The Islamic World's Culture War, Played Out on TV Soap Operas

How Turkish TV dramas explore, and sometimes flaunt, some of the Middle East's touchiest social issues.

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A scene from Turkish soap opera Magnificent Century / Reuters

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.

Presented by

David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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