Turkey’s (slippery) soap power

Turkey’s (slippery) soap power

As far as I could trace it back, Lenka Kantrenova first coined the term “Turkish soap power” in the Journal of Turkish Weekly (Aug. 23, 2011).

No doubt, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has been privately too content that an emerging industry of Turkish TV dramas was not only making tens of millions of dollars every year but would also work precisely like Hollywood worked in America’s cultural cold war. The drama industry would help instrumentalize the revival of the “Turkish century” in former Ottoman lands where its produce has been immensely popular in recent years. Hence the Turkish “soap power.”

The idea could work, at least in theory. As always, the Turkish optimism will likely hit the walls of regional and global realities. Take Greece, for example, where Turkish soap operas are not less popular than they are in Muslim countries in the Middle East.

Greece’s Orthodox clergy have been issuing warning after warning to keep the faithful Greeks away from Turkish soaps, just like Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan does not hide his dislike of certain dramas and even encourages prosecutors to take legal action. In the Greek case, most possibly both the Greek clergy and Mr. Davutoğlu will be disappointed: Greeks will shrug off the metropolitans and bishops and continue to watch Turkish soaps as long as they like watching them. And just because they watch them they will not in the least feel a powerful longing for the “good old days” under Ottoman hegemony.

Remember, the Turks did not feel they should be a satellite state of Brazil just because they so dearly loved Brazilian soap operas in the 1980s and 1990s. Nor did the Arabs begin to love the Americans/America because they had a habit of watching more Hollywood films (than Turkish soaps).

And not only that. The popularity of Turkish soaps can always hit walls of political protectionism in their host countries just like they hit walls of political protectionism in their own country. In other words, just like Prime Minister Erdoğan can mobilize the governmental/judiciary/police powers of the state to act against soaps he deems unfit for the Turks, the leaders of countries where Turkish dramas are big hits could think they should “protect their viewers from the damage Turkish soaps could inflict.” After all, most, if not all, importers of Turkish productions have a resemblance to Turkey in terms of democratic culture.

Earlier this year, Azerbaijan banned the broadcasting of all foreign TV shows, including Turkish soaps. A 2011 Wikileaks cable quoted Azeri President Ilham Aliyev as revealing that “he had given instructions to stop the broadcasts of popular TV soap operas because these programs were advancing an Islamist agenda in Azerbaijan, including showing women wearing headscarves.”

Also this year, three Uzbek state-owned TV channels removed Turkish soap operas from their airwaves because of material deemed “inappropriate” by the authorities, i.e., inappropriate because some scenes “were not compatible with the Uzbek people’s mentality.” Precisely like a small army of Turkish state watchdogs do not deem numerous books, films and dramas “compatible with Turkish values and culture.”

Most recently, Pakistan’s Senate Standing Committee on Information and Broadcasting expressed concern over a growing trend among private channels to telecast Turkish soaps. A meeting of the committee noted that “the contents of these programs were contrary to Pakistan’s culture and norms.” How very familiar, is it not, Professor Davutoğlu? How very Turkish?

And mind you, Your Excellency, it is not only the Greek Orthodox clergy who view our soaps as a threat but also our “one nation-two states” brothers Azerbaijan and Muslim brothers Pakistan do so. And by the way, why do Turkish soaps not have an audience among our Muslims brothers Iran? How long do you think they could survive in Muslim Brotherhood-ruled Egypt?

Mind you, Professor Davutoğlu, soaps are nice when they are used to clean our hands. And we hate them when we step on them and fall down.