The Islamization of popular culture in Turkey

The Islamization of popular culture in Turkey

Turkey's television and entertainment business is having a nightmare season this year. At least 10 popular television dramas have been canceled due to low ratings, but one has created such a storm that even the conservative columnists are having a party discussing it.

“The Lizard” is a television drama that airs on ATV, one of the prime-time stations run by close relatives of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The series follows the story of a petty thief who hides in a mosque and puts on the robe of an imam to get away from the police. He takes the role so seriously that he decides to become a devout preacher.

The Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) has gone ballistic against the series, claiming that it discredited imams. Habertürk columnist Nihal Bengisu Karaca, a government supporter, however, came to its defense. Karaca claimed “The Lizard, (now known as “Ziya Hoca”), is someone who regrets the mistakes of his past and becomes a better defender of Islam. She also wrote that the Diyanet needed a good lesson about drama and storytelling.

“While your kids are formatted by TV shows like ‘How I Met Your Mother,’ you will be crying for a lack of movies and dramas that are close to our values,” she said.

Among conservative columnists and thinkers, popular culture remains a thorny issue. They believe it is too secular, too Western, and way out of control. Islamist scholars are struggling to create a popular character who can capture the young hearts and minds of those who attend İmam Hatip schools but also enjoy listening to Lady Gaga.

Advertising revenues have dropped sharply for television companies after the recent change to the ratings system in Turkey. As the sample homes chosen to measure ratings became more and more conservative, mainstream police dramas and comedy shows have lost viewership. Many of them have been canceled after years of success. If this trend continues, the Turkish television market will not be able to find any more television shows like "Muhteşem Yüzyıl" (The Magnificent Century) to export.

Prof. Dr. Tayfun Atay from Okan University said in an interview to Taraf newspaper that there are “two separate nations” on television. He described “The Lizard” as an example of the “Islamization of popular culture.” Atay believes shows like “The Lizard” portray Islam as the ultimate road to inner peace and a good society.

Atay and Karaca’s arguments show us that popular culture needs a better and finer language to tell the stories of secular lives, modest families and Western values. Screenwriters, directors and television station managers have to find a way to strike a balance between Turkey’s modernization ideals and its traditions.

A “lizard” has to shed its skin to run away and fool its enemy. It also has to adapt and change color in order to survive in nature. Maybe secular television shows have something they can learn from this.