Who said that capturing hearts and minds in the Muslim world is mission impossible? It’s just that the United States hasn’t figured out the right way to do it. Sometimes, it seems the U.S. government still thinks that public diplomacy is exchange students and a few diplomats who can speak Arabic and struggle on satellite television in the region to explain U.S. foreign policy.
Welcome to the power of the stars! I am not talking about the ones in the sky, but rather a handful of good-looking blond and dark Turkish movie stars who are taking the Arab world by storm. Four-hundred years after a nasty occupation of Arab land by the forefathers of these young Turks, the Arab world is embracing Turkey, opening its living rooms and flocking around their television sets to watch over 140 episodes of second-rate Turkish soap operas that don’t even do well in Turkey itself.
If only the sultans knew that it could be done on the cheap, they could have dispatched these handsome men and beautiful women and assembled them to conquer hearts and minds in the Arab world on their behalves, saving the treasury endless amount of cash.
But how could how this state of affairs be?
Quite simply, the Arab world is taking to these soap operas like a duck to water. The final episode of the most famous one — broadcast on MBC TV — called Gumus (or Noor as it’s known in Arabic), pulled in 80 million viewers from Morocco to Palestine. For Saudi women, the example of the main Muslim character "Muhanned" treating his wife well was an especially powerful one. And the message was clear: Islam is not the reason why they were being ill-treated by their own husbands. The idea of watching Muslim men and woman who share the same values and cultural background with their brethren in the Middle East is a very appealing one because it raises taboo subjects and challenges conservative values by someone from within, as opposed to an outsider.
The Turkish soaps have been daring and candid when it comes to gender equality, premarital sex, infidelity, passionate love, and even children born out of wedlock. Coming from a Muslim country like Turkey (even one imbued with a strong secular identity) made it easy to penetrate the thick walls of conservatism in the Arab world where bigotry and misogyny often masquerade as "moral" or "ethical" issues.
As a result of the popular soaps (which by the way are watched not only by women but entire households), Turkey has carved out a strong place for itself on the Arab street. Thousands of rich Gulf Arabs flock to Turkey on every occasion, as Istanbul has lately rivaled London and Paris as a favorite tourist destination. While enjoying touring the Topkapi Palace or reminiscing in the glory of the Muslim empire, Arab tourists also hope to catch a glimpse of the handsome actors as they film in one of Istanbul’s many suburbs. In 2009, Arab tourism to Turkey took a dramatic rise, including a 21 percent rise from the United Arab Emirates and a 50 percent rise from Morocco.
Since Noor’s inception in 2006, there have been a slew of other Turkish soaps on Arab screens, the latest of which, Asi, is an adaption of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. Its main leading characters were played by two rising stars, Murat Yildirim and Tuba Buyukustun. Both are becoming instant celebrities in the Arab world, with some reports even suggesting that one of them was requested for an audience with a member of the Saudi royalty. The soaps’ success lay on several elements: the quality of production, the stories of ordinary people wrapped in glamorous lifestyles, and the easy-to-listen-to Syrian accent in which these soaps are dubbed. The Turkish actors in these shows have become known throughout the Arab world by their translated character names — whether "Muhanned," "Amir," "Lamis," or "Noor" — and many viewers don’t even know their real Turkish names.
The broader impact of the story is that a simple television production can be utilized as a potent social tool to effect change and influence thinking — and in the process win a few million hearts and minds. And Turkish soaps are not just about romance, glamour, and secular values wrapped under a Muslim banner. A new soap with more overt political overtones has recently gone on air on MBC (where I am a reporter). Sarkhet Hajar as it is known in Arabic (Cry of a Stone) is the latest Turkish soap causing a frenzy among the Arab viewers. It depicts the daily life of Palestinians under Israeli military occupation, and it looks like a dramatization of a daily news bulletin. In response, blogs and websites have been going wild debating its influence. It was filmed in Turkey, the West Bank, and even inside the al-Aqsa mosque. Although it mainly focuses on the suffering of Palestinian civilians, it also digs deep into the division among the Palestinian factions and talks about taboo issues such as honor killings. It even dares to raise the hitherto unthinkable: a love story between an Israeli Shin Bet officer and a beautiful young Palestinian activist.
In the end, Turkey and its government should be thankful to the soap stars who are conquering hearts and minds on their behalf — and on the cheap. The government can claim the benefit and ride a wave of popular support among the Arab masses, something which burnishes Turkey’s already popular image in the Arab world (indeed, Turkish Prime Minister Receip Tayyip Erdogan is already considered a hero on the Arab street due to his strong show of solidarity with the Palestinian people). Between topics including romance and social upheaval that rattles traditional values, and highlighting the Palestinian cause, one can see a blurring of the lines between art and reality, and the effect one has on the other.
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters is the senior U.S. correspondent for MBC TV.