The Middle East Channel

Leave it to Turkish soap operas to conquer hearts and minds

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.

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The Middle East Channel

What is behind the Scud scare?

Reports in U.S. and Israeli papers on Wednesday, alleging that Syria delivered Scud missiles to Hezbollah, has set off a firestorm about the limits of engagement and the danger posed by Syria and nonstate actors in the region. Yet the ensuing debate has ignored the broader context of which this episode is but a symptom: namely, that the continued lack of resolution to the decades-long conflict between Syria and Israel has been allowed to fester.

This new development could not have been better timed to throw a monkey wrench into Washington's engagement process with Syria and President Barack Obama's efforts to reanimate the stalled peace process in the region. Robert S. Ford, the first ambassador named to Damascus in five years, is in the midst of his confirmation process. A key committee in the Senate has recommended his confirmation, but the ultimate vote among the full Senate has yet to take place. There are many who would like to stop it, not the least because Obama seems ready to push forward efforts to resolve the long-festering Arab -Israeli conflict. On Tuesday, he declared that solving the dispute was a "vital national security interest of the United States" because it is "costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure."

In the short term, the White House's desire to help broker a Middle East peace means getting an ambassador back to Damascus and engaging with Syria. In the long term, it means convincing Israel to return the Golan Heights, a large swath of land that Israel conquered from Syria in 1967 and annexed in 1981 (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed not to return it). Obama's urgency to solve the Arab-Israeli dispute is causing some pro-Israeli groups to push back with the claim that the president is unfairly blaming Israel for the lack of movement on peace talks. Meanwhile, a Syrian Foreign Ministry source says that:

Israel is launching a campaign of statements alleging that Syria is supplying Hizbullah Party in Lebanon with SCUD missiles...Syria, while strongly denying these allegations, believes that Israel aims through them at adding more fuel to the tense atmosphere in the region and to create a climate that paves the way for a potential Israeli aggression in order to evade the requirements of just and comprehensive peace.

Has Syria supplied Hezbollah with Scud missiles? The short answer is that we don't really know. The story was first announced by Israeli President Shimon Peres, who told journalists earlier this week, "Syria claims that it wants peace, while simultaneously delivering Scud missiles to Hezbollah, which is constantly threatening the security of the state of Israel." The Wall Street Journal went further than the Israeli press by claiming that "U.S. officials" as well as Israelis have alleged that Scuds have been transferred from Syria into Lebanon.  The Washington Post, however, took a more cautious stand. It quoted a U.S. official briefed on the matter to say, "I don't think we know whether they've gone over or not." The New York Times followed suit by explaining that "American and French officials have both said that they were aware of the Israeli concerns but did not know whether the missiles had actually been delivered."

A little history can help remind us how difficult it is to detect Scuds, which are easily concealed in a truck. During the 1990-1991 Gulf War, Israeli intelligence kept providing the U.S. Air Force (USAF) coordinates for emplacements of an even larger form of Scud (modified for extended range by the Iraqis). Thiry-nine of these wobbly rockets were fired at Israel while 41 were targeted at Saudi Arabia. All of the Israeli data, assessed by Mossad to have high validity, turned out to be worthless. When this proved to be so, every intelligence resource the USAF had was dedicated to finding the Scuds being fired at Israel and Saudi Arabia. With very few exceptions, the missiles were located only when their launching gave them away. Because satellite intelligence on Scuds is unreliable, this is undoubtedly why both French and U.S. intelligence officers are loath to confirm Israeli claims about the Scuds.

The larger question, however, is not whether Syria has delivered Scuds to Hezbollah. Syria has been rebuilding Hezbollah's missile supplies ever since they were largely exhausted during Israel's 2006 incursion into Lebanon. It will continue to do so as long as Israel refuses to trade land for peace. Syria says it will no longer have any reason to arm Hezbollah once it gets the Golan back and can sign a peace agreement with Israel.

Syria understands that the reason Israel will not return the Golan Heights is because of the terrible imbalance in power between the two countries. So long as there is no peace, Syria will feel compelled to arm itself and its allies. Only this week at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, we were reminded that Israel has hundreds of atomic warheads that can be delivered by missile, plane, and submarine. What's more, Washington continues to supply Israel with large amounts of military aid and cutting-edge military technology. Israel accuses Syria of trying to change the balance of power by introducing Scuds to Lebanon, but from Syria's point of view, it is Israel that has skewed the regional balance.

Israeli officials, when faced with the Golan question in private or at conferences, explain that the reason Israel refuses to strike a deal with Syria is that the country is too weak. It has nothing to give Israel in exchange for the Golan, which has been Israel's quietest border for 35 years. In the face of this debilitating weakness, Syria will do what all weak states do: find powerful allies and try to arm itself. It must also rely on nonstate actors, such as Hezbollah and Hamas. In short, it will struggle to right the balance of power. Some commentators have argued that  Syria ought to simply renounce its current path, make a rapproachment with the West, and by doing so get back the Golan and normalized relations. But the notion that Israel would give Syria back the Golan if it renounces Hezbollah and Iran is naive. The Palestine Liberation Organization renounced violence some time ago and has little to show for it.

King Abdullah of Jordan has recently warned that an Israel-Hezbollah-Lebanon war may be "imminent" if peace is not advanced. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a similar point at the recent AIPAC meeting when she urged both sides to make peace:

Both sides must confront the reality that the status quo of the last decade has not produced long-term security.… We must recognize that the ever-evolving technology of war is making it harder to guarantee Israel's security. For six decades, Israelis have guarded their borders vigilantly. But advances in rocket technology mean that Israeli families are now at risk far from those borders. Despite efforts at containment, rockets with better guidance systems, longer range, and more destructive power are spreading across the region. Hezbollah has amassed tens of thousands of rockets on Israel's northern border. Hamas has a substantial number in Gaza. And even if some of these are still crude, they all pose a serious danger, as we saw last week.

It is thus clear that the only long-term solution to Scuds or the more serious problem of nuclear proliferation in the region is peace. A Syrian-Israeli peace is not impossible -- President Bill Clinton got close in 2000. President Obama can still do it. If he cannot, we will be hearing much more about the spread of missile technology as well nuclear technology.  

Joshua Landis is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author of the blog Syria Comment.

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