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Why Turkey’s military wants to ban ‘Game of Thrones’

Peter Dinklage portrays Tyrion Lannister in an undated publicity still from the HBO TV show Game of Thrones. (REUTERS/Handout via HBO)

The hit HBO series "Game of Thrones" is no stranger to controversy. The fantasy drama, based on the novels of George R. R. Martin, is known for its grisly violence and explicit sex, including one episode which had some viewers convinced they had witnessed both rape and incest.

The lurid nature of the show has led it to being partially censored in China. And, according to a report in the Turkish paper Hurriyet Daily News, it's now being banned in the country's military academies.

The Turkish Armed Forces has updated its set of regulations for the high school academies that it administers, inserting an article in the chapter for "protection of students." It advises a ban on screening films or shows that depict "sexual exploitation, pornography, exhibitionism, abuse, harassment and all negative behaviors." Hurriyet cites "Game of Thrones" as one of the main culprits.

Alongside this addition to the regulations is another more telling one: the introduction of classes on Islam for the first time in military schools. Students can sign up for courses on "basic religious education, the Quran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad."

It's a striking development for an institution known to be notoriously secular. In 1997, the generals initiated what has been dubbed a "post-modern coup," forcing out an elected Islamist prime minister. But that was the last hurrah for the top brass, long accustomed to dominating the country's politics: under the watch of President (and formerly prime minister) Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's army has been brought to heel by its civilian leaders, with dozens of generals and officers taken to court.

No Turkish leader since Ataturk, the military man who founded the Turkish republic, has had such a striking influence on the country as Erdogan, a moderate Islamist who has retained power through the ballot box. Critics, though, spy a creeping authoritarianism in Erdogan's rule and some point to a parallel Islamization of Turkish society. The latest edicts for military schools may be a sign of the latter.

But this is not the first time "Game of Thrones" has provoked action in these academies. In 2012, four military officers at a school in the coastal city of Izmir were removed from their posts after allowing a screening of the show. The official military communique that followed, cited by a Turkish columnist, did not mention religious sentiment, but suggested instead that the show was somehow an "insult to Turkishness."

The statement insisted "our nation is insulted and denigrated [by Game of Thrones], not directly but in a way that can easily be perceived by viewers, by showing [us] as barbaric, pervert and uncivilized, with religious beliefs and traditions."

It's a curious interpretation of "Game of Thrones," which takes place in an invented world that is a pastiche of historical periods and cultures. If WorldViews was to guess, the military censors were likely objecting to the depictions of the Dothrakhi, a fearsome group of horse-riding nomads who venture from their lands of steppe and tall grass to torment wealthy cities to the West.

The Dothraki are an admittedly crude reworking of the conquering hordes that emerged at various stages out of Central Asia; the Turks see their identity linked to nomadic Turkic tribes that settled in Anatolia. But thinking this fictional race can undermine Turkish pride smacks of a feverish paranoia.

"I also watch [Game of Thrones] and not even for one moment has such evil thoughts crossed my mind," the late Turkish columnist Mehmet Ali Birand wrote in bemusement in 2012. "To claim that cadets will become alienated from the military profession because of this series is a discovery impossible to understand."