Notes from the field (2010):

The rise of “Islamic” broadcasting in Turkey

posted by Hikmet Kocamaner

My previous post was about how the state monopoly television broadcaster TRT helped popularize and reinforce the secular understanding of religion and its place in the public sphere. State-owned TRT considered Islam a “religion” that could be represented only in a limited, privatized form, rather than a way of life regulated by traditions and practices. However, the transformation of the political scene as well as the liberalization of the media industry in Turkey have contributed to the reconfiguration of the concept of “religion” and its representation on TV.

The secularist state tradition in Turkey was challenged significantly in the 1990s. The neoliberal economic reforms that were pursued consistently after the 1980 military coup made possible in the 1990s the rise of a “Muslim” middle-class, characterized by a new style of consumption culture that underscored their Muslim identity. This new “Muslim” social class claimed access to the public, educational, and economic opportunities of which they had been deprived, generally in the name of democracy. The printing of newspapers, the publication of religious books, and the growth of innumerable religious projects—ranging from health centers, child-care facilities, and youth dorms to financial institutions and consumer cooperatives—flourished during this decade. Islam’s regained presence in the public was amplified by the electoral victory of the Refah (Welfare) Party, known for its Islamist tendencies. Refah won the national elections in 1995 and formed a coalition government with a mainstream center-right party (DYP). This event signified a big change in the power relations between secularist and Islamist political forces. Islam stamped its dominance onto the political arena for the first time within the history of the secular Turkish Republic.

During this decade, the appeal of television was such that, according to a survey done in 1991, 60 percent of Turkish families and 99 percent of metropolitan households owned a color television, (which was more than the number of households that owned telephones.) This market led a satellite broadcaster to launch Turkish programming from abroad, bypassing the state’s monopoly. This de facto deregulation resulted in the launching of a series of numerous new commercial television channels. Liberalization of television broadcasting contributed to the representation of previously ignored cultural groups, who, since then, have acquired visibility and voice on TV and entered the public realm of argument and scrutiny.

One of those identities previously excluded from the public sphere was the Islamic. As discussed in my previous post, although “religion” was represented on TRT to a certain extent, those so-called Islamists, who identify themselves primarily as Muslims and then as citizens, and even just as pious Muslims, were virtually absent on television screens. After the de facto liberalization of broadcasting in 1990, several Islamic radio stations were initiated. Turkey’s first nationwide “Islamic” television channel, TGRT, started broadcasting in 1993. This station was owned by Turkey’s largest conservative/Islamic daily newspaper Türkiye. TGRT was followed a year later by STV, affiliated with the Gulen movement. Soon after two other stations were established: Kanal 7 and Mesaj TV.

Like all of the other private TV channels, these Islamic channels were stationed in Istanbul, the capital of the bygone Ottoman Empire, rather than in Ankara, the capital of the modern, secular Turkish Republic, where TRT’s headquarters is located. This shifting of the television industry from Ankara to Istanbul was just a matter of practicality on the part of the broadcasters, Istanbul’s being considered the financial and cultural center of Turkey. Nonetheless, I believe this shift also has an ideological significance: it implies the transformation of the broadcasting culture from the exclusivist mindset of state bureaucracy to the plurality of identities and perspectives brought into the television scene by private broadcasters. Istanbul is also significant as the setting for the visibility of multiple subjectivities on TV due to its cosmopolitan nature. It historically acted as a cosmopolitan center due to its role as the capital of a multi-ethnic and multi-faith empire. With the mass migration from the east of rural people from different ethnicities (some of whom live a visibly Islamic lifestyle) into western urban areas since the late 1970s, Istanbul has become the most densely populated city in Turkey, where the previously unseen ethnic and religious identities have become almost impossible to overlook.

Through their programming, these TV stations sought to maintain the ethical and pedagogical function of traditional sermons (vaaz) and conversations (sohbet) within the technical formats, narratives, discourses, and aesthetics of a different medium than traditional ones based on auditory sensibilities. Therefore, the programming of these TV stations, as Ayşe Öncü claims, was initially distinctly “Islamic” in character, with shows aimed at educating “viewers in the high culture of scriptural Islam.” For example, TGRT had a show during primetime in which a prominent divinity professor read passages from the Qur’an and explained for the audiences what they meant and how they should be interpreted in different contexts depending on the opinions of different scholars. That this show explicitly referred to the context of authoritative interpreters was significantly different from TRT’s approach in which the Qur’an’s “meaning” was limited to its translation and left to the “personal” interpretation of the audience. STV also realized the potential of television to expand Islamic pedagogy. They soon came up with a different format—one that is based on deliberation and discussion. In this show, several men engaged in “religious conversation” on a topic that was socially and culturally pertinent at the time.

These broadcasters strove to help generate and sustain the spectatorial conditions for a modern Islamic ethics. They could be described as initiatives against the official “secularism” represented by the state broadcasting agency TRT.  These channels provided an alternative for the official “secularism” represented by TRT’s broadcasting policies and thus helped fashion an alternative public sphere, where religion could be represented as part of the daily public life and religious authority could be kept a part of the process of public deliberation.

Before long, however, most of these “religious” TV channels became similar to their “secular” counterparts in terms of the genres, format, and scheduling of their programming. What was the motive behind such a transformation? Is such a change inevitable due to the inherently “secular” nature of the medium of television? Has this change in the formal aspects of their programming translated itself into a transformation of the “Islamic” content of their shows as well? In other words, is the medium the message? I will address these questions in my next post.

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