Un-Islamic, subversive and against God were some of the words used by Saudi Arabia's grand mufti when he issued his fatwa, or religious decree, slamming the widely popular Turkish soap operas that took the Arab world by storm this year.
The words that he failed to mention were romantic, entertaining, relatable and inspirational, which is how most of the 85 million people who tuned into the finale of the most popular series ‘Noor’ described it.
Noor, originally 'Gumus' in Turkish, told the story of a young woman who married a powerful yet romantic and loving man named Muhanad. The way the show portrayed women and men in a Muslim family was unconventional by Arab standards and aroused the curiosity of millions.
The Turkish phenomenon
The show first aired in Turkey in 2005 to reasonable ratings. In 2008 Saudi-owned MBC group (AlArabiya.net’s parent company) dubbed the soap into colloquial Arabic and gave it a prime time slot on its popular channel MBC4 and the show took off, becoming a television phenomenon.
Noor took the Arab world by storm as its popularity inspired countless discussions by media analysts and audiences were immediately hooked. Another Turkish soap, Sanawat al -Daya'a (The Lost Years), also became a hit.
The show became a socio-cultural phenomenon as three to four million people tuned in to Noor every night, making it the highest rated show ever in recent Arab television history. Another 67 million viewers tuned in to Sanawat al -Daya'a.
Arab viewers inspired by the show rearranged their lifestyles, rescheduled their days and altered their expectations of marriage and romance, revealing what one group of experts labelled "APOWD syndrome: Arab Psychotic Obsession with Drama."
The experts, who gathered in Timbuktu for an international media conference in September, said that the “toxic levels” of drama viewership was disrupting established patterns of behaviour and social relations and recommended Arabs revise their viewing habits.
“I used to schedule my day around Noor and made sure I was home at least half an hour before it started," Lara, a 25-year-old Lebanese national, told AlArabiya.net, adding that she was obsessed with the show and would sometimes spend hours on the phone discussing the characters and plot lines.
Arab media reported a rise in divorce rates as women swooned over Muhanad, played by the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Turkish model Kivanc Tatlitug. There were reports of Arab tourists flocking to Turkey to visit the couple’s mansion and other filming locations.
Fatwas and pop culture
As the Arabic media attempted to understand the fascination of Arab audiences that led them to name their babies after the main characters and berate their spouses for not living up to the expectations created by the show, the Arab obsession with Turkish drama became a worldwide story.
Western newspapers and media analysts wrote about the show’s popularity and sought to understand its success, especially following the fatwas, or religious rulings, that several prominent imams issued against the show.
Noor’s tremendous success revealed the degree of influence popular culture can have on society, prompting religious leaders across the Middle East to condemn the imported show.
The main criticism came from Saudi's highest religious authority, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, who branded Noor ‘subversive’ and ‘un-Islamic’ and called on Muslims to be wary of the “evils” in the show.
Similarly, a Syrian Imam banned worshippers from wearing T-shirts of the soap stars in his mosque, comparing the practice to idol worship.
Two senior Saudi clerics called for owners of television channels that broadcast “debauchery” to be tried and face the death penalty.
This backlash, however, did nothing to stop the majority of people tuning in every night and showed that Arab society is ready for change.
“It is important to recognize that popular culture can be a main source for cultural change,” Dr. Craig Hayden, associate professor of international relations at American University who has studied the Arab media extensively, told Alarabiya.net.
He added although such a show can not overturn decades of accepted cultural beliefs it can introduce different ways of thinking.
Hayden also suggested that the fatwas were more than just an opposition to values promoted in the show, but, represented a battle over media governance and who has the final say in controlling what can be broadcast.
The fact that the fatwas were mostly ignored “shows religious authorities no longer have the kind of control that they wish they had over media content and there are other organizations that they have to share their authority with,” he said.
Elements of Success
Some analysts credited the fatwas with increasing the show’s popularity as it made Western media take notice and more people sought to understand ‘Noormania.’
Noor had “several success elements” including a story line that tackled real issues, similarities between Turkish and Arab cultures, the actors, the production value and the fact that the show aired daily, Mazen Hayek, MBC’s Marketing Director, told AlArabiya.net.
“The impact was about self-identification and self-expression,” he said. “The audience, women in the Arab world, saw in Noor a perfect platform that they identified themselves with…they wished they were Noor living that romance with Muhanad,” he added.
Others attributed the success of Turkish dramas to the fact that the characters in the show filled a void in Arab women who feel like they live in an emotional vacuum.
“The one thing that stands out (about Noor) is the role of the man as supportive and not necessarily a primary character…the couple is portrayed as equal and not in a hierarchical relationship,” said Hayden.
MBC's Hayek said audiences can rest assured there is more to come as MBC began airing two new Turkish dramas Saturday.
"Turkish drama is now an established genre," he said.
Whether any of the new shows can top Noor's popularity remains to be seen.