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Islam and culture

Thanks to its early civilisation and continuous mix of influences, the Muslim world has a rich and varied culture. The study of material culture, books, stories, films and increasingly television series teaches us about the structure of modern-day Muslim societies.

Culture as a powerful weapon

Classical and modern-day culture reflects the society that created it. But culture is also a powerful weapon. Researchers Petra de Bruijn and Gabrielle van den Berg show that popular soaps and classical epics not only offer a clear image of the times, but are also used strategically by the authorities.

Influential television

Every year, Turkey produces approximately eighty soaps that are avidly watched, have an incredible influence, and form an important export product. According to Turkey expert Petra de Bruijn, the growing religiousness characteristic of modern Turkish society is reflected in the popular soaps of religious and pro-government television channels. For example, the sympathetic characters have in the past few years all become pious Muslims, while the villains are shown to indulge in alcohol and other inappropriate pleasures.

In addition, topics that were previously unmentionable are now addressed in these soaps, says De Bruijn. In one of the soap series a secular military officer falls in love with a girl who wears a headscarf. The series thus brings to light the dubious role played in the late 1990s by the army in excluding girls wearing a headscarf from university. The officer experiences how the army and the bureaucracy prevent these girls, who only dream of studying at a university, from realising this dream.

Promotional image of the Turkish soap opera Sefkat Tepe (Compassion Hill) © Samanyolu TV
Promotional image of the Turkish soap opera Sefkat Tepe
(Compassion Hill) © Samanyolu TV

 

Soap power

Turkish soap series are also interesting if you want to study how the authorities and other powerful parties in Turkey appropriate popular culture. In the strongly politicised Turkish media world, the various television channels use soaps to make their ideological points, concludes De Bruijn. Until recently, one of the most famous series showed Turkish soldiers valiantly fighting Kurdish villains. But since the Turkish government has been trying to sign a treaty with the Kurdish resistance movement PKK, the Kurds have suddenly disappeared from the programme. The action has now moved to Syria.

The sovereign as a hero

In the past, the authorities also used culture to strengthen their position and propagate their ideology. For example sovereigns had themselves included in the Shahnameh, a famous epic from the early eleventh century that tells the history of Persia (modern-day Iran). It begins at the creation of the world and continues until the annexation of Persia by the Arab Empire in the seventh century. Islamic sovereigns added their own illustrations and story elements in beautiful new manuscripts of the work, critical editions of which first appeared in the nineteenth century.

Strategic approach to heritage

Persia expert Gabrielle van den Berg is primarily interested in the many stories surrounding the Shahnameh that did not make it into the official editions, but that appear repeatedly in the manuscript tradition of Islamic sovereigns. She visits libraries all over the world to identify the many story lines that were not considered to be authoritative. It is precisely these story lines that provide us with insight into how the rulers of the time used cultural heritage strategically, while also teaching us something about modern-day rulers. For instance, in modern-day Central Asian Uzbekistan, the fourteenth century conqueror Tamerlane – whose life was immortalised according to the Shahnameh model – is presented as the icon of the new Uzbek national identity. This shows that modern-day rulers also use stories to turn history to their advantage.

Page from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, the second Shah of the Safavid dynasty. In the 16th century he ruled over what is nowadays Iran.