Which Turkish model?

Which Turkish model?

I was among the panelists in one of the possible cooperation areas session of the first Turkish-Arab Media forum held in Istanbul earlier this week among colleagues from Qatar, Kuwait and Oman.

There were some heavyweight names among the audience listening to us, including Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç and President’s Chief Advisor on greater Middle East affairs, Erşad Hürmüzlü.

The floor was mine when an extraordinary activity started among the cameramen in the hall; sure it was not for me. 

A beautiful young lady entered the hall, walked down until the first row with self confident steps and with her (rather short, if not) mini skirt sat next to the chair next to a welcoming Arınç, one of the most conservative members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government.

She is Songül Özden, a young actress, an educated one as well, graduated from the Theatre Department of Ankara University. Turkish TV viewers know her under the name of Gümüş, also the same title of the Turkish soap opera. But most of the viewers outside Turkey, especially in Arab countries know her as Noor.

Özden, who was among the panelists of the next session, said she is aware of the popularity she and other Turkish soap opera figures have in Arab countries, where they travel frequently; more so than many politicians.

Turkish soap operas are affecting the Arab street in a social way like what Al Jazeera is doing in a political way.

It is not only the export value of those TV serials (not just to Arab but Balkan, Caucasian, Central Asian countries as well), which mounted up to $60 million in 2011; and not only its support to Turkey’s tourism revenues (a third of Egyptian and a fifth of Saudi and Lebanese tourists prefer Turkey as of this year); it is more than that.

It is not the conservative Turkey they envy; it is the modern Turkey. A country where Muslims are neither under autocratic pressure (by their own Islamist or militaristic regimes), nor being discriminated against like in Europe or the U.S. especially after 9/11.

This complements well with the neo-laic opening of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last September in Cairo, where he said Islam and democracy did not contradict each other and there is nothing wrong in governing a secular country like Turkey with a non-secular leader like himself.

But, there is the other side of the coin. It is now in vogue to show Turkey as a success model, or example for those Arab countries in turmoil by Western leaders; especially by the U.S. Yet, Turkey’s record in human rights violation; especially in the fields of freedom of expression, freedom of press and judicial proceedings, including the long detention periods, are subject to domestic and international criticism.

After the European Commission declaration expressing concern over the violations despite positive steps on paper, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Turkey’s Human Rights Foundation (TİHV) released some worrying figures, taking the opportunity of Dec. 10, the anniversary of UN Declaration of Human Rights.

If Turkey is to set a good example to the future democracies in the region, TV serials may not be enough.