The phenomenon of Dirilis: Ertugrul has caused a stir in the country for the past few months. Many among the entertainment industry, academia and activists have raised objections about showing a Turkish drama on state television, claiming it threatens Pakistani identity. This debate is indicative of a deeper identity crisis in the country. The show is produced by the Turkish state and one can’t deny the political message behind the show. But what does the show represent for Pakistani audience? Is the immense criticism directed towards the show justified?

For the common Pakistani viewer, the Turkish series represents a stark departure from Western propagandistic portrayals of Muslims and the now highly saffronised Bollywood. It’s also a move away from Arabisation of popular culture and narratives since the Zia era. In the vacuum created by a virtually defunct local film industry, Ertugrul has become the perfect hero for the public whose values they feel they can relate to.

Those criticising the series as a dangerous influence on the masses are blowing the idea out of proportion. The underlying assumption is that the masses are a passive audience and will be swayed by anything on television. A lot of Pakistanis could already access the show on Netflix, but not the majority — so why is there an outcry now?

Islamophobic portrayals of Muslims in international media have become so entrenched in minds that it has affected the way Muslims view themselves. The polarisation around Ertugrul in Pakistan is a testament to that. Many find it difficult to process a positive depiction of a male Muslim protagonist who is noble and kind. The show also features the character of an Islamic scholar, Ibn Arabi. Owing to our education system, few are as well versed in Eastern philosophy as they might be in Western philosophical tradition. If anything, the show invokes curiosity in viewers’ minds regarding an aspect of history little known to them i.e. non-Western scholarship.

A seasoned academic asserted that the violence in the series would inspire an IS-like extremist mindset. These ideas reflect the deeply internalised colonial mindset of our scholars who evaluate everything using a West-centric lens. There is a plethora of content on Netflix that is full of graphic violence. No one has to justify why they follow such series and it represents harmless entertainment. But here the content becomes problematic. Is it that hard to digest that people may be watching the series as it’s a refreshing departure from usual portrayals on local television?

There is a solid connection between US politics, Hollywood movies and TV shows as well. Western media does not just shape opinion in the US but globally too. Their media has played a crucial role in justifying foreign policy decisions to rally public opinion since the War on Terror. Shows like Homeland glorify American characters and show non-American characters as devoid of a moral compass. Like many American films and shows, remorse is glorified and is enough to make up for the loss of innocent lives, destruction of cities, and lack of respect for other countries’ sovereignty.

That said, all art should be approached with a critical mind. Unless exposed to an alternative view or representation, it’s impossible to develop an opinion, and it should be left to the audiences to make what they want of the content they consume. Negative stereotyping takes a long time to wither away. The onus lies on Muslim communities to counter negative propaganda with their own stories, as no one can tell them like they can. The question is not about whether Muslim characters should be glorified or vilified in the international arena; they just need to be humanised.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 6th, 2020.

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