"Red Buds" – a TV series divides the country

Poster advertising the Turkish television series "Red Buds"
Turkish Fox TV series "Rote Knospen" (Kizil Goncalar) boasts a star cast: musician and actor Ozcan Deniz on the left, actor Ozgu Namal on the right (image: ANKA)

The Turkish media authority has imposed a two-week broadcasting ban and fine on the series "Red Buds", in which religious and liberal worlds collide. The series is apparently too close to the bone

By Elmas Topcu

A TV series is currently causing a stir in Turkey. "Kizil Goncalar" (literally: 'red buds') was launched by the regime-critical broadcaster Fox TV in mid-December. The name sounds like a typical Turkish soap opera – but "Red Buds" is not. The TV series is politically explosive because it holds up a mirror to society and shows the political, economic and social crises in which the country finds itself. Above all, it demonstrates just how deeply Turkey is already divided into a strictly Islamic-religious and a liberal-Western world.     

The film tells the story of Meryem, who was married off at the age of 13 or 14 to Naim, a member of the strict Islamic order "Fainter" ("The Mortals"). In this fictitious order, which in the West would also be called a sect, members are expected to be absolutely faithful – a requirement Naim fulfils with devotion.

Following the devastating earthquake in 2023, Naim, Meryem and their daughter Zeynep turn their backs on their devastated south-east Anatolian homeland and move to the metropolis of Istanbul. Naim serves in a monastery, Meryem helps in the community while their daughter Zeynep is only allowed to attend a Koranic school, not a regular state school.

Soon she will have even bigger problems: The community wants to marry Zeynep off to one of the sect's leaders. The latter is receiving medical treatment from the secular doctor Levent, who follows the Western ideals of state founder Ataturk. These two worlds, which could hardly be more different, are portrayed very realistically and thus provide a clear picture of the country. 

Turkey is divided between Ataturk's legacy – here a pop art-style poster – and political Islam
Turkey between Ataturk's legacy – here a poster in pop art style – and political Islam: a TV series shows how deeply divided the country is between a strictly Islamic-religious and a liberal-western world (image: /AP Photo/picture alliance)

Success and fierce criticism

Turkey has been deeply divided for years. Under the Islamic-conservative AKP, the gulf between the strengthened religious groups and the weakened secular groups has grown ever wider. 

While liberals have been ousted from the state apparatus, the judiciary, universities and, in some cases, the private sector, many religious orders, brotherhoods and religious-conservative organisations have received ever more privileges and considerable financial support. "Red Buds" draws the audience into the inner life of the other group. It forces viewers to become more aware of what a polarised country they live in and to think about what kind of Turkey they want to live in. By the second episode, it had already reached almost seven million viewers – a remarkable rating in Turkey with its 85 million inhabitants. 

The series also triggered a wave of criticism. Both secular-liberal and religious-conservative groups felt they came off badly. The Islamist orders and brotherhoods demonstrated the loudest. They mobilised their supporters so that, according to the media supervisory authority RTUK, around 32,000 complaints were received by the relevant authorities. 

Without further ado, the authority imposed harsh penalties: a two-week break from broadcasting and a fine of around 275,000 euros against broadcaster Fox TV for allegedly violating "national and moral values". In the dialogues, negative adjectives were used for Muslims perceived as religious and in some scenes religiously sensitive people were degraded, according to the RTUK's statement. 

Turkish President Erdogan visiting the Ismailaga community
Turkish President Erdogan visiting the Ismailaga community. The radical Brotherhood has maintained close contact with the AKP for years (image: ANKA)

Government press agitates against "Red Buds"

For Islamic theologian Ihsan Elicia, the harsh punishments come as no surprise. RTÜK has long been aligned with the government and often intervenes in such cases on the grounds that many religious people are complaining. The theologian suspects that such cases offer the government a welcome opportunity to demonstrate its power – and to convey that it will not tolerate any criticism of Islam. The AKP wants to signalise that religious, bearded and veiled people should not be "despised" in Turkey. "They are now in power, they are even the state itself, that is the message," says elicit.

The pro-government press has also been up in arms over the allegedly Islamophobic series. Many viewers, on the other hand, believe "Red Buds" shows a differentiated picture of religious conservatives and secular liberals. The production company has also insisted that its intention was not to make sweeping generalisations. 

"On the one hand, we want to show the devastating consequences of the behaviour of people who abuse their own values. On the other hand, we want to show that good-natured, honest people can find a common language despite their differences," the company explained. 

There is certainly good, but some people choose evil of their own free will. "That upsets these milieus," says Cavdar. 

The Ismailaga community, which is close to the government and has often made negative headlines in recent years – most recently because of the marriage of a six-year-old girl to a religious leader from their order – protested the loudest. Ismailaga has recommended voting in favour of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for years.

Fethullah Gulen, founder of the Gulen movement, lives in the USA. The Turkish government suspects him of being behind the attempted coup in 2016
Fethullah Gulen, founder of the Gulen movement, lives in the USA. The Turkish government is convinced that he was behind the attempted coup in 2016 (image: Hizmet/AGB Photo/imago images)

The influence of Islamist orders

According to studies, four to six percent of the Turkish population have a connection to such Islamist orders and brotherhoods. "The influence of these orders is far greater than their membership figures would suggest," emphasises expert Cavdar. This is because they are well organised and have maintained close and pragmatic relationships with the bureaucracy and politicians - for more than 200 years. 

According to Cavdar, brotherhoods such as the Naksibendi, to which the Ismailaga community also belongs, have been performing important tasks in the state apparatus since the early 19th century. There is also a long tradition of co-operation in politics and bureaucracy, because some in the state believed that such groups could be "useful". 

The researcher explains that these groups do not gain power from the support of the population, but rather from their relationships within the state apparatus. "We have seen again in the recent past what damage such relationships can do to the country," she adds.

This is a reference to the attempted coup in 2016, which centred on a power struggle between the ruling AKP party and the movement of U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gulen. The Gulen movement also supported the AKP for years and infiltrated the state in the process. Since their expulsion, other brotherhoods have taken their place, as media reports show. These brotherhoods are now very powerful in ministries, the judiciary, health, education and the police. 

No fictional TV series is going to be allowed to disturb this privileged world. After all, if the representatives of religious-conservative milieus suddenly started to think about themselves and their lives, "they might realise that their dreams are never going to come true", says Cavdar. " Critical voices need to be silenced so that the inner circles can be kept in check."

Elmas Topcu

© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2024