Choosing My Religion Turkish Reality TV Show Aims to Convert Non-Believers

A new reality television show has rabbis, priests, imams and monks trying to make non-believers pious. The Vatican is reportedly sending a priest, a Buddhist monk has been recruited and atheists who convert will win a trip to a holy site. The Muslim religious authority in Turkey is not amused.

Channel T is not exactly one of the major players in the Turkish television business. And the niche station, tucked away in a commercial area of Istanbul, has made headlines primarily because of the woman who runs it, Seyhan Soylu. Often simply called "Sisi" by the press, the 36 year old is a former police officer and journalist, a transsexual and the enfant terrible of Turkey.

At 20, the son of a diplomat and graduate of a police academy had a sex change operation. At 22, Sisi appeared on the cover page of an issue of Playboy, and since then she has developed an interest in politics on a bigger scale. As an employee of "state services," Soylu allegedly took part in the overthrow of fundamentalist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan in 1997. Last September, the eloquent blonde with the tattooed upper arms was even arrested and briefly detained on suspicion of membership in Ergenekon , a shadowy, ultra-nationalist organization Ankara believes has plotted to overthrow the government.

So perhaps it comes as no surprise that Sisi also happens to be the force behind the country's most controversial television program. For weeks, a reality show dreamed up by the head of Channel T and called "Tövbekarlar yarisiyor" ("Penitents Compete") has been at the center of public discussion. The show focuses on 12 atheists and several religious dignitaries, including a Catholic and an Orthodox priest, a Muslim imam, a Jewish rabbi and a Buddhist monk.

Religious Authority: "A Debasement of Religion"

For eight weeks, the clerics, acting independently of one another, will try to convert the atheist candidates to their respective faiths. The program will include face-to-face conversations, group question-and-answer sessions and visits to mosques and churches. If the holy men manage to convert a participant, the participant wins a trip to the applicable holy site. A freshly minted Muslim will make a pilgrimage to Mecca at the station's expense, a Jew will go to Jerusalem, a Catholic to the Vatican and a Buddhist to Tibet.

It sounds like a joke, but the show's creators at Channel T are perfectly serious. "We selected our 12 atheists from more than 200 applications. We already have a commitment from the Vatican, which plans to send us a priest," says Soylu in her office in Istanbul's Güngören neighborhood. A rabbi and a Buddhist monk have also been recruited. Initially, the station had difficulty signing on a representative of Islam, but it eventually found a Tunisian imam willing to tackle the challenge.

Soylu says the religious authority had been hesitant about permitting a Turkish imam on the show, but that's putting it mildly. The Office of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) in Ankara reacted angrily to Channel T's announcement about the planned program. "Not a single imam" would participate in this "frippery," outraged Diyanet  President Ali Bardakoglu said in a TV interview. The show, he said, is nothing but a "fatal error" and, what's more, represents a "debasement of religion."

Mustafa Çagrici, the supreme mufti of Istanbul, who, like Bardakoglu, is among the more moderate voices in Turkish Islam, fears the demise of the Eastern world. Experimenting with god, he says heatedly, is detrimental to public harmony.

"We Want to Help People Find God"

Soylu, who sees herself as a "devout Muslim with non-dogmatic views" in a country with a population in which 99 percent share the same faith, has launched a counterattack. "Where is the problem? We don't want to incite a religious war," she says. "We want to help people find God."

If the program does indeed end up offending religious sensibilities, the station can expect to be slapped with a fine by the agency that regulates the Turkish media. In the worst case scenario, it could face the loss of its license.

Ironically, Turkey's media watchdogs have been dealing with increasingly absurd programs for some time now. In the battle for viewers, Turkish channels are outdoing each other with distasteful programs like "Ver coskuyu" ("Come On, Give Me What You've Got"), in which candidates are showered with small bugs or given electric shocks while singing a song. In another show, which has been accused of sexism, a man faces off against 50 blonde women in a test of knowledge -- eventually he wins, exposing the blondes as intellectually inferior.

Sisi's show about atheists and religion is relatively harmless by comparison. Turkish sociologist Nilüfer Narli even feels that it satisfies a social need: the "growing curiosity about other religions." Meanwhile, it remains unclear when exactly "Penitents Compete" will air. The station had announced a September premier at first, but now an advisor to Channel T says that it will not be launched before October -- after Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting.

That much consideration is a must.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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