Israel’s Fauda vs Turkey’s Ertugrul: In India, the Battle Between Two Hit TV Series Is More Than a Culture War

1182      19 July 2020

Boosted by binge viewing during India’s coronavirus lockdown, two international TV series have won fanatic fans. Behind the small screen is a geopolitical drama starring Modi and Erdogan, Hindu nationalists and minority Muslims, with supporting roles for Pakistan, Kashmir and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Israel's Fauda and Turkey's Ertugrul are locked in a political-culture war on television screens across India
Israel’s Fauda and Turkey’s Ertugrul are locked in a political-culture war on television screens across IndiaCredit: Illustration
When Narendra Modi won a landslide general election in 2014, it heralded not only the victory of a new style of populism in India. It was also a watershed moment confirming India’s sharp turn to the right.

That nationalist populism has birthed exclusionary language in politics and and the popular media towards India’s Muslims, and the imposition of centralized control (justified by strategic and security concerns) over its one Muslim-majority state, Kashmir, and a surge in interest in ties with Israel, perceived as a model state for its opposition to Islamist terrorism.

In response, there has been a conscious push by parts of the Muslim world to extend soft power influence over India’s Muslim communities, part of a wider strategy of building international prestige for strategic gain.

The lastest platform to host this political-culture war with its geopolitical resonances is the small screen, with two international TV hit series, one from Israel and the other from Turkey, vying for popular clout and attention. This is the story of Fauda versus Ertugrul.

A fundamental aspect of India’s new right-wing zeitgeist has been an assertive national security posture. This has been expressed more as populist rhetoric against Pakistan and terrorism rather than a robust and considered security doctrine. That assertive posture, valorizing the use of force, migrated quickly and easily through India’s thriving social media scene, which now hosts a noisy right-wing nationalist online ecosystem, where it acts as a fast-response team to defend Modi and attack his critics.
That militarized nationalism was soon picked up by India’s huge Bollywood movie industry, which launched a series of spy-thrillers and hyper-nationalistic historical fiction, turning hitherto marginalized characters from Indian history and mythology into superhuman patriots.
The industry also brought the mythmaking right up to date, with smash hits based on recent military confrontations with Pakistan. “Uri Surgical Strikes” was released in 2016 and there are two films in production based on the 2019 Balakot air-strikes – movies pumping with jingoistic adrenalin.The producers of Balakot have even trailed their work as “A story that celebrates the accomplishments of The Indian Air Force.”

Fauda, the series about an Israeli undercover unit that hunts down Palestinian terrorists, is immensely popular among right-wing Indians. Generally, Indians are not comfortable watching programs with subtitles, but when it comes to Fauda, whose actors talk in Hebrew and Arabic, they are glued to the screen.

No doubt the series, available on Netflix India and myriad pirate sites, is remarkable in its direction, story-lines, the depiction of human relations, and the cast; however, there is much more to its popularity in India than that. Where did the thirst for Fauda come from?
Film crew on the set of the third season of Israel's hit TV show "Fauda" in Tel Aviv, Israel. May 30, 2019
Film crew on the set of the third season of Israel’s hit TV show “Fauda” in Tel Aviv, Israel. May 30, 2019Credit: Yes

Like many cultural phenomena, Fauda’s fandom is led by early adopters who are major cultural influencers – and many of them have made a distinct pivot rightwards.

Before 2014, it was ‘uncool’ to be a right-winger in India. The media, academia, civil service and fine arts were dominated by a leftist-liberal elite. They caricatured right-wingers as politically dogmatic and culturally regressive: Hindu nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) voters, perhaps devotees of its powerful ultranationalist mother-ship, the Rashtriya Swayam Sewk Sangh (RSS), who enjoyed shakha (traditional exercises), spoke in chaste Hindi, practiced rigid vegetarianism, respected the celibate lifestyle and despised western-educated intellectuals.

But battered by six years of Modi, that left-liberal ecosystem is tottering. India has a new elite: right-wing, Hindu nationalist, upper middle-class, their self-confidence and aggressiveness towards “leftist” opponents directly correlated to their proximity to those in power.

Their Hindu nationalism, though, is far less connected to religious fundamentalism or literalism than the tenets avowed by Modi’s ideological home: In regard to issues of personal status and lifestyle, they’re positively liberal.

