Ertuğrul – Solace In Fictional Glory

How far and deep into the past can a people go, be it history or mythology popularly perceived as history, to rejuvenate their present that is in turmoil and one that portends a bleak immediate future? Answer to this complex question may be found in the heady mix of piety and populism dished out with political support to people locked-in by Coronavirus pandemic.

After the Indian experience of Ramayan and Mahabharat television serials, it is time to see Pakistanis glued to their television sets watching an epic-size Turkish series about 13th century Muslim renaissance. Begun in the holy Ramazan month, it continues to win audiences. 

Dubbed Muslim Game of Throne, Dirilis (meaning Resurrection): Ertugrul has established viewership records with 240 million people watching it on YouTube alone. Said to be the new avatar of a 2002 film on the same subject that was an entry at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in 2002, this 2014 series is a milestone in Turkey’s entertainment world. After five successful seasons, Director Mehmet Bozdag is planning a sequel.

Its main protagonist is Osman I who rallied squabbling tribes of Oghuz Turks, won territories and paved the way for his son to establish the Ottoman Empire. It stretched to parts of Europe, Asia and North Africa and remains an enduring phase of Muslim political, military and cultural supremacy.

The end of this empire, the Caliphate, a century back post-First World War has not impacted its lure. A modern secular state that Kamal Ataturk then created stands rejected by the new political leadership and Turkey continues to reclaim its past glory.

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The Turkish prowess, past and present, attracts Muslims in general, but especially in Pakistan as it explores an identity away from a hostile India. In that quest, it is wary of a Shia Iran and an iffy Afghanistan, although Ghazanvi, Ghori and Abdali are used to remind what remains of India of the past conquests.  

“At its heart, what Ertugrul represents in this scenario is a battle for the soul of the Islamic narrative and for Pakistan’s own self-image,” Imran Khan, a Doha-based journalist writes for Al Jazeera.

He queries: “Does the country have a unique Muslim identity forged via Muslim India, or is it part of the wider history of the Muslim world?”  He concludes: “The answer to that is what informs its current self-image.”

But it is not so easy and simple. Pakistan’s largest benefactor – spiritually (being the home to Islam’s highest shrines), in terms of political influence and even financially – is Saudi Arabia. Born in the aftermath of the end of the Caliphate, it has no reason to take a secondary position to Turkey in Pakistan.

Ahmer Naqvi, a freelance cultural writer, sees Ertugrul as part of a wider agenda. “There is definitely an element of the Pakistani state pushing a certain idea of Islamic history, that focuses on conquest and expansionism and that has a long history of being used as propaganda,” he writes.

“This push has come at the expense of even acknowledging the history of what is now settled Pakistan. So, you would know about Muslim general Salahuddin but not about Chanakya, who lived in settled (present day) Pakistan, so yes, there is valid concern that the state is pushing a wider history and not its own,” Naqvi says.

Naqvi’s viewpoint is debatable, but there is no escaping Prime Minister Imran Khan’s push for Ertugrul. He watches it regularly and has even promoted it in an interview for its “Islamic values”. He thinks they are in contrast to the ‘vulgarity’ that Hollywood and Bollywood dish out to the entertainment-starved Pakistanis.  

With such popularity, political flutter is but natural. Parallels are being drawn in domestic arena. Supporters of the prime minister see in him qualities of Ertugrul – the larger-than life saviour/conquorer. Not to be left behind, the opposition Pakistan Muslim League sees such virtues in Maryam Nawaz Sharif, the imprisoned daughter and political heir of Pakistan’s three-time premier. The young and handsome Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, it seems, is yet to make the grade.         

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The Pakistani lure of a relatively more prosperous Turkey is immense. Former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, posted there as a soldier, used to be a great Turkey fan. But his being seen with his pet dog in the initial phase of his rule caused anger. Dog is a no-no for Pakistan’s Muslims.

