Whether Turkey’s secular parliamentary democracy provides a model for Arabs clamoring for a democratic future remains an open question. Turkey’s cultural influence spreading across the Middle East, with social implications that anger Islamists, however, is indisputable.
Take Egypt, for example, which many thought would be inspired by the Turkish model. When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Egyptians in September 2011 that they should not fear secularism — a statement that also surprised Turkish secularists given his Islamist credentials — he was immediately censured by the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood who eventually came to power in that country.
Turkey’s secular system was in fact a main reason why fundamentalists in the Arab world approached this country with suspicion in previous decades. Curiosity took the place of suspicion after the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept to power in 2002.
Curiosity in turn gave way to deep admiration when Erdogan blasted Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos, in January 2009, only weeks after Israel’s deadly military campaign in Gaza, telling him during a panel covered by the international media that “Israel is a country that knows very well how to kill.”
The assumption that Turkey’s increasing popularity in the Middle East is driven solely by the rise of the Islamist AKP, and Erdogan’s stand on Israel, however is proving not to be completely true. The influence of Turkish television soap operas, which are opening Arab minds to alternative lifestyles and modern living, is also being felt across the Arab world today.
The watershed event came in 2008 when the Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC) bought a Turkish soap opera called “Gumus” (Silver) and broadcast it across the Arab world as “Noor” (Light). It involved the rags to riches story of a woman, and her doting husband, played by the blue-eyed and devilishly handsome former model Kivanc Tatlitug.
With its stylish décor, fashionably revealing clothes, and depiction of modern lifestyles, including relationships between men and women based on equality and respect, Noor became an overnight sensation in the Arab world. “Even fatwas by Saudi clerics calling for the murder of the soap’s distributors haven’t discouraged a store in Gaza City from hawking knockoffs of Noor’s sleeveless dresses,” the New York Times said in June 2010.
Meanwhile Kivanc Tatlitug became a major heartthrob for Arab women, forcing Arab men, even in arch-conservative Saudi Arabia, to emulate his style, reportedly to please their wives, who had started asking why Arab men do not behave romantically like Turkish men. The fact that Turkish men do not have the best of reputations concerning the treatment of women, and the high rate of domestic violence in Turkey, did not alter the idealized impression these soaps were giving.
Meanwhile the phenomenon of Turkish soaps has snowballed since 2008 providing the country with a $60 million-export market, a major part of it in the Middle East and the Balkans. Yaprak Dokumu (The fall of leaves), “Fatmagul’un sucu ne?” (What is Fatmagul’s crime, translated merely as “Fatima” for Arab audiences), and Ask-i Memnu (Forbidden Love) are among the current favorites.
Apart from reflecting tear-jerking romances and marital dramas, these soaps also deal with risqué topics such as pre-marital sex, love triangles, nudity, adultery, rape as well as women’s rights in the modern world. With tens of millions tuning in to watch them in the Middle East, these soaps prove that these topics also resonate in the region, especially among Arab women.
But it is the depiction of modern living, and the civilized relationships between men and women, that provide the principle attraction. All of this and much more exists in Western soaps, of course. But people in the Middle East appear to be saying, “Why look to the West with its alien and anti-Arab culture, when one can get inspiration from a Turkey, which is modern but whose culture is not alien, given our shared religion and history.”
The Turkish soaps have also resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of Arab tourists thronging to Istanbul for the city’s historic ambiance, as well as a desire to see the spectacular mansions along the Bosporus, where many of the favorite soaps are shot. Asked by Euronews recently what it was she found in these soaps, Auhood Salim, one such tourist from Iraq did not mince her words.
Reeling off the names of her favorite Turkish actors without difficulty, she said these productions showed that one could be Muslim and modern at the same time. “They show the parts of life we don’t really have in some of our countries,” she added with a discernible tone of regret and yearning.
But it is not just these soaps depicting modern life that are attracting the attention of the Arab viewer. One of the most watched Turkish shows is called “Once upon a time in the Ottoman Empire,” a lavish 5 million-euro production along the lines of the British series, “The Tudors.”
Although Ottoman Turks were the former masters of much of the Middle East, and unwelcome at that in many cases, remarks from the region about Turkish historic dramas nevertheless reflect a sense of a shared heritage. Another popular historic series is the “Magnificent Century,” which depicts the sexual and political intrigues in the Harem of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.
This blockbuster has also angered Prime Minister Erdogan, who is disturbed by the sexual content and the manner in which the Ottomans are depicted, prompting him to call, albeit to no avail thus far, to have it banned.
The knee-jerk reaction of fundamentalists in the Arab world to Turkish soaps is shared by Turkish Islamists too. The popularity and commercial success of these shows, however, prove that they are unstoppable and will be watched one way or another.
Daniel Abdul Fattah, MBC and Al Arabiya’s representative in Turkey, reflected this fact recently with a striking example during an interview with Euronews. Indicating that one of the Turkish soaps was being aired during the most violent period of conflict between Al Fattah and Hamas, he said that the sides had agreed on a cease-fire to be able to see the show.
“If a series or a movie has a love story or a romance, it can stop a fratricidal quarrel and bloodshed,” Al Fattah said. But it is not just Turkish romantic soaps and historic productions that have turned the Arabs on. Another highly popular Turkish series is the “Valley of the Wolves,” which deals with current political topics in the Middle East in ways that have annoyed the US and Israel.
A 2006 feature-film version called “Valley of the Wolves: Iraq,” which has the actor Billy Zane of Titanic fame in the role of the proverbial “ugly American,” deals with the effects of the US invasion of Iraq. The film turns the tables on Hollywood by using spectacular special effects for battle scenes, during which the number of American soldiers killed by the Turkish hero Polat Alemdar, and his friends, match the rate of Muslims killed in Western action films.
A 2011 production by the same group, called “Valley of the Wolves: Palestine,” deals with the raid by Israeli commandos on the Mavi Marmara aid ship in May 2010, killing nine Turks. In the fictional account of the incident, Polat Alemdar avenges the dead Turks by killing scores of Israeli soldiers in scenes reminiscent of a Bruce Willis film.
In a move that proved just how effective these Turkish productions have become, Israel formally protested to Ankara over this film. The response it got was the same response Turkey got in 1978 when it protested the Hollywood blockbuster, “Midnight Express,” which Turks believe was made specifically to malign their country. Namely, that this is a private production which the government cannot interfere in.
The bottom line here is that it is still not clear that the Turkish “political model” is of any value to Arabs. But the Turkish social model is increasingly in the forefront of the Arab consciousness, given the simple and normal things they yearn for, and which are reflected in Turkish soap operas.
Semih İdiz is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse. A journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign-policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years, his opinion pieces can be followed in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News,he can also be read in Taraf.