They hold degrees from American and European universities, some even from Israel. In stark contrast to the ultraconservative values associated with contemporary Hindutva, they back co-habitation and same-sex relationships; they have no compunctions about alcohol or marijuana.

And, crucially for Fauda, they’re staunch enemies of Islamism, don’t feel bound at all by what they see as political correctness, and they’re an English-speaking class, confident of their western education, command over the global language – and they’re big-time Netflix watchers.

For this group, Israel has obvious and compelling charms – as well as offering an enticing and imitable playbook. For supporters of the bracingly self-confident, military-friendly Modi-style India, Israel’s decades of experience countering separatist and Islamist terror make it a key role-model, and Kashmir, the key laboratory for New Delhi’s imitation efforts. With the Indian government led a no-holds-barred campaign against Islamism and jihadi terrorism, focused on Kashmir, the marriage of Delhi’s new security awareness and new-found love for Israel’s approach seemed self-evident. Fauda is their poster-child.

The Harvard-educated economist right-wing anti-Muslim firebrand, Subramanian Swamy, who sits on the BJP national executive, watched Fauda during the coronavirus lockdown in May and was so impressed that he recommended the series as “lessons for India and the costs we must pay.”

A deluge of amateur strategic experts, journalists masquerading as experts and other public figures have lectured the government to borrow Israel’s entire military playbook and copy-paste it in Kashmir. But do those actually serving in the Indian army back them up?

Indian army officers, many of whom are deployed in counter-insurgency roles in Kashmir (an obvious point of reference to Israeli series) are another significant Fauda fan-base. Do they see a wider analogy between the Kashmir and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts? An equivalence between themselves as would-be Fauda operatives fighting an increasingly Gaza-style conflict against Palestinian-style militants adept at guerilla tactics, fueled by a mix of alienation, nationalist-separatism and Islam? Does Fauda really offer operative and theoretical “lessons” for India?

Numerous commentators have queried whether there is such an analogy. One camp – from separatists to journalists and activists – relentlessly accuse India of replicating the Israeli militarized occupation model in Kashmir, and push real and imagined fears about the West Bank-style colonization of Kashmir with non-Muslim outsiders, especially since the abrogation of the state’s autonomy. They see a reinforcement of their claims in the post-2014 strengthening of Indo-Israel counter-terrorism and defense cooperation.

Despite its popularity, official India dislikes the the Israeli-Palestinian and India-Kashmir comparison, considering it a potential attack on its uncompromising opposition to any internationalization of the Kashmir issue. The security czars in Delhi consider this solely India’s internal affairs, and frown at any comparison, despite the increasing similarities between the two conflicts.

Whether the Modi administration has actually copied Israel’s playbook or not is a matter of unproven guesswork. But as much as critics see Delhi as adopting Israel’s counter-terrorism tactics, Kashmiri militants themselves have unmistakably copied Palestinian tactics. With Intifada-style protests, stone-pelting, fidayeen attacks,and now an overwhelming dominance by jihadist elements of the Kashmiri separatist movement, the resemblances between Kashmir and the West Bank/Gaza could not be more pronounced.

In a polarized India where Israel’s Fauda fuels right-wing nationalist and Muslim-skeptic fantasies, the Turkish smash hit Dirilis: Ertugrul (“Resistence: Ertugrul”) has captured the imagination of India’s Muslims, and the Muslim communities across South Asia more generally.

Described as a Turkish “Game of Thrones,” the series (which first premiered in Turkey in 2014 and runs to five series) is a sweeping historical drama set in the 13th century exploring the life, loves, adventures and many battles of Ertugrul, father of Osman I, and his path from obscurity and a small band of followers, to battling the far more powerful Mongols, Crusaders and Byzantines, to his son founding the 600-year Ottoman Empire.

In Pakistan, Ertugrul is hugely popular: Prime Minister Imran Khan pushed for it to be dubbed into Urdu and broadcast on national television and available online, and it is that Urdu language version which has travelled at maximum velocity across Pakistan to India’s Muslim community to Kashmir. The YouTube channel hosting “Erdugrul Ghazi,” as the Urdu version is called, boasts over 200 million views. 61 million people have watched Series 1 Episode 1 on that YouTube channel alone.