This is only one of the reservations Pakistanis nurse about Turkish entertainment fare, going by reports of how Ertugrul is being received. The more serious one, perhaps, is the way women consorts of mighty Turkish characters live in real lives. Many viewers explore the social media for ‘more’.  The veil-less Instagram images of these actors put them off. They have taken to criticising and even counselling the female players, particularly the lead character, Esra Bilgic, on how they should dress and behave in public. It should be befitting a Muslim woman, they insist.

Pakistani feminist writer Aimun Faisal says: “If you are a Pakistani man, here’s why this Turkish woman has you simultaneously exasperated and enchanted.” She writes: “Ever spurred on by their commitment to religiosity and piety, Muslim men from Pakistan who had looked up a Turkish actress on a photo and video sharing platform, felt it their spiritual duty to educate her, or advice her, or berate her – depending on their self-confidence – on the ethics of being a pious Muslim woman.”

Faisal sees this as an act born out of misogyny. To the Pakistanis, a Turkish woman, almost-Westernized, “is desirable, but not achievable” unlike their brown-skinned compatriot who can be dumped-down into domestic social/moral milieu, but then, she becomes less ‘desirable’.

Truth be told, such conflicts have also bedevilled Indian audiences – at least they did in the past. Many were angry with Anita Guha, last century’s actor who usually played mythological characters and was Sita in Sampoorna Ramayan (1961) because she dressed and drank like any Bollywood socialite. Saira Bano and Sharmila Tagore, wives to famous, liberal Muslims, continued to act in films long after marriage, to the chagrin of their traditional audiences/admirers. They would volunteer to “protect the honour” of the bhabhi (sister-in-law) by destroying film posters depicting them fashionably clad.

Sadly, that body-shaming is now becoming rampant on the social media, also some mainstream one, as the conservatives who seek to dictate dress code for women get stronger.

Come to think of it, is it the return of “Victorian values” in the 21st century? Then, blame the British! Faisal approvingly quotes a study by Frantz Fanon and Partha Chatterjee about how “the encounter of men of colour with colonialism impacted gender ties in the colony.”

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Maulana Aziz’s Siege 2.0 of Lal Masjid

Maulana Abdul Aziz, better known as ‘Maulana Burqa’ for escaping arrest in 2007, being disguised as a woman, does it again. Despite being banned by the government from entering the premises of Islamabad mosque, also known as ‘Lal Masjid‘ for the colour of its walls, and being considered by a wide majority little more than a terrorist, the Maulana does it again and of course wins because, instead of being jailed, he has been allotted by the public administration 20 kanals of public land to build a new Jamia Hafsa, the female madrasa adjacent to the mosque.

The dispute between the Islamabad Public Administration and the Lal Masjid has been going on for a couple of years, but whoever thinks it is only a land dispute would be totally wrong.

The mosque, and the madrasas linked to it, were managed until 2007 by two maulanas: Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi. The two brothers were actually two former government officials, who were fired for illegally possessing firearms, being open supporters of the Taliban, of the Islamic strict observance law, and detractors of the then president Musharraf and his foreign policy.

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At that time, they had kept the government in check for months, threatening to send their followers to commit suicide attacks across the country. Incidentally, the government-financed and still continues to finance the mosque with public money.

The female madrasa of Lal Masjid is called Jamia Hafsa and was managed by Abdul Aziz’s wife. Its girls, about two thousand black maidens dressed and armed with sticks and Kalashnikovs, had at the time kept the police in check to prevent the demolition of an old city mosque, and had particularly distinguished themselves in typically female activities such as trying to shut down shops selling movies and music destroying CDs, tapes and VHS, beating men and women who wore western clothes and even the unfortunate drivers, who insisted on driving their cars in person.

In 2007, Musharraf commanded an anti-terrorism operation against the mosque, besieged for days by the Army. The operation costed the lives of an unknown number of people, marked one of the darkest pages of the former General’s presidency and is still considered one of the main reasons for his fall.

