Turkey Uses ‘Soft Culture’ to Send Messages to Egypt, Saudi Arabia

Turkey is sending new political messages to Egypt and Saudi Arabia through its so-called “soft cultural arm” by confirming the production of a new movie about Sultan Selim I (Yavuz Selim), the ninth sultan of the Ottoman Empire who was considered one of the harshest Ottoman rulers of that time.

Under the rule of Sultan Selim I, the Ottoman Empire expanded substantially to include Egypt and the Hijaz.

Movie producer Khaled Arabagi told Turkey’s Anadolu news agency that work is underway to make the film which will be released in 2023.

Arabagi added that “there are many cinematic and television works that dealt with the life of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, and Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, while there are only few works on the life of Sultan Selim I, even though he was one of the sultans who changed the course of history for the Ottoman Empire despite the short period of his reign.”

The timing of the movie’s production raises questions about Turkey’s intentions and potential efforts to provoke the ire of two powerful countries in the region, namely Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The two Arab countries, observers say, have many unresolved issues with Turkey, which has grown more hostile under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In the 16th century, Sultan Selim I captured the Levant and invaded Egypt, turning it into an Ottoman state after the overthrow of the Mamluks’ rule there. Sultan Selim I also deposed the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutawakkil in whose name the Mamluks ruled. The Turkish sultan then declared himself the “Commander of the Faithful” and the “Caliph of Muslims.”

The Ottomans first ruled in Egypt as a state of the empire, then through the mandate of the Khedive appointed by the Sublime Porte (the central government of the Ottoman Empire). This went on until the collapse of Ottoman rule following the first world war and the establishment of the Egyptian Sultanate and then the Egyptian Kingdom.

Egypt’s historical narrative depicts the Ottoman invasion as a misfortune that ended Egypt’s independence and subordinated it to Istanbul. According to the Egyptians, the Ottoman rule was the origin of a backward mentality that prevailed in the country for centuries, a factor that has significantly driven Egyptian nationalism against Turkish influence in general.

Since its founding, the Muslim Brotherhood has argued that its goal is to restore the caliphate to the lands of Islam and that Egypt is at the heart of this goal. However, Egypt as a civil state believes that the Muslim Brotherhood’s project is a threat to its existence as an independent state. Egypt also sees Turkish pressure on its government to sanction the Islamist movement and adopt its project as part of a plan to revive the Ottoman Empire.

As the movie on Sultan Selim I will likely irk those in Egypt, it is expected to stir significant anger in Saudi Arabia, reminding Saudis of the Ottoman occupation of the Hijaz, and Sultan Selim I’s self-proclamation as the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.”

The Ottoman sultans held on to the titles of Caliphs and commanders of the faithful, despite jurisprudence principles that stipulate only Arabs can assume the caliphate or the emirate, with some Islamic scholars insisting that the ruler should be a Quraishi (a descendent of the Arab tribe that historically inhabited and controlled Mecca and its Ka’aba).

Since the reign of the late King Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Saudi monarch has held the title of the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” referring to Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque.

Over the past two decades, Turkey has challenged Saudi Arabia over representation of the Islamic world given that hundreds of millions of Muslims see the kingdom as their religious reference. At the same time, Turkey is trying to invest in all political, economic and religious fields to restore its role as the leader of the Sunni Islamic world.

In recent years, Turkey has flooded the market with television productions and series consisting of hundreds of episodes that focus on the glories of Ottoman sultans. Some Arab satellite channels even received dubbed copies and broadcast them before becoming aware of the danger they pose to Arab viewers.

Turkey considers television production to be an essential pillar of its soft diplomacy, and the Turkish president has frequently visited film sites of historical series and praised efforts to revive Ottoman glory.

Since rising to power, Erdogan has worked to consolidate ​​his country’s leadership of the Islamic project by gaining the loyalty of many Islamists, including leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood Movement. Today, the Muslim Brothers across the region consider the Turkish president and his regime to be the embodiment of their regional project.

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