that it was dubbed in six languages and broadcasted in 72 countries. Being particularly successful in the Muslim countries, the audience in the West was however not immune to this growing fascination, as evidenced by my own experience in the summer camp.
So what makes Diriliş: Ertuğrul so contagious? A big part of the answer is the way Muslims are portrayed. They are the centre of the show, and are shown is a very positive light. The characters are, amongst other things, courageous; respectful of elders; and compassionate. Most importantly, they are proud of their identity.
Considering that most of the muslim representation in Hollywood is still, sadly, very stereotypical, one can understand how seeing a brave warrior fighting for justice would be a good change from your usual terrorist, cab driver or simple extra. Indeed, the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released a report suggesting that the overly stereotypical portrayal of Muslims in mass media as foreigners and threats could be a significant factor in the rise of hate crimes against Muslims. The causes are complex of course, and I am not trying to reduce the problem to this sole cause, but I do believe, knowing the impressive power mass media can have, that it is part of the answer.
The portrayal of women also marks a stark comparison with what we are used to see in Western productions. While the image of the weak, confused and oppressed muslim woman who needs to be rescued from her family is still being cultivated, Diriliş: Ertuğrul portrays women as strong warriors, wise leaders, competent doctors and skilled politicians. It is also not unusual to see Muslim women generally seen as potential romantic partners and nothing more, but Diriliş: Ertuğrul, while involving its fair share of romance, also includes scenes where women are voicing very strongly their refusal to marry someone, which once again moves away from the submissive image we are used to see.
Which brings us back to an important concept: identity. As I explained above, the pejorative portrayal of Muslims, bolstered by mass media, contributes to the general idea of Muslims as alien. For Muslims living in the West, that can lead to a real identity crisis. How to reconcile the values they learn when they are children with the way they are seen on TV? How to deal with the pressure to conform to that flawed view? What a show like Diriliş: Ertuğrul can do is reclaim Muslim identity. Associate professor at Bilgi university in Istanbul Burak Ozcetin explains that “in times of crisis in particular, history plays an important role in the creation of identities”. Characters in Ertuğrul find their strength in their faith, and would not trade it for all the wealth that this Earth contains. Such a powerful message, combined with the vitrine it acquired, can help in shifting not only the perceptions of non-Muslims on Muslims, but also of Muslims about themselves. This is in my opinion, what makes this show so successful.
In conclusion, I think it is safe to say that Muslims can be things other than terrorists or cab drivers. Limiting ourselves to these options when we make TV productions only perpetuates a flawed notion that only fuels anti-Muslim sentiments. Mass media is such a powerful instrument in these modern times, why not use it for a more positive outcome? Seeing the impact of a show like Diriliş: Ertuğrul, which despite being Turkish still found resonance in the West, there is definitely a case to make about the need for better Muslim representation in Western productions.