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Abdul Aziz, who escaped wearing a burqa and then arrested, was released in 2009. Since then he is free, free to continue his ‘religious activities’ in Islamabad and surrounding areas. Free to support and train jihadi, propagate sectarian and racial hatred. An open supporter of IS, he is the only one who has refused to publicly condemn the Peshawar massacre in which 130 children were killed.

This time, claiming that the present government is as bad as the Musharraf’s one, he did it again. Using female students once more to occupy the place. The Army besieged the location but apparently after Burqa obtained to discuss the issue with prominent people in the public administration, the girls started to leave while he ‘promised’ to leave by tomorrow.

A success for Islamabad authorities? Not really. Being in fact blackmailed by terrorists and their supporters is a new normal in the country. A few days before Maulana Aziz entered the Lal Masjid. In fact, the former TTP spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan had escaped from the safe house where the Army and ISI were keeping him with his wife and children.

From Turkey, where apparently he escaped, Ehsan released a statement in which he talks of a deal struck with the Army and blames the authorities because they did not keep their word: the promised money had not arrived, so he simply left. Most probably with the connivance of the same people who were supposed to guard him.

The past week has seen the country open its doors for Ehsanullah, allowing the Taliban to demonstrate for freedom of Kashmir in the streets, having a deal with a terrorist for land reasons. At the same time, the Army has also been cracking down on peaceful demonstrators who demand their constitutional rights and PTM members being arrested for no reason.

The Loralai location in Balochistan, where PTM was to commemorate the killing of the poet Arman Loni by the Army, has been flooded with water, internet been blocked and PTM members have been stopped from entering the region.

With no results, because thousands of people joined the demonstrations in Loralai and Karachi. But showing again the real face of Imran Khan’s ‘Naya’ Pakistan: ordinary citizens and their demands are worth less than nothing, while terrorists are allowed money, freedom and bargaining power.

(The views expressed in this column are strictly those of the author)

Pulwama: Pre-emptive strike, counter-strike and after

By Amitabh Mathur

Tension between India and Pakistan, following the Pulwama terror attack on February 14 and its aftermath, seems to be subsiding. Pakistan has begun some sort of crackdown on terrorist organisations; banning some and arresting a few elements related to the Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) leader Masood Azhar.

Time will tell whether what is being done is cosmetic and tactical, as on earlier occasions, or is it because of international pressure and Pakistan’s precarious economic situation has led to more lasting action.

Some basic questions surrounding the turn of events that triggered the face-off between the two neighbours have however got lost in the political squabble over electoral gain. To recap, Adil Ahmad Dar, an unemployed indoctrinated Kashmiri youth, posted a video of communal rant and deadly intent. On February 14 he carried out his threat by ramming his explosive-laden vehicle into a convoy of the CRPF Jawans near Pulwama- killing over 40.

The JeM, a proscribed terrorist organisation that operates with impunity, if not also immunity from Pakistan, claims responsibility for the carnage. Given the well-known ties between Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and JeM, the understandable assumption is that Rawalpindi has been complicit in the dastardly attack and Islamabad answerable for what has been conceived, planned and executed by Pakistan-based handlers of Dar.

That India would retaliate to this grave provocation, so close to the Lok Sabha polls, was inevitable. Having suffered Mumbai in 2008 without anything more than appeals to the international community no government now could merely beat its chest and wring its hands in helplessness- certainly not the one led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and advised by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.

In a muscular message on February 26, Indian Air Force went deep into Pakistan, successfully bombed a JeM training camp in Balakot and returned safely.

Pakistan Army and Prime Minister Imran Khan too could not take the Indian action lying down. They simply could not afford a repeat of the Operation Geronimo, which took out Osama bin Laden from Abbottabad in Pakistan.

Islamabad responded, albeit feebly, on February 27 when its Air Force crept into Indian airspace and when challenged by air defence and interceptors, hurriedly dropped bombs in stray isolated areas before trying to return to safety.

In the ensuing dog fight, though a Pakistan aircraft was downed, dynamics of unfolding events changed as India lost a MIG 27 and its pilot was captured by Pakistan. Imperatives for New Delhi altered to bring the pilot back as the narrative of a successful muscular message to Pakistan would not have washed with images of the brave young Wing Commander in enemy hands.

