Transformation of Islamic television in Turkey from the era of secularist state monopoly to family-focused programming under the conservative-Muslim AKP government

By Hikmet Kocamaner, Harvard University

*This memo was originally drafted as a part of the Islam, Islamists, and the Media in a Changing Middle East workshop held at George Washington University on October 28, 2016.

It is a common belief that media representations of religion and the adoption of media by religiously inspired actors lead to increasing public visibility of religion and indicate the resurgence of religion’s influence in the public and political sphere.[1] Yet, mass media do not merely act as prosthetic devices for extending existing religious discourses and ideologies. The narrative styles, technical formats, and infrastructures of mass media, as well as the political and economic conditions of their emergence, simultaneously transform established practices of religious mediation and “shape the specific modes by which religions go public, modes that are difficult to control by religious establishments.”[2] The scholarship on the proliferation of Islamic media in other contexts has mostly tended to emphasize the alternative and/or oppositional character of such media in terms of how they circulate discourses, practices, and ethical sensibilities that are critical of and/or incommensurate with secular-liberal suppositions, market rationality, and secular state power.[3] This memo argues, however, that the discourses and sensibilities promoted on Islamic television in Turkey have mostly articulated with secular-liberal notions of “proper religion” as well as the priorities of the Turkish state and its governmental rationalities.

Islamic television in Turkey

Islam has been ever-present on Turkish television screens since the inception of broadcasting in 1968. Yet, state broadcaster TRT – which held a monopoly on broadcasting until 1990 – represented Islam only in the form of mosque sermon broadcasts on religious holidays, as well as a 15-30 minute show called The World of Faith (İnanç Dünyası), aired once a week and daily during Ramadan.[4] On this show, worship was represented as an act that took place between God and the believer either in the private sphere of one’s home or the mosque. Thus, TRT sought to depict Islam as interiorized, disembodied, and privatized faith rather than a way of life structured by discursive traditions and embodied practices.[5]

Following the liberalization of broadcasting in 1990, privately owned Islamic TV channels proliferated. Their programming was initially distinctly theological in character, with shows focusing on the doctrinal, scriptural, and ritualistic aspects of Islam.[6] Privately owned TV broadcasting also provided opportunities for marginal religious figures and the ulema affiliated with underground religious orders to challenge the secular state’s totalistic and uniform interpretation of Islam and the hegemonic religious authority represented by state-appointed religious functionaries. However, Islamic television channels’ critical stance toward the secularist establishment and their non-hegemonic programming was rather short-lived.

Only two years after the Islamist Welfare Party won the national elections in 1995 and formed a coalition government, the National Security Council pushed the Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan out of power. As part of its operations against Islamists, the Turkish military sent an ultimatum to several media outlets, including twenty television stations, for constituting a threat to secularism.[7] Such intimidation tactics have been quite effective. During my ethnographic fieldwork in 2012, when the so-called “pro-Islamist” AKP have been in power for roughly a decade, Islamic TV executives were hesitant to refer to their channels as “Islamic” or “religious.”[8] Instead, they defined themselves as “non-mainstream,” “family friendly,” or “family-focused” channels with religious, moral, and nationalist sensibilities.

The closure of Welfare Party forced Islamists to realize that the only way to gain ascendancy in the state was to adopt secularism-friendly and Western-oriented discourses and policies, which also involved incorporation into neoliberal capitalism. In 2001, the reformist faction of the Islamist movement formed the Justice and Development Party (AKP) under the leadership of Erdoğan, who has incorporated political Islam into the global neoliberal regime and turned Islamists and conservative Muslims toward a market-oriented and consumerist direction.[9] Since then, pious Turkish Muslims have been striving to reconcile the strictures of orthodox Sunni Islam with a consumerist middle class life style, an indispensable component of which is leisurely activities including watching television.

As a result of pious Muslims’ integration into commercial mass culture, Islamic TV channels also changed. Not being able to cope with the demands of consumerist broadcasting based on advertising revenues; most Islamic channels began to appeal to a broader audience by introducing more diverse programming.[10] Islamic channels that chose to retain the “non-hegemonic” and “alternative” Islamic content of their programming have either disappeared or remained restricted to regional or satellite broadcasts and a niche audience. More mainstream Islamic channels, however, have been experimenting with and capitalizing on different genres and formats that transcend conventional expectations of “Islamic” programming, such as studio entertainment, dramas, game shows, reality TV, and day-time talk shows.