Just as Fauda benefitted from a binge-viewing captive audience during India’s coronavirus lockdown, so did Ertugrul. Forced to stay indoors for weeks, Indian TV viewers were offered re-runs of series dramatizing Hindu mythology such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana; they generated record-breaking television rating points – while Ertugrul became “the go-to Muslim household show to watch in India.”

A well-known, and controversial, Indian Muslim cleric declared Ertugrul haram for its immodesty, but even he admitted it was “less haram” than watching Bollywood.

In Kashmir,  the Muslim population had already lived through an extended government-imposed physical and Internet lockdown after the  abrogation of Article 370, and had found their own escapist enjoyment in downloaded versions of Ertugrul, often passed around on flash drives.

The COVID-19 lockdown gave another boost to viewing figures, with Ertugrul attaining the status of a cult classic, appealing across a broad spectrum from religious clerics, to a young more Westernized and educated class, to moderately religious householders. Kashmiri couples are even naming their newborns after Ertugrul.

If Fauda is a warning writ large for a Hindu nationalist public about the threat of Islamist terrorism, the attraction to its Muslim minority of a series which foregrounds Muslims as heroes and victors, rather than the downtrodden and “other,”are clear. And there are other reasons for the popularity of Ertugrul in Kashmir: like with Fauda, it’s a drama that reflects geopolitical dynamics.

Ertugrul is the latest in the stream of religious and cultural influences from the wider Middle East seeking a constituency in the subcontinent. The region obviously exercises a powerful hold on the Muslim imagination worldwide as the cradle of Islam, but also the source of modern-day movements such as the penetration of Saudi-style Wahhabism, or Iranian influence over the Shia community. However, Ertugrul is different in many respects.

As many Indian Muslim intellectuals have suggested, Ertugrul presents a pull and a push: the pull of the narrative, valorizing rather than demonizing Muslims, and embedding Quranic references without pathologizing them as alien or dangerous: for Indian journalist Hiba Bég, that comes as a “fresh take for literally anyone, as all you ever hear of the Islamic Surahs on TV is before a man decides to put on an explosive belt.”

The push comes from being entertainment funded and produced by Turkey’s state television station, part of Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan’s soft power outreach to the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent.

I spoke by phone with Safina Baig, a prominent politician and lawyer from Kashmir, and self-declared Ertugrul fan. She suggested that for Turkey, the series clearly has an implicit, well-planned geopolitical motive, building on what is already the significant success of Turkey’s Erdogan presenting himself as a leader-father figure for many Kashmiris.

Irshad Magray, a research analyst from Kashmir and a passionate Ertugrul watcher, told me that even relatively non-religious Muslim youth like Ertugrul because it offers a message of hope and self-confidence to a younger generation becoming skeptical, even embarrassed, about their Muslim identity, thanks to the widespread association of Islam with terrorism in Indian politics and society.

In an article on the Ertugrul phenomenon written for the most widely read English daily newspaper in Kashmir, assistant history professor Safeer Ahmad Bhat notes the protagonists’ constant refrain: “Battle belongs to us, but victory belongs to Allah.” Bhat traces this emphasis directly to modern-day Turkey: “Erdogan is attempting a careful mixture of Turkish nationalism and Islam,” going on to say it was a clear example of a “government attempt to use history for the furtherance of nationalism.”

But the message of a saga about the founding of a transnational empire is broader than Turkey’s domestic politics: a key focus of the series is that the “Muslim resurrection” (part of the series’ title itself) “is possible only through the unity of Muslim rulers,” Bhat added.

There is no doubt that Erdogan has launched a massive outreach campaign targeting Indian Muslims hrough social media, donations, scholarships, and becoming their global spokesman. In Kashmir, Erdogan is already considered a hero for taking up the cause of Islam and the Kashmiri people.

His adoption of the Indian Muslim cause, and specifically of Kashmir, does not have a narrow religious focus, which would quickly lead to sectarian friction and stymie his ambitions to be the outstanding leader of the global Muslim community, of which South Asian Muslims constitute a significant proportion. There are echoes from history too: In 1920, Indian Muslims, under Gandhi’s leadership, launched the Khilafat movement, a non-violent jihad to restore the Ottoman caliphate.

It may be too blatant to fuse the figures of Erdogan and Ertugrul (who prepared the establishment of the Ottoman empire) but the symbolism is indeed suggestive, if not effective.

