Inside Islam’s culture war

March 8, 2012

ISTANBUL – In a state-of-the-art television studio here, the Islamic world’s version of America’s culture war is playing out in a lavishly re-created 16th century palace.

A dashing Turkish actor plays Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman ruler who conquered vast swaths of the Middle East and Europe, granted basic rights to Christians and Jews, and promoted education, science and art.

To Turkish conservatives, the series maligns a revered ruler known as “the lawgiver” whose military prowess and legal reforms placed the Ottomans at the zenith of their power. Set in the palace harem, early episodes featured a young Suleiman cavorting with scantily clad women and drinking wine. The sex was frequent.

The show’s producers point to other themes. The dominant character is a woman, a real-life, Ukrainian slave-turned-concubine who eventually became Suleiman’s queen. And in the program, members of different faiths coexist.

“This is the most important thing of the Ottoman Empire, that allowed one family to rule for centuries,” Halit Ergenc, the actor who plays Suleiman, told me during a break in filming. “Sharing the same land with different cultures and different religions and respecting their rights.”

After its January 2011 debut, critics hurled eggs at billboards advertising the program, protested outside the production company’s office and filed more than 70,000 complaints with the Turkish government television agency. The show’s producers shortened kissing scenes and toned down certain elements.

Today, Magnificent Century is the most popular program in Turkey and one of the most popular shows in the Middle East. Aired in 45 countries, it is the latest Turkish soap opera to take the region by storm. And according to Turkish academics, the programs are subtly changing cultural norms.

“Somehow, in those serials, you have a very balanced adjustment,” said Aydin Ugur, a professor of sociology at Istanbul Bilgi University. “Women are modern, but they are not degenerate.”

What may someday be known as the Islamic world’s accidental cultural revolution began in 2006. A Saudi-owned, Arabic-language satellite television channel, MBC, bought the rights to a Turkish soap opera about a young woman named Gumus who marries into a wealthy family.

Dubbed into colloquial Arabic, censored of its raciest scenes and renamed Noor, the series was a phenomenal hit. Unlike Western soap operas, it focused on an extended family, a strong tradition in Turkey and the region. In 2008, the show’s final episode drew an estimated 85 million viewers over the age of 15, according to MBC, including 50 million women, a figure that represents more than half the adult women in the Arab world.

Like Magnificent Century, the show violated conservative cultural norms. Some Muslim characters drank wine with dinner and engaged in premarital sex. In one case, a character had an abortion. The lead male character, Muhannad, was the show’s handsome hero. A loving, attentive and loyal husband, he supported his wife’s career as a fashion designer and treated her as an equal. Their successful marriage — which combined traditional loyalty and modern independence — was both popular among women and groundbreaking. Some Arabic-language newspapers reported that arguments and even divorces occurred in several countries as a result.

In Saudi Arabia, conservative Islamic clerics issued Limbaugh-like denunciations. They declared the show “wicked and evil” and a “secular Turkish assault on Saudi society.” They issued fatwas against watching it and forbade people from praying in T-shirts that depicted the show’s two stars. The head of a Saudi religious council said the owner of MBC should be tried and potentially executed for airing indecent material.

Since then, Turkish soap operas have grown even more popular and received glowing coverage from Arab and Western journalists. Beyond breaking cultural taboos, the shows display something else: Turkey’s rapid economic growth. Today, the country boasts one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. In its soap operas, Turkey is modern, Muslim and prosperous at the same time.

The soap opera about Suleiman is the most expensive television program in Turkish history. Roughly $500,000 is spent per episode, twice the amount of other serials. The show’s launch party was held in Cannes, France. Its elaborate, 15-room re-creation of Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace has real marble floors, handcrafted woodwork and a mock European throne room. Actors wear exquisite silk and velvet gowns crafted by a leading Turkish costume designer. And the series is directed by Durul and Yagmur Taylan, two siblings known as the Coen Brothers of Turkey.

“It’s never been done before,” Durul Taylan told me during a tour of the studio. “Not in this way.”

The program, as well as Turkey’s economic growth, has generated “Ottomania,” an interest among prosperous young Turks in the country’s past glories.

Beyond its onscreen success, though, deep divisions exist in Turkey. As the country grows, two contradictory Turkeys are emerging. One is a prosperous, modern nation that is an economic model for the Middle East. The other is a popular but increasingly repressive elected government that appears intolerant of dissent.