Mainstream Islamic broadcasters have been making a concerted effort to resolve the dilemmas of reconciling entertainment with the cultural codes of piety and Islamic modesty, as well as appropriating television to lead their audience toward a more virtuous life. To illustrate the Janus-faced nature of the medium, several of my interlocutors compared television to a knife during our conversations: in the same way a knife can be utilized either as a culinary device to feed people or as a weapon to injure or kill someone, so can TV be used either to educate and guide audiences toward the right moral path or to corrupt them through needless entertainment. It is in this context that family-focused programing is positioned as a moral and pedagogical corrective to the permissive entertainment assumed to be inherent in television as a medium.

Family-focused Islamic programming

Within roughly the last decade, “family-friendly” entertainment programs as well as family-related shows aimed at resolving domestic problems and “strengthening the family” have proliferated. Producers of such shows consider themselves moral entrepreneurs aiming to prevent what they see as the increasing corrosion of the “moral fabric of the family” and the devaluation of “family values” in contemporary Turkish society. They justify their family-focused programming as “civil initiatives” against the “moral degeneracy” caused by mainstream entertainment media as well as an “antidote” to the “toxic influence” of such media on “family values.”[11]

During my fieldwork in 2012, there were ten family-related shows being aired on various Islamic channels.[12] To illustrate, The Family Court (Aile Mahkemesi), a popular reality TV show aired on Samanyolu TV, tries to solve the problems of a particular family in each episode with the guidance of a judge. Unlike its American counterparts (such as Judge Judy), which deal with small claim-based disputes of a financial nature, this show focuses on familial issues and highlight the duties and responsibilities of spouses to each other and their children, the importance of respecting elders, the necessity of avoiding marital disputes, domestic violence, adultery, and so on. The Lady (Hanımefendi), is a daytime show aired on Hilal TV and hosted by Saliha Erdim, a hijab-wearing family counselor who provides her audiences with religious guidance and self-help techniques to help them cultivate skills to administer their family affairs effectively. Forty Years Sharing a Bed (Bir Yastıkta Kırk Yıl) is a nighttime show aired on Kanal 7 aimed at encouraging conjugal marriage and discouraging divorce by featuring heart-warming life stories of old couples who have been married forty years or more.

Those involved in the production of family-related shows describe the rationale for such programming as a “social responsibility (sosyal sorumluluk),” [13] which has become a buzzword in Turkish political and corporate culture over the last decade. With the neoliberal restructuring of the Turkish polity since the 1980s, but more significantly throughout the AKP’s incumbency, the responsibility to cope with the risks posing a threat to the Turkish nation have started to be shared by non-state actors who feel a civic sense of duty to protect the nation against “social evils.”[14] The prevalence of Islamic TV shows aimed at “strengthening the family” coincides with the proliferation of discourses like “family crisis” and the “decline of family values” during the incumbency of the AKP government. Underlying this rationality is the belief that the social and moral orders are at risk because the family institution is deteriorating. Such discourses situate the family as the source of socio-economic problems facing the Turkish society, such as unemployment, poverty, homelessness, addiction, crime, and so on. The family is conceptualized as both the cause of an individual’s disorderly conduct and the site of its containment, as well as the building block of society because of its pedagogical function. Thus, according to this logic, the Turkish society would be facing fewer problems if the family were to fulfill its function in disciplining and policing the conduct of its members appropriately. It is within this context that Islamic broadcasters describe their family-focused programming as a “social responsibility” aimed at assisting the state to strengthen the family against the negative influences of urbanization, atomized individualism, and an immoral media scene.

