From Turkey with Love. But…

Dear Iran, we are scared of you.

Tehran Bureau | comment

It is not that we don’t appreciate Kiarostami. Nor it is that we don’t admire Rumi or Ferdowsi. In fact tickets were sold out for Persepolis. We have always known that Iran is more than just Ahmadinejad. It is Shahriar, it is the Shahnameh, it is the sound of tanbur, setar and santur. Forgive us for the fear runs deep, and please don’t take it personally. Perhaps we are scared of ourselves, and you are just a mirror?

In late October, the Turkish and Iranian state broadcasting organizations–namely, the Turkish Radio and Television Cooperation (TRT) and the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB)– made an agreement to foster cross-cultural dialogue through an agreement to boost television cooperation.

Tehran Times reported that the agreement aimed to “exchange films and TV series, develop international and educational cooperation, and make joint productions.” The promise for cooperation came after Ezzatollah Zarghami, director of the IRIB, paid an official visit to TRT, upon his Turkish counterpart Ibrahim Shahin’s invitation.

The meeting was lucrative. The two parties discussed how to promote cultural ties, as well as prospects for joint production of films and music, and publishing books. Ertugrul Gunay, the Turkish Culture Minister, said that the friendship should be strengthened, and Mr. Zarghami “presented the TV series of ‘Shahriar’ as the ‘first step of bilateral cooperation.’” He mentioned that the IRIB would propose to the TRT a number of Iranian shows produced for the month of Ramadan.

The news found some coverage in Iran. However, the story hit the Turkish media like a meteor. Worried that Turkey’s mostly secular media would be under Islamic influence by IRIB’s Ramadan series, Turkish newspapers started to criticize the TRT’s decision. Vatan, a largely-circulated paper, highlighted that Mr. Zarghami made it mandatory for Iranian TV series to include scenes of prayers, and TRT’s shaking hands with him was unacceptable. The newspaper also drew attention to Mr. Zarghami’s proposal to include educational prayer instructions in TV programs for children.

Vatan wasn’t alone.

A well-respected online news portal,, talked to TRT’s spokesperson Birol Uzunay, who said that Turkey would only resort to Iranian footage “if it’s really necessary.” Uzunay also said that “our country is a democratic, secular country. We are tolerant. It is Iranians that aren’t tolerant, and they should think about [what to do with] the [Turkish] footage they agree to broadcast.”

Yucel Yener, the former executive director of the TRT, said that Iranian programs are against the TRT’s broadcasting principles and since Iran is an Islamic Republic, television is an instrument of propaganda.

What was it that made the Turkish public so anxious about a seemingly simple broadcast agreement? What at the outset seems like agitation is perhaps a certain paranoia that runs deep in the public’s psyche, because Turkish mental associations about the word “Iran” has always been more than just “next door neighbor.” It is in fact deeply political and has roots in preserving the principles of the Kemalist revolution against the so-called influences of “Islamization.”

Ever since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the country has undergone a tremendous social and political change to assume a western visage. Numerous reforms by Ataturk, ranging from the abolition of the Caliphate to the Hat Law of 1925 that introduced Western understanding of fashion to the public almost resulted in burning bridges with whatever laid in the East.

Although Turkey and Iran have close economic ties today, the two remain at odds politically. Modern Turkey watched the Islamic Revolution with concern, and Turkey dealt with various forms of Islamic movements and organizations that pointed at Iran as their primary influence. The Constitutional Court also shut down political parties in the past–such as Welfare Party and the Virtue Party in years 1998 and 2001 respectively–due to their Islamic agenda.

In fact, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had roots in the Welfare Party, has had to try really hard to make Kemalists believe that he has “changed,” (meaning, he was less Islamist and more secular), when he started the now-ruling party “Justice and Development.”

Even if he tried to remain at a distance from any agenda reminiscent of political Islam in his first term, Mr. Erdogan reanimated long established fears of Islamization by introducing the legislation to remove the ban on headscarves in universities.

The world watched as thousands of concerned Kemalists filled streets in Ankara, Izmir and Istanbul to protest the government’s steps to legalize headscarves as a democratic right of women, fearing that the AKP aspired to transform Turkey into just another Iran.

In past and contemporary occasions such as this, the famous slogan of Turkish political life– a.k.a. “Turkey will not become Iran!”–has emerged and been repeated zillions of times. More than a simple motto, it is almost an existential statement for some concerned secularists in Turkey. That is why they tend to analyze the present according to trends and political realities of the past. And that is why what at the outset seems like a simple broadcast agreement revives fears of religious radicalism, of creeping Islamization.

Of course, this brief analysis doesn’t justify a national knee-jerk reaction against cultural exchange between the two neighboring countries. However, it does raise important questions that Turkey should be asking herself: Even though television is an influential apparatus, would a few films really catch Turkish secularism off-guard? Why has fear become the national reflex, rather than critical thinking? The series might not be appealing politically or artistically, but maybe they will teach rather than hurt?

Does Turkey prefer isolating its popular culture from the so-called “detrimental” influences to keep its politics intact? How are we to understand Iran and situate Rumi, Ferdowsi, or Shahriar in the mutual cultural heritage then?

The media frenzy is indicative of an insecurity in the Turkish psyche that implies our fear of our own political mechanism, rather than Iran herself.

But as long as Turkey refuses to see the Iran that exists beyond its fears, rosey calls for mutual understanding will fail, regardless of how long established the relations are.

So, dear Iran, sad but true: You’ve been right next to us for years, but alas we perhaps don’t yet know you.

3 Responses to “From Turkey with Love. But…”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Outside of certain touristy Istanbul (some would say Islambul…) neighborhoods Turkey actually appears more conservative than Iran. Afterall, Istanbul was the seat of the Sunni Caliphate from the 1500’s until it was abolished by Mustapha Kemal aka Ataturk, in the 1920’s.
    So when Turkey looks at Iran, it sees a mirror image of itself. With the imposed Western visage removed. Sort of like someone waking up, staggering into the bathroom and taking a good look at his or her reflection in the morning (bed hair, warts, bristles and all).

  2. Anonymous Says:

    I assume the Turkish programs will be dubbed into Persian, rather than subtitled?

    Some have argued that Turkish-language programming, picked up by Iranian Azeris via satellite, has led to an increase in Turkic-self identification amongst Azerbaijanis in Iran.

    From what I understand, the Islamic Republic’s approach to minority languages in Iran, including Turkish, has been pretty wary, so it would be interesting if they were officially sanctioning Turkish-language programs.

  3. Iasonn Says:

    all this reminds me of the trepidation with which Ottoman princes were sent to Persia. On the one hand, it was important to learn courtly Persian and imbibe the poetry and literature. On the other, it was feared that the lure of the culture would be so strong as to turn these princes into potential traitors. Therefore, they were not sent to Persia until they were judged of a mature age.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: