A majority of the population of Turkey professes to be Muslim (99% according to official statistics), and mostly Sunni. Unlike in other Muslim-majority nations, however, there has existed a strong tradition of separation between religion and state in Turkey since its constitution (based on secularism) was adopted in 1924. The Turkish version of secularism is based on the French model of laïcité, which refers not only to the separation of religion and state but also, as Joan Wallach Scott argues, to “the role of the state in protecting individuals from the claims of religion. It further rests on the notion that the secular and the sacred can be divided in the lives of the individuals. Matters of individual conscience are private and should be free from public interference.”
With this motive in mind, the official secular Turkish state ideology has sought to abstract what is called “religion” from the public sphere. Thus, Islam and its representation in public spaces were tightly controlled by the state until the 1990s, when Muslim nouveaux riches rose in the social and political scene.
Television broadcasting has played a significant role in the creation of a public governed by norms of secular reason in Turkey. The state-owned Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) held a monopoly on broadcasting until the liberalization of television and radio broadcasting in the 1990s. Only those who fit the state’s definition of an ideal “Turkish” citizen were represented on television—those outside of this ideal were invisible. TV audiences could only watch urban secular Turks who spoke “correct and beautiful” Turkish, while ethnic (e.g., Kurdish, Arabic, and Armenian) and religious (e.g., Christian, Jewish, and Alevi) minorities, rural migrants, and non-secular Muslims were virtually absent from the TV screens. In other words, the pluralistic complexity of Turkish society and its manifestation in forms of popular culture were considered abhorrent according to TRT’s cultural mission—a mission of propagating a uniform, modern, secular identity to Turkish citizens through broadcast programming.
TRT presented “religion” only in the form of limited mosque sermon broadcasts on officially designated religious holidays, as well as a 15-30 minute show called “The World of Faith” (“İnanç Dünyası”) played every Thursday evening to mark the beginning of Islam’s day of special worship on Friday. The overall effect of TRT’s demarcating such programming as “religious”—and its dealing with issues only related to “personal faith” in these shows (as emphasized in its title)—was to subtract “religion” from other factors regulating the public lives of Turkish citizens (such as education, politics, high culture, and so on) and to reinforce the notion that Islam is primarily a matter of “faith.”
How did such programs achieve this effect? To be able to answer this question, it would be appropriate to dissect the aforementioned show, “The World of Faith.” As its name suggests, everything in this show, both aesthetically and content-wise, was designed in a way that would highlight the world of “religion” as an otherworldly realm completely separate from social life. In this vein, worshipping was considered an act that took place between the individual and God. For example, the show’s opening credits consisted of a montage of nature scenes edited to match the rhythm of an instrumental soundtrack, which was composed in the form of an ilahi (hymn). In these montages erupting volcanoes and flowing lava rivers were meant to represent Hell, while idyllic scenes showing fields of flowers, birds, butterflies, and tranquil rivers symbolized Heaven. Additionally, emotive images depicting the stars, the sun, and revolving planets portrayed the eerie world existing outside of Earth, which helped suggest God’s grandeur and omnipresence. Such images also worked to reinforce the notion of religion as a force of nature.
A typical opening for “World of Faith” would include a “personal” prayer given in Turkish by a male voice-over, who would pray to God for protection and forgiveness. One of these prayers, with which everyone in Turkey is familiar as it was repeated in the opening segment of every episode of the show during the month of Ramadan, goes as follows:
“Dear God, I fasted for the sake of getting your consent, I believed in you, I trusted you. I am breaking my fast with my daily bread you have provided me. Thank you God for the abundance of food (or blessings),health, and welfare you have given me. Oh dear God, who is filled with benevolence! Protect me, my family, my nation, my state, and all the believers. Amen.”
Table prayers before the breaking of the fast are usually performed in a group setting; thus, speaking to God in the first person—and with the added dramatic effect of an echoing voice—creates the illusion of an inner-voice. The disembodied voice-over implies that prayer is something that is performed individually and internally (that is, quietly) rather than communally.
Another striking aspect about this prayer is its insistence on the agency of the believer as an autonomous individual. The linguistic subject in all of these statements is the self-directed “I,” who chose to fast to ask for a certain service from God in return: food, health, welfare, and protection. Yet another significant feature of this prayer is the inclusion of “the nation” and “the state” among the list of people to be protected by God. In this publicly broadcast prayer commissioned by the state, the concepts of the nation and the state were thereby transformed from constructed categories of public administration into “real” living beings that should be loved by an individual as much as himself/herself and his/her family.
The remaining half of the show consisted of recitations of the Qur’an in Arabic delivered by a state-appointed formally dressed hafiz, followed by these same recitations in Turkish translation (Türkçe meali—literally, its Turkish meaning) read by the aforementioned disembodied, male voice-over narrator. The dress of the hafiz—consisting of a white turban-wrapped headgear and a frock coat with clerical collar— is noteworthy as it signified his clerical status (only state-appointed imams are allowed to wear such garb). In this way, the recitation of the Qur’an in its original Arabic was presented as an expertise performed by a certified hafiz, whereas the Turkish version was less physically rooted. In other words, the Turkish “meaning” of the Qur’an given as a voice-over was presented as sufficient information for the believer; its beautiful recitation in Arabic, on the contrary, was based more on a performance of expertise and aesthetics reserved for men of “religion.”
In short, as my analysis of the “World of Faith” show has hopefully illustrated, the official Turkish state ideology represented by the state television TRT sought to depict Islam as a private “religion” rather than a way of life regulated by traditions and practices. In the public sphere promoted by the secular state ideology, Islam (or any other religion for that matter) could only exist in this limited, privatized form.
But how has this secular understanding of “religion” changed with the liberalization of the media industry in Turkey? What role have Islamic/conservative television broadcasters played in this transformation? These will comprise the topics of my next post.