Despite their reluctance to be associated with the state or the government, there is a significant convergence between government projects and family-focused Islamic television programming. Most televangelists and other television personalities that host family guidance shows also take part in other family-related projects organized by AKP-led municipalities and the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). For example, Saliha Erdim trained preachers working for Diyanet’s Family Guidance and Religious Counseling Offices about the fundamentals of family counseling. Hosted and sponsored by several AKP-led municipalities in Istanbul, televangelist Mustafa Karataş delivers a series of public lectures titled “The Prophet’s Family Life” and “Islamic Family Values.” Moreover, Muhsin Bay made a television adaptation of the book Forty Years Sharing a Bed, which is distributed to couples who get their marriage certificates from the AKP-governed Üsküdar Municipality with the goal of discouraging these couples from getting a divorce in the future.

Normalizing familial responsibilities through television:

Since the AKP came to power, Islamic TV programming has increasingly focused on providing viewers with religious and psychological guidance, self-help, and personal development with the aim of resolving domestic problems and inculcating the responsibility to provide for and take care of one’s family. These TV channels’ focus on instilling familial responsibility coincides with the reconfiguration of state policies toward strengthening the family as the main provider of nurturance, protection, moral inculcation, and welfare as well as the increasing devolution of the responsibility of social care from the state to the family. [15]

The Family Guide (Aile Rehberi), a self-help style talk show aired on Mehtap TV, clearly illustrates how Islamic television serves to inculcate familial responsibility in viewers by encouraging them to consider themselves accountable for enhancing their families’ well being. In an episode, a female theologian warns viewers that the unwillingness to fulfill one’s familial duties is a grave sin:

When you get married, you sign a contract and testify that you have accepted your responsibilities. You don’t have the luxury to say, ‘I don’t feel like feeding my child today or providing for my family.’ You shoulder the responsibility of giving your spouse, your children, your extended family, and your spouse’s family their rightful due (kul hakkı) […] To deprive someone of their rightful due is a grave sin (vebal) in Islam.

Within the same episode, a hijab-clad family counselor compares forming a family union through marriage to initiating a business venture, whereby business partners make investments and shoulder responsibilities toward ensuring the successful management of their company. She complains that married couples stop investing in their families once the marriage ceremony is over.

This show and others also advise viewers to be prudent (e.g. “Wives should refrain from trying to keep up with the Joneses.”); self-reliant (e.g. “Don’t expect your parents to keep supporting you financially after getting married.”); entrepreneurial (e.g. “You can turn your hobby into profit by selling your handicrafts in a marketplace.”); and responsible for the caring of their family members (e.g. “You should take care of your old parents instead of sending them to nursing homes.”) In addition to the endorsement of neoliberal market rationality, these family shows simultaneously advocate upholding so-called “traditional family values” through love, caring, devotion, and self-sacrifice— as opposed to those values considered to be endemic in contemporary consumerist society such as autonomy, individualism, and self-centeredness. Although the moral values of caring, devotion, and self-sacrifice seem to be in contradistinction with market rationalities, in fact, these co-exist in a productive tension.[16] While the promotion of the other-oriented, disinterested, caring self is in line with religiously inspired ethical norms, it is simultaneously implicated in broader economic processes such as the privatization of care and the withdrawal of the state from the provision of welfare services.

Hikmet Kocamaner is a visiting fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and a visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Boston University.

**This memo is a summary of Kocamaner’s article entitled “Strengthening the Family through Television: Islamic Broadcasting, Secularism, and the Politics of Responsibility in Turkey,” which is forthcoming in Anthropological Quarterly.

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[2] Meyer, Birgit, and Annelies Moors. 2005. Religion, Media, and the Public Sphere. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p. 11.

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[4] The show mostly consisted of recitations of the Qur’an in Arabic delivered by a state-appointed and formally dressed hafız, followed by these same recitations in their Turkish translation read by a disembodied voice-over.

[5] Several scholars have demonstrated how secularism is primarily concerned with the reformulation of religion as interiorized, disembodied, and privatized faith for the sake of curtailing its political influence. See:

Agrama, Hussein Ali. 2010. “Secularism, Sovereignty, Indeterminacy: Is Egypt a Secular or a Religious State?” Comparative Studies in Society and History 52 (3):495-523.

