By Nick Danforth
Over the past three months, a Turkish film entitled Conquest 1453 has broken box office records with its full-blooded celebration of the Ottoman capture of Constantinople. High-tech CGI, lavish costumes, and elaborate battle scenes give the Byzantine Empire's last days the epic sweep they deserve. Even the marketing campaign draws on the rivalry with the West, with its promotional material bragging that Conquest 1453 had a larger budget than the Ridley Scott/Orlando Bloom crusader flick, Kingdom of Heaven—and used twice (twice!) as many replica siege towers. With magnanimous Ottoman Sultans pitted against enraged priests threatening to drown the godless Turks in their own blood, this movie highlights everything that is ugly about religiously driven, anti-Western nationalism in Turkey.
So at a time when the West is counting on Turkish cooperation to solve particularly thorny policy problems in Syria and Iran, why doesn't the success of a movie like this rattle Western hopes? The answer lies in Turkey’s proud tradition of mixing over-the-top nationalism and sensible foreign policy.
The country's first big-budget movie about the conquest of Istanbul came out in 1952, the year Turkey joined NATO. Unknowingly, visitors to Istanbul have probably passed the tomb of the Sofu Baba, an Ottoman warrior whose spirit—according to legend—visited Turkish soldiers fighting alongside Americans in the Korean War. Later, in the 70s, the same popular actor who won minor notoriety for his role in the famously bad Turkish Star Wars, also made his own equally over the top conquest-of-Istanbul movie. It ends with him pulling an arrow out of his chest, throwing it into the eye of a Byzantine general and crying "this is for Muslims everywhere."
In evaluating the contemporary implications of Conquest 1453 and other intensely nationalistic movies alike, what stands out is how quickly their political meaning can shift in accordance with regional developments.
During the Cold War, Turks frequently explained to their American allies that when they cursed infidels, they were not referring to Americans, who were “good Christians,” but rather the Soviets, who—as “godless Communists”—were the real nonbelievers.
The current demonization of Israel offers another example of the way a country's role in Turkey's national narrative can change. During the '90s, the ideological foundation of Turkey's alliance with Israel was never just about secularism. It also reflected a shared belief that the threat of terrorism was an existential one that had to be crushed by force before addressing liberal concerns about democratic values. In this era, Israel was portrayed as a supporter of Turkey in the face of Western humanitarians, whose talk of minority rights revealed them to be in league with violent Kurdish separatists.
Turkey's increasingly liberal approach to the Kurdish issue has been accompanied by rising criticism and more hateful rhetoric of Israel's anti-terror policies. The 2006 film Valley of the Wolves—the last big-budget Turkish film to make headlines in the U.S. for its anti-Western excesses—featured a doctor surgically removing the hearts from his Muslim victims and sending them to Tel Aviv.
In respect to Syria, the Assad regime's recent transition from Turkey’s friend to foe has been particularly dramatic. For years, U.S. critics pointed to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party's reconciliation with Syria as evidence of its Islamically-driven foreign policy. Now, as Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan steps up his heated criticism of Assad, there are suspicions that his religious background has led him to sympathize with the Sunni, who make up most of the opposition to Assad's Alawite regime in Damascus.
Beyond religion, there is likely a degree of personal pique in Erdogan's anger directed towards both Israel and Syria. In 2008, Erdogan felt betrayed by the Israeli government when they attacked Gaza in the midst of concluding a Syrian-Israeli peace deal. Today, it appears that Erdogan feels that the Syrian regime’s brutality—after his government went out on a diplomatic limb to embrace Assad as a reformer and help end Syria's isolation— is a slap in the face. Along with religion and personality, a certain patriotic self-righteousness of the sort promoted by films like Conquest 1453, has perhaps played a role in heightening Turkey's justifiable sense of outrage at Assad's atrocities.
However, in deciding how aggressively to confront the Syrian regime, Turkish leaders—like their American counterparts—are well aware that while triumphalist nationalism makes for a satisfying cinematic experience, it can also make for messy foreign interventions.
Nick Danforth is a doctoral student in history at Georgetown University.
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