Far from soap opera sets, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has jailed thousands of Turkish military officers, businessmen, academics and perceived opponents on charges of plotting coups. Some of the charges appear legitimate. Others are dubious. In December, Turkish police arrested 29 journalists in a series of countrywide raids broadly viewed as an effort to intimidate critics.

When Magnificent Century debuted, Erdogan, whose conservative AKP party has its roots in political Islam, was among the critics. He called the series “an attempt to insult our past, to treat our history with disrespect and an effort to show our history in a negative light to the younger generations.”

In interviews, the show’s directors and actors insisted the show was apolitical. “There is no political message or any other cultural message,” said Ergenc, the actor who plays Suleiman. “This is a TV series. It is a soap opera.”

Intentionally or not, the makers of Turkey’s soap operas are creating new roles, new heroes and new cultural norms in a rapidly changing region. I applaud them.

Over many years of reporting, I have heard a consistent message from moderate Muslims. They said they were interested in a “third way” where they could be both Muslim and modern. They did not want to become completely Western nor did they want be ruled by xenophobic fundamentalists. Turkish soap operas are an example of that third way.

PHOTO: A billboard advertising the TV series The Magnificent Century after being damaged by eggs thrown by pro-Islamic protesters in Istanbul, January 9, 2011. REUTERS/Murad Sezer



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viva Turkey… love it… it is a great model and a great nation against radical religious craziness…

Posted by Ocala123456789 | Report as abusive

The problem with this kind of Valley Girl and 90210 culture is that it promotes a wrong kind of role model amongst the poor and less intelligent part of the middle class (possibly even the upper class).

From my observation, this has happened in the West already. It massively influenced the many simple things from lifestyle, entertainment to things like attitude toward education , marriage and how to move up on the social ladder. I believe this kind of culture created by the media is the main drive behind the massive increase in the number of single moms and divorces.

And it seems most kids growing up in these kinds of parental environment don’t end up well in life. In turn, it affects the society and ultimately the economy creating all sorts of troubles. People can blame funding to formal education (hello teacher unions) all they want, but parental environment and education at home are way more important.

Don’t get me wrong. Most of us don’t want to go back to middle age of overly conservative culture and I do find certain level of entertainment value here. Also, most of the more informed and intelligent have their lives influenced very little by these things, but there has to be some way to make the less fortunate demographics understand “this is just TV, please don’t try it at home” (ie your real life)

Promoting a good system of values, mentality, determination and discipline do have some value. I also don’t want to promote overly fanatic religious system, but one has to look at Tebow and wonders how a guy with very little natural talent could do that well. And not only he did well, he made people around him do well too.

Posted by trevorh | Report as abusive

I think this is good proof that a country with government with Islamic values can be way more democratic then many other so-called democratic countries.

Posted by uha1 | Report as abusive

trevorh, I could not have stated it better. Right on!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

As pure entertainment and lunch-bag type of historical education, this TV serial — Magnificent Century — is certainly excellent, even if it knocks against certain conservative sensibilities. However, a long list of TV soap operas made in the image of “Noor” and served to prime-time audiences in the Islamic world could, indeed, sow seeds of undesirable laxity and licentiousness in values that undermines the “third way” that most Muslims seek in a system that reconciles modernity — mastery of technology and science, economic progress, freedom and some reasonable degree of hedonism — with the deep Islamic values of societal and extended-family solidarity, individual modesty, respect for elders, and a pronounced sense of responsibility to match the new emphasis on rights. It is not so much “Ottomanism” that should be the goal, but the type of “Third way” that is being promoted by Fethullah Gulen in Turkey, by the more modern-minded activists of the Muslim brotherhood in the Arab world, by sympathizers of Syed Hossein Nasr-type of eclectic but Islam-centered religiosity in Iraq and Iran, and by followers of the Deoband School in South East Asia and the moderate groups within the Jamaat-e-Islami in Indonesai and the rest of East Asia.

Posted by MohamedMalleck | Report as abusive

It is now 2012 and the Turks finally discover the cultural value of the Soap Opera. To them it is like watching the TV series Star Trek for the very first time. When real life is so oppressive then a good dose of Soap Opera should sedate the ignorant masses.
A very enlightened society, indeed.

Posted by GMavros | Report as abusive