Asad, Talal. 2003. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Mahmood, Saba. 2010. “Can Secularism be Otherwise?” In Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, edited by Michael Warner, Jonathan VanAntwerpen and Craig J Calhoun. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[6] Through their shows, these channels sought to maintain the ethical and pedagogical functions of sermons (vaaz) and religious conversations (sohbet) delivered by the ulema. This was significantly different from the state broadcaster’s approach in which the “meaning” of the Qur’an or the hadith was limited to its Turkish translation and left to the personal interpretation of audiences.

[7] Islamic channels have also been closely regulated by the Radio and Television Supreme Council, which penalizes channels that violate the broadcasting law, according to which TV channels should not broadcast content deemed inimical to the Turkish state and its national interests.

[8] They were worried that the use of this term might be seen as evidence that would affirm suspicions about their assumed ulterior motive to undermine secularism.

[9] Tuğal, Cihan. 2009. Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

White, Jenny. 2014. Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[10] Öncü, Ayşe. 2000. “The Banal and the Subversive Politics of Language on Turkish Television.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 3 (3):296-318.

Öncü, Ayşe. 2005. “Becoming “Secular Muslims”: Yaşar Nuri Öztürk as a Super-subject on Turkish Television.” In Religion, Media, and the Public Sphere, edited by Birgit Meyer and Annelies Moors. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[11] The words in quotations were commonly used by Islamic TV producers throughout my fieldwork. One of the popular genres to which Islamic TV producers conceive of their family-oriented programs as an alternative is the matchmaking/marriage shows. According to Islamic TV producers and executives, such shows are inimical to the Turkish family values since they represent the “sacred” institution of marriage as some sort of a market place where people publicly display and advertise themselves.

[12] These shows included Family Court (Aile Mahkemesi) on Samanyolu TV, Guiding the Family (Aile Rehberi) on Mehtap TV, The Happy Family (Mutlu Aile) on Ülke TV, Educating our Offspring (Nesillerin Eğitimi) on KonTV, Family Happiness in Both Worlds (Saadet-i Dareyn) on Çağrı TV, Our Children and Us (Çocuk ve Biz) on Dost TV, The Lady (Hanımefendi) on Hilal TV, Forty Years Sharing a Bed (Bir Yastıkta Kırk Yıl) on Kanal 7, From Within Life with Ikbal (İkballe Hayatın İçinden) on Kanal 7, and Gate of Affection (Muhabbet Kapisi) on Kanal 7.

[13] To illustrate, quoting the former CEO of a well-known corporation, televangelist Necmettin Nursaçan told me during our interview, “As the late Kadir Has mentioned in a charity event, ‘Don’t think that I am here to boast about how charitable I am. I am here to pay back my debt to the nation in which I was born.’ Likewise, we owe our nation and the state. It is our social responsibility to share our knowledge with those families in need of this knowledge.”

[14] Ipek-Can, Yasemin. 2013. “Securing “Security” amid Neoliberal Structuring: Civil Society and Volunteerism in Post-1990 Turkey.” In Rhetorics of Insecurity: Belonging and Violence in the Neoliberal Era, edited by Zeynep Gambetti and Marcial Godoy-Anativia. New York: NYU Press.

[15] By situating the family as inherently the most ideal site for providing financial, physical, and psychological care for the elderly, the disabled, and children, government policies have sought to devolve the responsibility for assuring social protection and security to the family. To illustrate, since 2005, the Turkish Social Services and Child Protection Agency has implemented a program commonly known as “Back to the Family,” which proposes to send children placed in institutional care facilities due to economic reasons either back to their biological families or to foster families and to give these families monetary assistance. According to this program, family care at home is not only presented as the most moral, humane, and natural way to provide care and upbringing but also justified to be economically more efficient than institutional care. Moreover, the AKP has placed new incentives to encourage families to assume responsibility for providing home care for the elderly rather than sending them to state-run nursing homes.

[16] According to anthropologist Andrea Muehlebach, it is this “productive tension, and the tendency of proponents of this morality to present it as opposed to market rationalities” that make neoliberal ethics so compelling to many people coming from different walks of life, including faith-based actors. See:

Muehlebach, Andrea. 2012. The Moral Neoliberal: Welfare and Citizenship in Italy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 24

Muehlebach, Andrea. 2013. “The Catholicization of Neoliberalism: On Love and Welfare in Lombardy, Italy.” American Anthropologist 115 (3):452-465.