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Turkey’s Soft Power In The Arab World

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] About a month ago, I spent half a day with a group of journalists from Syria, who were visiting Istanbul for meetings with their Turkish colleagues. We contemplated on the historical ties between our countries, and spoke positively about our growing relations. During the lunch, one of the Syrian guests kindly posed me a personal question: "Which party are you from sir?" "Party?" I replied with another question, "You mean a political party?" "Yes, of course," he explained. "For example I am a member of the Baath party." Then I responded by telling him that I am not a member of any political party, and neither are other Turkish journalists. "In Turkey," I explained, "we journalists might sympathize with parties, but we don't become their members." Mehmet turns Müennes I think that was a revealing moment for both of us. My Syrian colleague realized that political power and the media are (at least formally) separate from each other in Turkey. I, in return, realized that not only the two are combined in Syria, but that this combination is seen as something totally normal. And, as you might guess, this discovery did not make me envious of the media's nature on the other side of the Turkish-Syrian border. But I slightly felt that it had that very effect on my Syrian colleague. Now let me move from that little experience to the broader issue of the ever-growing rapprochement between Turkey and the Arab world. This 21st century phenomenon, which is a clean break from the mood in the 20th, is worrying for the secularist (and especially Kemalist) Turks, who have little, if any, sympathy for anything that is Arab. They rather complain that Turkey is becoming "Arabized" as it opens its borders to Arab countries, engages more deeply in the affairs of the Middle East, and rediscovers its Ottoman past. I, on the other hand, am quite happy with this Turko-Arab rapprochement. It is not just because that I don't share the Arabophobia of the Turks that I mentioned. It is also because that I see that the values that will be transmitted in the course of this relation will be mostly from the Turkish side to the Arabs, and not the other way around. This is not because that we Turks inherently know anything better. It is simply because that "we Turks had a better socio-political experience" since the 19th century, as I wrote before in these pages. We, as I explained, benefited from "a chance to experiment with democracy... proximity to the West, a relatively free economy, and currently an EU accession process." One thing which seems to prove this argument true is the "invasion" on Arab TVs by Turkish soap operas. Personally speaking, I have neither the time nor the interest in these overly sentimental series, which often revolve around blatantly cheesy love stories, but they seem to be amazingly popular in the Arab world. The most popular of these is the series called "Gümüş" (Silver) in Turkish, which is an Istanbul-based romantic melancholy. It proved to be popular in Turkey as well, but its Arabized version has become an all-time hit. Polls have shown that 74 percent of Saudi women have watched Gümüş, which was renamed there as "Nur." Some even platonically fell in love with its main character, a handsome fellow named Mehmet in the Turkish version, and renamed "Müennes" in the Arabized one. What is important is that in the series, Saudi women see a Muslim society in which young men and women, if they like each other, can go out on a date, sit on a bench near the sea, and hug each other while watching seagulls. These are unthinkable acts in the Saudi Kingdom, but their presence on the screen makes them thinkable dreams. Hence the cultural impact of the series, according to a poll by Ka Research Limited company, has been to "promote the idea of individual freedom and independence among Saudi women." Suheyr Farac, a Palestinian director, agrees by saying that Nur, the charming main actress of the series, "represent the young and free Muslims, and those who watch it like that." No wonder that a few conservative clerics issued negative fatwas (religious opinions) against Turkish soap operas, complaining from the "moral laxity" they promote. Between East and West Turkish scholar Nurçin Yıldız, who wrote a detailed evaluation of the impact of Turkish soap operas in the Arab world, argues that their success comes from a combination of modern life with traditional Muslim themes. "On the one hand, there is the Western lifestyle in these series," she notes. "But on the other hand, there are common Islamic cultural values such as big families where grandfathers live with in the same house with the grandsons, people fast during the month of Ramadan, and arranged marriages take place." Even the soundtracks of Turkish soap operas, Yıldız notes, are perfect for Arab audiences, with their oriental tunes. These series also show, she adds, "that Arabs are open to a sort of Westernization that is found in Turkey," which is a synthesis of the East and West, rather then the latter's total imitation. That very synthesis seems to be Turkey's biggest soft power. And it is only good news that others are noticing it.
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