This provided the international community with an opportunity to put pressure on Pakistan and defuse the rising tensions. Realising his limited options, Imran Khan quickly made the best of a difficult situation. Appearing magnanimous and conciliatory, he ordered unconditional release of the pilot, returning him on March 1 in civilian clothes quickly stitched by some Pindi tailor.

Pakistan has pleaded, with some support from China, that it has been implicated in the suicide bombing prematurely. Its apologists point to the country’s impoverished state which has led Khan to go around with a begging bowl to potential benefactors.

They argue such a provocation risking war would be most untimely and so Indian accusations are implausible. This has found no takers. The entire operation of spotting a disgruntled Kashmiri, targeting, cultivating, motivating, training him and arranging the explosives and vehicle is beyond the capability of indigenous militants.

It has the imprint of Pakistan’s spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence. Pressured by Indian security forces, especially in south Kashmir, sagging morale of the militants needed boosting. Confident of China’s support and smug over Washington’s desperation for Pakistan’s help to exit Afghanistan with its face intact, Rawalpindi thought it could get away with cheekiness once again. So when frequent convoys presented opportunity, the green signal would have been given.

Fall out of this episode has not been to Pakistan’s advantage. Its nuclear bluff has been called. It did not receive the kind of support it expected from China which asked it to cool things down.

The US accepted India’s right to defence implying Pakistan was the aggressor. It realised prolonging the standoff was not to its advantage. Yet, by retaliating to the Indian strike on Balakot, downing and taking an Indian pilot prisoner, Pakistan has been able to claim it stood up to India. It has once again brought the world’s focus on Kashmir. How much it will succumb to international pressure to crack down on Islamic terror groups that target India remains to be seen.

For India too it has been a mixed bag. Measures announced to punish Pakistan such as cancellation of the MFN status and withholding water in excess of the Indus Treaty are meaningless. Export of a mere $400 million is not about to cripple the security apparatus in Pakistan. It will only hurt businessmen who have a vested interest in trade with India. Nor does India have the infrastructure to store excess water or divert it to its arid areas.

All claims of isolating Pakistan too should be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt. While there was no condemnation of India’s foray into Pakistan and bombing the JEM camp, also some acknowledgement of its right to self-defence and pressure on Islamabad to cool down, no country is about to disturb normal relations with Pakistan- certainly not China, US or Saudi Arabia, who all have a vested interest in stable Pakistan. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation may have overruled Pakistan’s objections in inviting Sushma Swaraj but that did not prevent it from crediting Imran for diffusing the faceoff and condemning “Indian terrorism” in Kashmir!

The important point is India has discarded its policy hitherto of appealing to the world and seeking the high moral ground whenever provoked by Pakistan. It has announced that it will take care of its own security and deal with its recalcitrant neighbour in the manner it chooses.

This will make some tanzeems fear reprisal the next time they indulge in trans-border terror. Yet, one strike across the border may placate domestic public opinion but it is unlikely to deter Pakistan and Islamic terror outfits operating from there. Brokers of the world order will have to be convinced India will not hesitate to raise the ante. Only that will impel them to pressure Pakistan into rolling the terror network down.

Lastly, there needs to be an acknowledgement that Pakistan is only taking advantage of our own cleavages in the Valley and such incidents will recur. Adil Dar, the perpetrator of the dastardly suicide bombing, was a Kashmiri youth who was indoctrinated by radical Islam.

The Youtube video he posted is disturbingly communal and reference to Ghazwa-e-Hind is particularly frightening. As noted by the keen observer Arshad Alam, with rampant unemployment in the valley, the alienated youth is caught between a coercive security apparatus on one hand and a very conservative interpretation of Islam on the other.

This leaves him very little space to indulge in any creative pursuit of his choice. There is disaster looming if he is not engaged. Hopefully, Pakistan, chastened if only temporarily, will provide the opportunity to do so which policymakers will not miss.