By Robert F. Worth
26 September, 2008
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Many Arabs were shocked and appalled earlier this month when a prominent Saudi cleric declared that it was permissible to kill the owners of satellite TV stations that broadcast “immoral” material.
Saudi clerics have denounced popular soap operas like "Bab al-Hara," which attract enormous audiences during Ramadan.
But the comment, by Sheik Saleh al-Luhaidan, was only the most visible part of a continuing cultural controversy over Arab television. This summer another Saudi cleric denounced the Arab world’s most popular television show ever — the dubbed Turkish series “Noor” — calling it “replete with evil, wickedness, moral collapse and a war on the virtues.” He also barred Muslims from watching the series, which portrays the lives of moderate Muslims who drink wine with dinner and have premarital sex.
And last week, as if to provide comic relief, a third Saudi cleric said (in all seriousness) that children should not be allowed to watch Mickey Mouse, labeling the cartoon character a “soldier of Satan” who should be killed.
To some extent, the controversy — which has generated more than a few headlines in the Arab press — reflects a cultural gap between the producers and consumers of television. While most Arab television dramas are produced in Syria and Egypt, the Arab world’s biggest TV market, in Saudi Arabia, is by far the most religiously and culturally conservative.
Some shows that test the limits on the treatment of sex and gender roles are clearly “exposing people who are culturally isolated to modernity at a pace that is faster than they would like,” said Ramez Maluf, an associate professor of communications at Lebanese American University.
But it may be the rising popular impact of television, as much as its content, that is making these shows so controversial. Four major serials scheduled to run through the Muslim holy month of Ramadan have been canceled, none of them for moral or religious reasons. Perhaps not coincidentally, recent surveys released by Arab satellite television networks suggest that TV dramas are reaching larger audiences than ever before.
Two shows about Bedouin history were dropped because they apparently offended the sensitivities of tribal leaders in Saudi Arabia, and two Syrian shows were canceled after they treaded too close to criticizing members of the Syrian government.
“You can’t put the consumer back in the box, and the authorities find that threatening,” said one Arab television executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions. “A generation is growing up, and they watch this stuff and care about it; they upload the characters’ faces onto their cellphones.”
Ramadan, which ends early next week, always puts a special focus on television because Arab networks prepare special monthlong series that attract enormous audiences. Many of the shows are religious or traditional in their themes, in deference to the holiday, but not all, and there have been criticisms from conservatives in the past. But this year there have been an unusually high number of cancellations and controversies, according to television executives and media analysts.
Arab governments have long tried to stifle the development of critical news coverage, especially on television. This year, they renewed that effort, with most of the Arab information ministers signing an agreement in Cairo to impose restrictions on the satellite channels that have done so much to free up the airwaves in the past decade.
The recent controversy over muselselaat, as the soap opera-style serials are known, suggests that Arab authorities, whether religious, tribal or political, are also anxious about the shows’ extraordinary public reach and their power to challenge accepted ideas or traditions.
Perhaps the best example is “Noor,” the popular Turkish series that ran over the summer. The show violated Arab cultural taboos in a number of ways: besides having Muslim characters who drank wine with dinner and had premarital sex, one of the male protagonist’s cousins had an abortion.
Perhaps more important, the male protagonist, called Muhannad in the Arabic version, treats his wife as an equal and supports her career as a fashion designer.
The show and the liberties it displayed prompted unusual condemnations from hard-line clerics throughout the Middle East, including Sheik Abdul Aziz al-Asheik, Saudi Arabia’s leading cleric, who instructed Muslims not to watch it.
But the show appears to have been the single most popular television drama ever shown in the Arab world. The finale, broadcast on Aug. 30, drew 85 million viewers, according to surveys by the Middle East Broadcasting Corporation, the network that showed it. Of those, more than 51 million were women over 15, more than half the total number of adult women in the entire Arab world.
Its handsome protagonist became a heartthrob, and his respectful treatment of his wife caused marital arguments and even divorces in several countries, according to reports in Arab newspapers.
The success of “Noor” was not just in its characters and themes, but also in its language. The show, which flopped when it was shown in Turkey, was dubbed for Arab audiences into colloquial Arabic, not the more formal version of the language spoken on news shows. This is rare in the Arab world, where most foreign shows are subtitled.
“Dubbing the show into colloquial speech brought it much closer,” Mr. Maluf said. “Some people were thirsting for that, and others found it very threatening.”
That divided response was apparent this month when Sheik Luhaidan, the Saudi cleric, made his comment about killing the owners of satellite TV stations that broadcast indecent material.
His comments were quickly rebroadcast, and an uproar ensued. Critics across the ideological spectrum, including some hard-line Saudis, berated him as having crossed the line. Some of the television networks Sheik Luhaidan appeared to be referring to are owned, after all, by members of the Saudi royal family.
Sheik Luhaidan, who is chief justice of Saudi Arabia’s highest legal authority, the Supreme Judicial Council, is said to have been surprised by all the controversy.
A few days later, apparently under pressure from senior figures in the Saudi government, he appeared on state television to explain. He said he had not meant to encourage or condone the murder of station owners. Assuming other penalties do not deter them, he said, the owners should first be brought to trial and sentenced to death — and then they could be executed.