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

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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.

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, though, 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 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.

This post also appears at Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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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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