Islamic modernity and the re-enchanting power of symbols in Islamic fantasy serials in Turkey
Muslim Rap, Halal Soaps, and Revolutionary Theater: Artistic Developments in The Muslim World
University of Texas Press
207 - 229
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Throughout the Turkish modernization experience, one thing has remained the same: modernization has been defined with reference to the West. This frame of reference has either taken the form of admiration or distaste. Modern Turkey has been seeking the affirmative gaze of the West: whenever a major event, disaster, or success takes place in Turkey, newspapers devote a section to its echoes in Europe. This can concern a sports event, such as a football match, a natural catastrophe, or a social and political disaster, such as the assassination of a Turkish journalist of Armenian origin, Hrant Dink. If the European gaze approves of Turkish behavior, Turks are supposed to be proud. If poor infrastructure or corruption leads to a catastrophic end, newspaper headlines mourn that Turkey has been disgraced in the eyes of Europe. I remember writing an essay at the age of eight on the comments published in the international press following the death of the founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Even in the realm of political history, the European opinion on Turkey is important. In the writings of the late Ottoman intellectuals, such as Ahmed Midhat or Mahmud Esat, there was either a fear of "the corrupt aspects of European civilization" or an admiration for the "spiritual aspects of Western civilization" (Berkes 1964, 285, 287). Ziya Gökalp combined the two approaches and argued that civilization is a transferable intergroup achievement, whereas culture is specific to specifi c national groups (in Berkes 1936, 243). According to Gökalp, it was legitimate to borrow from European civilization, as long as the authentic Ottoman culture was preserved. With first the establishment of the republic in 1923, and then subsequent steps designed to make Turkey a Western-style state and society, it was already apparent that Turkey opted for the West. Yet the Turkish Republic would continue to rely on symbols as the sole measure of change. In the course of the modernization process, "secularism à la turca" emerged. Instead of withdrawing from religious affairs, the state put all religious activities under direct control. In 1924, the Directorate of Religious Affairs was established as a state branch. Currently, this institution is responsible for "regulating all work related to the practice of Islam, managing the conduct of places of worship, and enlightening society about the issue of religion."1 In 1928, the constitutional article proclaiming Islam the official religion was annulled, and in 1937, the concept of secularism was incorporated into the constitution (Sakallioǧlu 1996, 234). As a result of this control over religion, two kinds of religious "reality" coexist in Turkey. On the one hand, there is the state, which, in theory, controls the religious behavior of people. On the other hand, in everyday life Islam constitutes an integral element of daily cultural practice-which does not always correspond to a fundamentalist mode of existence. While the state has mobilized certain symbols for its nation-building project and the republican cause, it has also tended to ignore or undermine the symbols that belong to the Ottoman past and traditional Islamic society. Whenever religious symbols become contentious, and gain "political" meaning, the state has shown itself to be alarmed that its own symbols and goals are threatened. The headscarf issue has been one of the most notorious cases. Trouble began in 1969, when a student who wanted to wear her headscarf during lectures was expelled from university. The Council for Higher Education (Yükseköǧretim Kurumu [YÖK]), banned the headscarf in universities in 1982. The Council lifted this ban in 1984. The headscarf was again banned in 1987, only to be officially allowed in 1990. In 1997, students with headscarves were banished once more.2 On February 2008, the president of the republic, Abdullah Gül, approved a constitutional change allowing the headscarf in universities. Still, the legal status of the headscarf remains undecided. Space is another tool used by the state for its nation-building goals. The new capital, Ankara, was established as the republican center and rebuilt in accordance with the new republic's political agenda. The streets of Ankara were named after the republican elite and in accordance with nationalist concepts. Scenes from the Independence War of 1919- 1922 were kept alive by the various monuments erected all over the city. Ankara was regarded as a blank canvas where the new Turkish state could paint its history and construct its future. Istanbul, on the contrary, was ignored during these early years because it was considered a symbol of the unfavorable and preferably distant imperial past. However, in 1994 Istanbul reentered the clash of symbols through the May 29 celebrations commemorating the five hundredth anniversary of Istanbul's conquest by the Ottomans. Istanbul was appropriated by the Islamist majority and presented as one of the central constituents of Islamic culture (Çinar 2001, 383). The celebrations began after the election of the Islamist city administration from the Refah Partisi (Welfare Party) in 1994. Prayers followed theatrical demonstrations of Istanbul's conquest (Çinar 2001, 366). As the case of the headscarf and the existence of state institutions such as the Directorate of Religious Affairs clearly demonstrate, state behavior in the realm of religion can be defi ned as a regulation of practices and the control exercised over symbols. Yet the state has not always been successful in eradicating traditional symbols and replacing them with its own. The headscarf ban in the public sphere did not result in a decrease in the number of women wearing headscarves. On the contrary, the fashion industry created new styles of headscarves for women, using lively colors and designs, with the result that the headscarf became even more visible. Just like colorful headscarves have become favorite with the new Islamic classes in the cities, authentic Islamic television series have underlain the presence and popularity of Islamic television channels. Television serials form a very important part of entertainment on the screen, and more than a hundred serials are produced per annum. Some of them become popular, whereas those lacking such popularity are often discontinued after a few episodes. During the last eight years, serials promoting an Islamist morality have been among the most popular programs on Turkish television. Islamist channels produce a kind of fantasy serials deeply influenced by some Western productions, although they give an Islamic interpretation of the originals. These fantasy serials adopt magical plots such as time travel, angels disguised as ordinary people, and appearing or disappearing objects and people. Several serials are set in the afterlife, from which the main character looks back on his or her life on earth. The producers refrain from naming a specific genre for these serials, and simply say that "these are original formats never tried before."3 However, I will refer to them as fantasy serials, because of the many magical and supernatural events that occur in them. This chapter focuses on popular fantasy television serials produced by Islamic channels, in particular STV (Samanyolu TV). I explore plots and narrative styles, as well as the various meanings of the symbols that are used. Although the serials are apparently concerned with spreading Islamic morality, the question remains why they use "original formats never tried before" instead of the documentary genre. Also, is there really a contradiction involved in the Islamist adoption of Western genres and the reproduction of Western serials in terms of their own concepts? And what does this choice tell us about Turkish modernity in particular? For some time now, variations of the original format have been produced by almost all secular and Islamist channels. The serials have been designed to appeal to both types of audience, and their popularity provides a good opportunity to take a fresh look at the labels "secularist" and "Islamist" in the Turkish context. Islam, or Islamist, channels will not be treated as an isolated object of study, but as one of the constituent elements of contemporary Turkish political culture. Thus, one can investigate how the Islamic moral message delivered through TV serials and the idea of reproducing Western serials come together and, in this case, why the labels "Islamist" and "secular" do not have to be mutually exclusive. In order to deal with these questions, the place Islam presently occupies in Turkish television will be studied. The Islamist channels broadcasting the serials will be introduced. Next, the fantasy serials will be explored by means of different examples, and an analysis of their plots and characters will be given. Different variations of the original serials will be described. Although the examples will mostly concern Islamist programs, their secular counterparts- which are not produced anymore-will also be mentioned, so as to compare secular and Islamist versions. In the fi nal section, the concept of reenchantment will be suggested as an alternative framework for studying the emergence and popularity of fantasy television serials. Also, an interpretation of Turkish modernity will be offered. Copyright © 2011 by University of Texas Press. All rights reserved.