Ertugrul’s message – anchoring Muslim identity in pride, honor, toughness and achievement – offers welcome symbolic pushback for a minority community in an India where right-wing Hindu nationalism is now so dominant in the media, politics, and social spaces, and in Kashmir particularly, where security forces’ lockdowns have intensified frustration and resentment against central government rule.

Just as Fauda fandom signals the shift of India’s influencers towards a more militant and exclusionary nationalism, the Ertugrul craze is is a signpost written for the alienation of many of India’s 180 million Muslims from that dominant political culture and their search for solidarity elsewhere.

In the background is a growing trend of Muslim radicalization, burgeoning Islamist-oriented groups, both non-violent and violent, leading to their  reorientation towards Turkey and the Middle East, in stark contrast to their roots and the indigenous Muslim religious traditions of the subcontinent.

Snarkier if not prejudiced voices charge that Ertugrul fuels Indian Muslims’ identity crisis by pushing the idea that they can base their self-image on borrowed victories – but that “Turks and Arabs” will never give them “space at the table.”

TRT (Turkish state television) YouTube channel homepage for the Urdu-dubbed "Ertugrul: Ghazi"
TRT (Turkish state television) YouTube channel homepage for the Urdu-dubbed “Ertugrul: Ghazi”Credit: YouTube screenshot

Whereas Erdugrul gives a voice to alienated Muslims, some increasingly radicalized, Fauda offers Hindu nationalists a sense of common cause, even intimacy. But that could be a poisoned chalice.

Clearly, the Israel depicted by Fauda, now familiar to hundreds of millions in India and amplified by right-wing activists and intellectuals on social media, is both a snapshot and a caricature: a country reduced to a hyper-masculine security-state dealing ruthlessly with terrorists. Any grassroots love for Israel that this may birth will be similarly cartoonish and manipulatable, not least bearing in mind the general ignorance of basic facts about Israel and the Jewish people in India.

In a country with an abysmal education system and poor reading habits, there are not insignificant sectors who glorify Adolf Hitler without realizing the offense to the Jewish community; Hindu nationalist leaders have a long history of admiration for Nazism and its “achievements.” Only a minuscule intellectual class is educated about the Holocaust. In Gujarat, where Modi was one Chief Minister, state schoolbooks endorsed praising Hitler. A more significant and lasting relationship between the two countries requires a broader base beyond the Delhi elite and beyond Fauda.

How far will the polarization between the India of Fauda and the India of Ertugrul go?

That wlll depend on how far Modi’s political fortunes will continue to rise, Turkey’s ambitions and radicalizing outreach to Muslims, Israel’s annexation plans and whether they’ll cause a reassessment by key allies, and if the Indian opposition can offer a principled platform affirming inclusion and equality.

But despite the clouds on the horizon – most immediately, the coronavirus pandemic (India now has the third-largest number of confirmed cases in the world), spiking tensions with superpower neighbor China, an insurgency in Kashmir and nation-wide protests over legislation that the Muslim minority and its allies clearly see as discriminating against the minority community – Modi’s popularity ratings keep climbing, with some polls showing it near 90 percent.

There is one event rowards the end of the year that will either bring the two Indias together, or drive them further apart – at least in front of the small screen. Mumbai-based Applause Entertainment is partnering with Israel’s Yes Studios for an Indian adaptation of Fauda, but this time set against the always-simmering conflict between India and Pakistan.

Applause CEO Sameer Nair suggested Fauda would lend itself to the India-Pakistan context particularly well because it is “about people on both sides” and tries to “represent this gray [not back and white] state of conflict.”

Plenty of Fauda critics are already skeptical that this was ever achieved in the Israeli-Palestinian version; and local fans, rooting for Israel, certainly don’t embrace a “neutral” parsing of the series. Whether this endorsement of nuance and both sidesism will really fly in the nuclear-armed and fiercely partisan India-Pakistan context remains to be seen.

Abhinav Pandya, a Public Affairs graduate from Cornell University, is the author of “Radicalization in India: An Exploration,” (Pentagon Press, 2019) and a forthcoming book on terror financing in Kashmir. He is the co-founder of the Usanas Foundation, an India-based thinktank for geopolitics and security affairs. Twitter: @abhinavpandya