One of the new and unexpected cultural trends spreading across the Middle East and the European Balkans is the reemergence of Ottoman culture through soap operas. Yes, soap operas are the new trend in the many ex-Ottoman territories and are creating a sense of a glorified Ottoman reign. The Ottoman Empire ruled over many lands and treated vast portions of its populations harshly — for example, they forced the people of the Balkans to give up their first sons to the Ottoman sultan to help establish and maintain loyal Janissary armies. But recently Turkish companies and the government have invested in the production of soap operas that glorify Ottoman rule, and these soap operas have subsequently expanded to the regions of the Balkans and Middle East.
One of the best ways to glorify history is to show the high living standards Muslims enjoyed during Ottoman rule, when they received benefits that the rest of the population did not. Turkish shows are most watched in Bosnia, Macedonia, and Serbia, which is no surprise considering the large Muslim populations in these countries (mostly due to conversions during Ottoman domination). Darko Brocic, director of AGB Nielsen, states, “Turkish soaps have replaced shows from Latin America, which boomed 15 years ago, and have taken over part of their audience share.” The most watched show in Bosnia and Herzegovina is Magnificent Century, which is set in the golden age of the Ottoman Empire at the court of Suleiman the Magnificent. Some Muslims in the Balkans have for a long time viewed Turkey as their homeland, so this has contributed to the soaps' popularity.
But Muslims are not the only ones taking in this new trend. The Orthodox Serbs have also started to embrace this Turkish wave of influence. Serbian sociologist Ratko Bozovic says, “The mentality depicted in those shows has to do with a traditional understanding of morality that people in Serbia remember at some level.” But some people fear this new influence that Turkish soap operas are having over their populations. The Ottomans dominated the Balkan states and treated large portions of the population harshly, such as the rebellious Orthodox Serbs. Any sense of Turkish dominance in the region, however informal, brings a sense of fear to many. And with a possible Turkish accession to the European Union, Turkey's favored policies might be enacted on states in the region. But this accession plan has been in progress since the 1964 Ankara Agreement, yet no European Union offer has been given to Turkey. Even if the peoples of the Balkans become more open to Turkish influence, it does not mean that they have forgotten the hardships under Ottoman rule and accept this in any capacity in the future.
Meanwhile, this same trend of glorifying Ottoman rule is occurring in the Middle East. Vast expansion over ex-Ottoman lands is vital for the Turkish companies and central government. “Turkey’s growing soap opera exports are increasingly important for the promotion of our national brand,” says Abdurrahman Celik, minister of culture and tourism in Ankara. But why is the Turkish government spreading this trend to Middle Eastern countries? The Middle East has been a hotbed of conflict for many centuries and most recently Syrian refugees have come to Turkey and subsequently adopted Turkish culture — an extraordinary development, given the traditional enmity between Arabs and Turks.
Tourism to Turkey has also been a great source of influence on foreigners. Middle Eastern countries still represent the bulk of viewership for Turkish soaps and the number of tourists to the country has increased hugely since the exports of soap operas. Data from the Culture and Tourism Ministry showed that in the year preceding this March, the number of tourists coming to Turkey increased 26.06% to 1.841 million. There are reports of a rise in plastic surgeries that emulate the appearance of Ottoman stars from Turkish soaps. Plastic surgeons agree that the Turkish actresses starring in The Magnificent Century or Asi have beaten out the so-called Lebanese Singer Look, which used to be in high demand in the Arab world.
So is this new Turkish cultural trend of glorifying Ottoman times a good or bad thing? Will the Republic of Turkey play a more influential role in the Balkans, Middle East, and North Africa? I think this new trend could be a positive for not only Turkey but for the regions embracing the soaps. Turkey was a country in the dumps after World War I, but has since risen to become a stable country that has been able to balance religion and democracy. And maybe the peoples of the Balkans and Middle East can use the Turkish model to fulfill their ultimate goals of maintaining stable and flourishing countries for themselves. This new openness to Turkish influence might also be valuable to other members in the international community. The United States, a long ally of Turkey, would be thrilled with the possibility of other secular and stable nations being formed around the Turkish model.