Saudi fatwa row spoils Ramadan TV season

Saudi's top judge has caused an outcry by calling for the owners of TV stations broadcasting "depraved" drama series to be killed, although he added that this should be done only through a judicial process.
Saudi fatwa ramadan.jpg
Ramadan is to Arab TV drama producers what the Superbowl is to American advertisers. © S.M. /

BEIRUT, September 15, 2008 (MENASSAT) – To many in the Arab world, they have become as much part of Ramadan as fasting: the dozens of musalsals, or Ramadan TV drama series, which are typically broadcast after the daily breaking of the fast to an audience of millions.

Now, Saudi Arabia's top judge Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan has spoiled the fun by calling for the owners of TV stations broadcasting what he called "immoral" TV programs to be killed.

In what amounted to a fatwa, Luhaidan said, "It is lawful to kill... the apostles of depravation... if their evil cannot be easily removed through simple sanctions."

The Sheikh, who heads the Kingdom's Supreme Judicial Council, made his remarks last Thursday on a radio program in response to a caller who asked about Islam's view on satellite TV channels that broadcast "bad programs" during Ramadan. The remarks were then rebroadcast by the Saudi-owned satellite TV station Al-Arabiya.

"What does the owner of these networks think, when he provides seduction, obscenity and vulgarity?" said Luhaidan.

"Those calling for corrupt beliefs, certainly it's permissible to kill them. Those calling for sedition, those who are able to prevent it but don't, it is permissible to kill them."

Ramadan season is to Arab TV drama what the Superbowl is to advertising in the United States; practically all TV drama series are scheduled during the Muslim month of fasting when they are assured of a captive audience.

Arab TV producers often try to push the limits of what is acceptable in their Ramadan programming, although any political, social or religious criticism is usually cloaked in allegories or relatively safe historic settings.

Still, the musalsals typically attract the wrath of the more conservative, religious elements of Arab society.

Another Saudi cleric, Sheikh Saleh al-Foza, said in comments published on Sunday, "If they continue airing depravity and shamelessness, they should be banished from this place and others brought in their place."

He also suggested that purveyors of horoscopes and "sorcery" should face the death penalty.

On Sunday, Sheikh Luhaidan clarified his remarks by saying on state television that the TV station owners should only be put to death after a judicial process.

"They may be killed through a judicial ruling", he said.

"I told them I don't mind if they make sure this [immorality] doesn't happen, but obviously this is hard for them because it's against their policies," the 79-year-old cleric told Saudi TV.

He said he had rejected offers to host a religious show before or after the programs because he did not want his show sandwiched between such "indecent" programs.

Luhaidan added that when he talked about the topic, he started by addressing channel owners and asking them to fear God and stop airing TV shows that confuse people's beliefs and spread ideas that unsuitable for Ramadan.

TV ratings war?

The main networks which Luhaidan appeared to be criticizing belong to wealthy Saudis.

They include the MBC group owned by Sheikh Walid al-Ibrahim, a relative of the Saudi ruling family, and Rotana, which is owned by billionaire Prince Al-Walid bin Talal who also holds a majority stake in the Lebanese channel LBC.

Another network, ART, is owned by Saudi tycoon Saleh Kamel.

According to one media critic, the reason for the current controversy may be nothing more than a banal battle for ratings.

Odwan al-Ahmari, who writes in the daily al-Watan, said it was the religious media that are provoking the clerics to attack the entertainment channels, which have bigger audiences.

"It's the fatwa programs that are trying to stir trouble with the entertainment channels by asking these questions. The Sheikh is bound to say these programs are sinful," al-Ahmari said.

Sheikh Luhaidan also faced criticism from his peers.

Another cleric and member of the Supreme Judicial Council said Luhaidan's remarks risked playing into the hands of the "deviant group" – official Saudi terminology for Al Qaeda.

Luhaidan's "dangerous" remarks were like a gift to extremists who are liable to "pounce on them to recruit our youths for killings and bombings," Sheikh Abdul Mohsen al-Ubaikan said in a statement.

An aide to Luhaidan, who asked not to be named, told AFP that the judicial chief was merely "voicing the dismay of the religious establishment at what is being aired by most satellite television stations, such as programs and series that spread sedition and debauchery."

Luhaidan "lacked diplomacy," the aide conceded.

Luhaidan sparked controversy previously when he issued a religious decree permitting Saudis to join the jihad against U.S. troops in Iraq.

Several analysts have pointed out that it was unfortunate that Luhaidan made his remarks on the day of the 7th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, in which 15 of 19 hijackers were Saudi.

The Dubai-based English-language daily Gulf News said Luhaidan's remarks would harm Islam. "Beheading broadcasters portrays a false image of Islam."

The Emirati daily Emarat Al-Youm's chief editor, Sami al-Riyami, argued that Luhaidan's remarks play into the hands of those who consider Muslims "bloodthirsty and radicals."

Saudi commentator Daoud al-Shrayyan agreed, pointing to the Western media's coverage of Luhaidan's fatwa.

"Some media saw this fatwa as an ideal opportunity to resume the talk about the link between terrorism and... Saudi Arabia and its clerics and curricula," he wrote in the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat.

(Sources: Reuters, AFP, Al-Arabiya, The Guardian)

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