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‘Diriliş: Ertuğrul’ — the normalisation of violence and celebration of martyrdom


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Why is it perfectly acceptable to expose children, and the public in general, to television shows depicting militarism, violence, war and cruelty, but you cannot show two people kissing, or anyone ‘using the lord’s name in vain’?

Would you want your children to see you and your partner share a kiss and a romantic embrace? Or would you hide that from your children, but show them film and other displays of militarism, violence, cruelty and brutality? These are actually serious questions; think about it… 

Any way, several years ago in a place called El Prado in Barranquilla, Colombia, I had a slightly heated conversation with a woman, the mother of three girls aged 10, 12 and 17. A few months after our discussion she was going to emigrate to the US. When I visited her home some time after we met — at an art exhibition or something — she warned me not to use expletives in the presence of her children. I agreed. It’s sometimes difficult, not to say the F-word, but I could deal with it. As someone in a different context told me a couple of years ago: “My house, my rules.” 

The conversation over dinner that evening in Barranquilla was about the family pride in the country’s military parade, and the general display of military hardware to celebrate the country’s independence. I was amazed, and said so, that the woman allowed her children to wave little Colombian flags and celebrate the passing parade of heavily armed soldiers and military hardware, but she did not want them to hear the F-word. 

Fast-forward to a few years later. We’re now in the late 1990s, I watched a few documentaries on the way prison life and violence is fetishised on television. The documentaries showed explicit scenes of brutal violence and bloodshed, even murder, but throughout the series expletives or expressions like “Jesus f*****g Christ” were bleeped out. In an academic seminar or discussion, I tried to get a handle on why it was perfectly acceptable to expose children, and the public in general, to militarism, violence, war and cruelty, but you cannot show two people of the same sex kissing, and bleep out expletives or “using the lord’s name in vain”.  

Diriliş: Ertuğrul and Normalising Violence 

It’s 2021. I pick up, in a couple of places on the Cape Flats, some of the excitement of a television series, Diriliş: Ertuğrul (Resurrection: Ertugrul). The series has been a global hit, receiving rave reviews around the world — quite literally. So I watch a few episodes, and do some catching up on the show.

While the banning of the show in some Muslim countries is an entirely separate issue, my biggest concern was the way in which (first) violence, especially public beheadings and the flogging of women, also in public, were shown, but (second) married couples rarely, if at all, were shown sharing a tender kiss or in embrace while in bed. Let’s be clear, I am not suggesting that a film is incomplete without romantic scenes. 

The argument put forward, however, is that Diriliş: Ertuğrul seeks to show Islam, and aspects of Turkish early history in a positive light, while making sure that the show is safe for children and presumably conservative religious people who believe that men and women should not be seen in public displays of affection.

In other words, it’s okay to expose viewers to quite horrific scenes of violence — notably public beheadings — but not scenes of intimacy between married couples. The public beheadings have the effect of normalising cruelty and violence. 

In Pakistan, arguably not the most open society, the series was described as “a timely and relevant reminder for the disunited Muslim world that is facing similar challenges of fighting corruption, injustice and inequality. Its core message is to revisit and rethink Muslims’ glorious past that originated from fundamental principles of Islam, a religion that today is facing rampant Islamophobia, while Muslims are entangled in political turmoil, mutual confrontations, denials and disarray. 

“Many Pakistani viewers believe that the series has enhanced their confidence and trust in rebuilding a truly Islamic society that caters to its inhabitants equitably. Ertuğrul has brought back the imaginary idea of establishing a society that endorses justice and equality and fights against oppression, demerit and corruption.” 

That all sounds rather nice, but not all “fights against oppression, demerit and corruption” require depictions of public violence, and romanticising of warriors and bloody battles with real or imaginary enemies. This is ultimately the conclusion that I reached with the otherwise very well made, technically, and well directed series. 

Killing unbelievers is okay 

Another cause for concern is the glorification of martyrdom and the willingness to spread death and reproduce blood narratives marked by undemocratic regimes as a means for building collective identities. It also promotes a necropolitics. The main objectives of this necropolitics is to mould a sense of solidarity and whip up emotions to “preserve” what is deemed sacred.

Martyrdom, so proudly embraced in Diriliş: Ertuğrul becomes a powerful tool of political action and a dangerous weapon in political struggles, and for maintaining an insider-outsider sensibility among kith and kin. One of the main characters in Diriliş: Ertuğrul, Bamsi Beyrek, repeatedly and with great enthusiasm expresses his delight at the prospect of killing infidels. 

In a trenchant critique of the series, Dangerous delusions — Ertugrul mania, the Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy reaches the conclusion (much of which seems reasonable) that Diriliş: Ertuğrul “is frankly propagandistic and ideologically motivated. It has been manufactured for a purpose. But what purpose? Faked history fuels revivalist dreams, creates false hopes, & suggests the way forward is through the sword. 

“If it seeks to project Islam as a religion of peace and to counter Islamophobia, then the very opposite is achieved. The first scene of the first episode begins with sword-making and sword-sharpening in the background of nomadic tents. The tribe’s adversaries are Christians and Byzantines whose bloodied bodies lie scattered here and there after every fight. The hero, Ertugrul Ghazi, not only beheads several Knight Templars, but also former associates from his tribe, such as Kurdoglu Bey, who he suspects of disloyalty,” Hoodbhoy said. 

So as Diriliş: Ertuğrul mania sweeps through communities on the Cape Flats (and everywhere from Latin America to Southeast Asia) it stands to overthrow or stall efforts at stopping Islamophobia. The crass display of violence, and the justice meted out to non-believers defeats the object.  

That the series is “sanitised” — there are little to no scenes of intimacy in a series that extends about five years — does little to humanise the characters. We come to expect them to excel as murderers, martyrs and great warriors, but not mothers and fathers in loving embrace. God forbid the use of an F-word. 

All of this notwithstanding, and still ignoring that the show has been banned in some countries, Diriliş: Ertuğrul is very well made, sets are well dressed, the cinematography is good and the direction verges on greatness. Set in the 13th century, it is a historical drama loosely based on the life of Ertuğrul Ghazi, the father of Sultan Osman, who founded the Ottoman Empire. 

Having said all that, while watching most of the series I couldn’t help thinking about my old friend in Colombia, who would celebrate her country’s military, but refused to let her children hear any cuss words, or how the National Geographic series on ganglands and prison gangs would present the most brutal violence on screen while bleeping out cusswords or “using the lord’s name in vain”. It’s a strange world we live in. DM

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  • Coen Gous says:

    Having watched this series, Dirilis Ertugral, on Netflix, as a Christian and not a Muslim, I whole heartedly agree with your sentiments Ismail. I watched this show, enjoyed it, learned a lot about Muslims, and also its early history, but viewed it obviously as a show of entertainment, and not as a series of facts. But the points you made is spot on!

  • Lionel Snell says:

    A good point. The article reminds me of a street art performance I witnessed in the 70s by a group called Lumiere and Son, during which a television set was smashed. Letters to the local paper complained about this “public show of violence”. I wrote that I agreed that it was shocking but, if they had turned on the television instead of smashing it, we would have been subjected to a lot more extreme violence.

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