Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan leaves the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque in Istanbul after performing the Friday prayer. Photo: Murat Kula / Anadolu Agency via AFP

It is unlikely for an active Facebook user from South Asia not to have noticed a very prominent and spontaneous boom of local fan pages and laudatory groups dedicated to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this year.

These groups are replete with posts in various languages hailing him as “the flag-bearer of the ummah,” “my president,” “lion of Islam” and “leader of the Muslims.” Erdogan has earned great admiration from vast swaths of young Muslim zealots all over the world, especially in South Asia.

Google data show that the frequency of searches for the keyword “Ottoman” in Pakistan rose sharply this year. A sizable portion of this manifold increment is attributable to the immense popularity of a single Turkish historical-fiction TV Series titled Dirilis: Ertugrul (“Resurrection: Ertugrul”) in the country.

Pakistan apparently even beats Turkey itself hands-down in terms of interest in the series, if search-engine analytics are anything to go by. To be honest, with more than 12 times as many search queries, even “beats” is an underwhelming description. Outside of the Arab world, the show is also quite popular in Central Asia and parts of Africa.

Besides being phenomenal in its own right, it has piqued the populace’s interest in Turkish culture in general, and prompted millions to binge on a whole host of Turkish shows, from soaps to historical docudramas, even those that had completed their runs years earlier.

History, folk legends, and epics alike have captured the popular interest of Muslims who are disappointed in their leaders. The very fact that the searches for the country and the actual historical figures follow in wake of these cinematic adaptations of lores and fictional retellings of history, evidences toward the virtue of Turkish pop culture have political potency and serving strategic interests, voluntarily or involuntarily.

The statistics where the show leads people to look up the country, history and rulers testifies to its influence and its distinctly captivating and immersive character.

Having seemingly no viable iconic cultural or political leaders of their own who imbue charisma, confidence and passion, many Pakistanis look up, or rather back to, historical or even fictional greats.

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s failure to position himself as an assertive, decisive, leading figure and authoritative presence has led to his popularity dipping to a major low.

It is not that this is exclusively an issue of idiosyncratic surge interest, as is typical of the entertainment sector nowadays, or a one-off thing. Accompanying the search term “Ottoman” in its steep climb, the search topic “Turkey,” as in the country, not the bird, has exhibited a rapid escalation in Pakistan too. This leads one to wonder if this is attributable to a sentimental-cultural resonance, which, as further discussion will elucidate, indeed is the case. 

Turkey’s soft power is not limited to narrating history, it also lies in re-creating and correcting it. For Turkey, history is very much active, and the fodder and fuel of its political, diplomatic, and strategic machinery.

In July, the Hagia Sophia museum was re-converted to a mosque, with many of its mosaics and frescoes set to be concealed, an unprecedented gesture in the recent history of the republic. The building, originally a Christian basilica, was converted to a mosque in the wake of the Fall of Constantinople. The most recent reversion was followed by the conversion of another historic church, the Kariye Museum, to a mosque. To Erdogan, such gestures serve as a means of furthering his soft-Islamist neo-Ottoman agenda. 

The message is clear, Turkey is channeling its imperial past, specifically its martial paragons, to assert its status as a regional power as well as the ideological and cultural leader of the Muslim world.

By selectively glorifying its religion-motivated historical icons and suppressing its secular figures, Turkey has weaponized popular media, turning them into an insidious, passive but effective propaganda tool, impressing its selection of what constitutes Turkish identity in a lasting manner. It has lent credence to its historical claim, nay, entitlement to being the caliphate and the virtue of its authority over making decisions on behalf and in favor of the Islamic world.

Pakistan has in effect become culturally orphaned – it has no overlap of the geographical, the cultural, and the strategic aspects of its history. While it takes pride in the Islamic invaders of India, such as Muhammad Ghori, who laid the foundation of the Delhi Sultanate, and Zahiruddin Babur, the founder of the subcontinent’s most powerful and magnificent empire, most of their legacy, from their capitals to their monuments and mausolea, lies in India.

In fact, conspicuous remnants of the rich Mughal legacy that lie squarely in Pakistan are outnumbered and outshone by those in India. Meanwhile, Pakistan is reluctant to accept the ancient heritage and history reflected in its temples, monasteries, and pagan shrines and resorts to negligence, trivialization, active suppression, desecration, and even occasional erasure of the many reminders of its Hindu-Buddhist past that happened to fall on its side after the Partition.

Even Pakistani history textbooks very conveniently ignore the very existence of the subcontinent’s pre-Islamic history, and selectively portray the syncretic rule of Mughals as a period of Islamic supremacy, weeding out mentions of Hindu rulers. The Islamic identity of the rulers is equated with Pakistani pride and identity, at times explicitly.

While Pakistan identifies with the mighty assailants who plundered India, making quick work of any resistance, all of them were from countries that Pakistan is not at the best of terms with, at least not compared with India. A number of Pakistani ballistic missiles are named after Afghan invaders, historical figures who it has little claim over, either in origin or in destination.

Pakistan has also repeatedly failed to acknowledge the very existence of its pre-Islamic history even in formal education, leaving its youth in utter historical and cultural ignominy. 

With its relations with its Islamic neighbors Afghanistan and Iran deteriorating and having no distinct cultural glory or pinnacle of civilizational achievement that it could truly and faithfully call its own, the Pakistani populace desperately needed something to look up to.

Pakistan could never become an economic power or a stable democracy in its entire history, and constantly remained dependent on foreign aid and strategic support. It consistently performs poorly on various developmental indices. It could neither look forward nor backward, hence it looked sideways – diagonally, rather.

It first looked up at the Arab world, trying to identify with it in its bid of pan-Islamism. But the harsh and inherently discriminatory treatment of Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia, including multiple executions, soon disillusioned them. Puritan Salafis and Wahhabis frequently treat Pakistani Muslims condescendingly for their non-Arabic ethnicity and look down upon them for what they deem to be “pagan influences” or “infidel tendencies.”

Moreover, the rift and alienation furthered as Saudi Arabia began to gravitate economically toward India as well as warm up to it diplomatically.

Pakistan beseeched the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for support in denouncing Indian atrocities in Kashmir and its alleged institutionalized discrimination against its Muslim population and asked Saudi Arabia to lead the effort, a proposal shot down by Riyadh. Pakistan was also compelled to pay an outstanding loan in the wake of this.

Pakistan had strongly objected to King Abdullah’s consideration of India being granted observer status in the OIC, citing their mutual Kashmir dispute, and was extremely dejected upon the Indian foreign minister being invited as the guest of honor at an OIC meet in March 2019.

The stark contrast in the respective receptions of the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers in Saudi Arabia also proved disparaging to Pakistani solidarity with the nation. Saudi Arabia had also pressured Pakistan to release captured Indian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman, much to the latter’s chagrin. The Saudis had also been reluctant in readily providing military aid and assistance.

Saudi Arabia’s repeated refusal to address the revocation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution on Kashmir’s status weakened the threads of goodwill, but Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman outright declining to entertain a visiting delegation led by Army Chief Qamar Bajwa proved to be the final nail in the coffin.

The formal threads will likely never snap, but Saudi Arabia has made it clear that its strategic focus has shifted, aligning with its economic interests.

Turkey, on the other hand, condemned and opposed India on multiple occasions in different fora from the time it brought out its new Citizenship Amendment Act to what it deemed its “anti-Muslim” actions in Kashmir and in the Delhi agitations, labeling the deaths following the latter as “massacres” of Muslims.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s liberal economics, trade willingness, and business deals have enabled him to have his diplomatic way everywhere but with Turkey and Malaysia, who have challenged India’s uncontested rise to diplomatic supremacy and unanimous international favor. 

The inclination of the Pakistani people toward Turkey isn’t without historical precedent. In 1909, an anti-British popular uprising called the “Khilafat Movement” partially united the Muslims in undivided India to rally against the British Raj. This agitation was motivated by the humiliation Turkey had to face at the end of the First World War at the hands of Britain and the Allied nations.

It was this recognition as the ruler of the Ottoman Empire as the Khalifa of Muslims worldwide that was largely responsible for enabling the Muslims of India to identify with the cause of Indian independence and join the freedom struggle, having previously been alienated out of fear of unbridled Hindu majoritarianism in the event of the British departure.

Until then, Muslims had remained largely aloof to organized protests and mass mobilizations, apprehensive of domination by the numerically superior Hindus in wake of the revocation of the colonial rule.

Although Turkey is still the most secular and progressive of the Islamic-majority countries in mainland Asia, things are quickly changing. Religious conservatism is rising and progressive reforms are slowly being rolled back.

While Turkey remains one of the socially most advanced nations in the Middle East, democracy is being nibbled at with arbitrary restrictions on exercise of freedoms by women, the press, and free thinkers. Turkey is decades ahead of Saudi Arabia in terms of its social independence and gender equality but as the latter, motivated by globalism, is slowly shedding off its non-core hard lines, such as permitting women to drive, the former is inching at a similar pace, in the opposite direction.

Although the rate of Turkey’s march toward Islamic fundamentals isn’t alarming, its determination, consistency, and surety certainly are. This inclination toward soft Islamism and moderate regression is the potential thread uniting Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia.

Moreover, the majority of Turkey’s population subscribes to the Hanifi school of Islamic thought, as does Pakistan’s, strengthening the cultural and ideological resonance, which never materialized in interactions with the Wahhabi-inclined Saudi Arabia.

There are some seemingly paradoxical observations here. Saudi Arabia has destroyed a lot of its mosques and Islamic sites and continues to do so, while Turkey has worked to restore those in its territory. Wahhabism, the state-sponsored Sunni faith, deems attachment of reverence and devotion to sites of historic-religious significance as idolatrous leanings that ultimately lead to Islam’s single greatest sin, shirk, worship of any entity other than Allah.

Pakistan is a place where, notwithstanding explicit acknowledgement, deceased saints and mystics are venerated with offerings, paeans and prayers, in a way that reflects the syncretic Hindu-Muslim history of the places. Alienation borne out of Wahhabi condescension toward those who partake in such practices, which it considers grossly impious, is thus natural.

Yet another factor is how Erdogan seems more accessible as a person and leader, glorifying and romanticizing his country instead of himself, while the Saudi sheikhs have a cult of their grandiose, opulent personality, which people of a country with an average income of about US$500 a day cannot well relate with.

Pakistan has a new inspiration in the form of Turkey, and it may also seek solace in the fact that many of the invaders it named elements of its arsenal after, although themselves hailing from Central and West-Central Asia, had Turkic origins.

Pitamber Kaushik is a journalist, columnist, writer, independent researcher, haiku poet, and verbal ability trainer. His writings have appeared in more than 400 publications and outlets across 70+ countries, amounting to over 700 published pieces. He is currently based out of Xavier School of Management (XLRI Jamshedpur).