Ramadan TV show stirs argument across Arab world

Ramadan TV show stirs argument across Arab world

More on Omar, this Ramadan season's hit soap opera about the second caliph, from Reuters' Mahmoud Habboush:

Conservative clerics denounce the series, which is running during the region's busiest drama season, the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. Scholars see an undesirable trend in television programming; the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates has publicly refused to watch it.

But at dinner tables and on social media around the region, "Omar" is winning praise among many Muslim viewers, who admire it for tackling an important period in Islam's history. Some think it carries lessons for the Arab world, which is grappling with political change unleashed by last year's uprisings.

Salam Sarhan, a columnist at the Lebanese newspaper Diyar, said the show was part of a gradual trend for the Islamic world to re-examine its heritage more critically, and would open the door for more television and cinema productions depicting central figures in Islam.

"If anyone dared to depict these figures 20 years ago, he would have been accused of blasphemy," he wrote. "Simply put, depicting these revered figures with their mistakes, limitations, rivalries, anger, hunger and thirst will thrust Islamic societies into a new phase."

I'd previously noted the show here.

This year's Ramadan serial commentary

It's an annual MENA tradition I look forward to — analysis of the major Ramadan soap operas, TV serial, and overall programming choices on Arab national and satellite television. Here's a few links:

  • Al-Ahram Weekly | Front Page | Something wrong with the wires
  • L’écho des feuilletons arabes sur CPA | Culture et politique arabes
  • Al-Ahram Weekly | Culture | The Fourth Serial
  • The to Yves Gonzalez-Quinjano's wonderful site, Cultures et Politiques Arabes, is a full archive of his pieces on Ramadan serials over the last six or seven years — great stuff. I really like his recent piece on the serial about Omar Ibn Khattab's life in the context of the regional Sunni-Shia pseudo-confrontation. In English on the site, stats about this megaproduction:

    The Largest Arabic Drama Production in History : 1970 swords, 650 spears, 1500 horses, 3800 camels, 4000 arrows, 400 bows, 170 sheilds, 15 drums, 14200 meters of fabric, 137 statues, 39 costume designers & tailors, 1600 pieces of potery, 10000 silver coins, 7550 slippers, 322 actors and actresses, 10,000 extras in the ba.lefield, 299 technicians from 10 countries
    The Old City of Makkah and its areas were reconstructed across 12,000 sq meters, 29 in-studio sets, 89 outdoor shooting locations
    322 days of filming & post-production
    = 463.680 minutes
    = 72.820.800 seconds (source : http://butheina.wordpress.com)

    As Yves notes, it's a fascinating evolution of the Wahhabi-led fight for the domination of mass cultural production that their propaganda (as this clearly is) now eschews the traditional fundamentalist distaste for physical representations of companions of the Prophet and of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs.

    And like a lot of major political developments in the region lately (support for the Libyan and Syrian uprisings, the covert war against Iran, the tacit alliance with Israel, support for Salafists across the region, etc.) this too is a Qatari-Saudi production.

    Ramadan hysteria

    Picture from Flickr.

    As Ramadan comes to an end, it appears these summer months of fasting present more difficulties than those years when the holy months comes at cooler times (at least if you live in the northern hemisphere.) So it looks like the years ahead will be tough, as Ramadan slides into the hot months of August, then July, then June. I think there's something slightly dysfunctional in the way Ramadan is practiced these days, as a kind of hyper-consumerist, frenetic month of stress, rather than the month of introspection it was surely meant to be. For many in this region (whether they fast or not) we are left with a 30-day Christmas frenzy.

    Which is why perhaps it's not surprising, in countries where poor people have to go to work doing manual labor, that some simply choose not to fast. Yes, public display of non-fasting is not approved, although we all know that many eat or drink on the sly. In 99% Muslim Morocco this has long been officially against the law (but certainly not enforced among the elite), whereas in Egypt, another country frequently labeled as "tolerant" in its practice of Islam (as opposed to what - Saudi Arabia?!?), not fasting is relatively normal, at least for the large Christian minority. Strange then that it's in these two countries that scandals over the arrests of non-fasters have emerged.

    Jillian York at Global Voices has a good round-up of the Moroccan debacle, as has Morocco Board. But here is an account sent to me from one of the participants in the protests against the penalization of public eating during Ramadan:

    Testimony of Moroccan Non-Faster in Hideout Drastic Government Crackdown

    We are Moroccan citizens who started MALI, an informal Internet-based group whose French acronym means “Alternative Movement for Individual Freedoms”. Launched a few weeks ago, the Facebook group brought together about 600 members from various Moroccan towns, countries, professions, and religious beliefs. MALI is a forum which discusses possible courses of action for the protection of basic individual liberties in our country. MALI defends the freedoms of religion, conscience, expression, movement, and lifestyle.
    Our first action was scheduled during the current month of Ramadan, as an effort to defend the right of non-fasting Moroccans to legally exist. We planned a daytime picnic in symbolic protest of Article 222 of the Moroccan Penal Code which demands a penalty of one to six months in prison and a fine on "any person who, understood to belong to the Muslim religion, publicly breaks the fast during Ramadan." The fast requires total abstinence from all food and drink from dawn to sunset during the lunar month of Ramadan.
    Our action was based on Article 6 in Chapter 1 of the Moroccan Constitution, which guarantees religious freedom for all citizens, and on Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Morocco is a member, which guarantees religious freedoms including the rights to change one's beliefs and to manifest them individually or as part of a community, publicly or privately, in teaching, observance, and/or worship.
    We picked the Benslimane forest near Mohammedia for our action because it lies far outside the city, and in order to avoid any accusations of public provocation. The forest is also conveniently located midway between the cities Casablanca and Rabat, which facilitated train travel to the event by MALI members from both cities. We arranged to meet at the Mohammedia train station and to walk together to the forest. Members arrived by in discreet groups of 2 and 3. At our arrival, we were met with a huge deployment of security forces at the train station. We were followed as soon as we got off the train, individually searched, and ordered to leave. One of the policemen also verbally directed religious insults at us in the process. The police prevented us from gathering and we were forced to immediately board the train back to Casablanca, in the escort of plainclothes officers. A member of the MALI group who tried to join us was arrested, verbally abused, face-slapped, and taken away before he was released later from a local police station. Back in Casablanca, a journalist who had traveled with us was taken into police van, verbally insulted, and released 15 minutes later. This same journalist, Mr. Aziz El Yaakoubi, was arrested again this afternoon (GMT. Sept 15). At about the same time, the police also arrived at my house, but I was not in there.
    A news dispatch from the Morocco's official news agency (MAP) posted yesterday announced charges against us for our “heinous” act, and I was the only participant mentioned by name. This morning, my name along, with various versions of the event, also appeared in all major Moroccan dailies. Some of the news statements openly incited hatred, and I have received death threats in my e-mail as well as via Facebook. In order to avoid tracking and arrest, I am not reachable by cell phone at the moment.

    [name redacted]

    In fact, there have been reports of dozens of police officers coming to brake up the "protest," the country's political leadership has been mobilized around the issue (Boubakr Jamai has a good editorial about that), and a meeting of ulema gathered to express its indignation. As Morocco's most famous blogger,Larbi, points out, this amounts to collective hysteria: eight people prevented from doing anything are suddenly a moral threat to the nation of tremendous magnitude.

    According to the Ministère des Habous et des Affaires Islamiques, the Moroccan penal code says:

    Article 222 - A person, known for belonging to the Muslim religion, which breaks fast in a public place during Ramadan, without a reason commonly accepted in this religion, is to be punished by imprisonment for one to six months and of a fine of 12-120DH.

    This might just be a silly story, but it speaks poorly of overall regime outlook, and not just because these people were needless harassed and prosecuted. The palace reacted to protect its flank, gathering party leaders around it and pressuring them into issuing condemnation of the fasters. The same regime that boasts endlessly of its moderateness to foreigners is giving credence to Islamist hysteria over this eight-man threat to Moroccan values. It's a reminder of Morocco's surface reforms that ties in nicely with a recent Guardian piece by the Arab Reform Bulletin's Intissar Fakir on "Make-believe reforms in Morocco" in which she argues:

    Morocco excels at deflecting western criticism, insisting that liberal reforms would empower violent Islamic radicals who threaten the state. The claim takes in even those who should know better. "Under pressure from Islamic radicalism," Stephen Erlanger and Souad Mekhennet wrote recently in the New York Times, "King Mohammed VI has slowed the pace of change." The latest cover of the Washington Diplomat sports a profile of Aziz Mekouar, Morocco's ambassador to the US, heralding the monarchy's successes in squaring tradition with modernity.

    She continues later:

    Ironically, the radicalism that plagues Morocco is a product of the palace itself. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Mohammed's father, Hassan II, embarked on an initiative to Islamise Morocco. Seeking both to solidify his image as Commander of the Faithful and to weaken the secular left-leaning opposition forces that had gained support in the 60s and 70s, Hassan led a relentless effort to remake education and popular culture, infusing school curriculums with radical Salafi teachings.
    The monarchy sought to divert attention from the sad reality of daily life by associating all secular thinking with colonialism and western domination – a powerful charge for a country that lived under French rule for nearly five decades – engaging the population in a search for lost identity. More imagined than real, the new identity focused on the religious character of the state: a Sunni, Salafi Morocco.
    These efforts have succeeded, and all too well. As is the case in Saudi Arabia, the monarchy now faces an Islamist threat it is increasingly unable or unwilling to contain. The precise extent of the threat has never been clear, but Islamism is undeniably on the rise. While Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has inflicted less damage in Morocco than it has in Algeria and Mauritania, it remains a palpable threat.

    Much of the bit about palace instrumentalization of religion is true, I do however disagree with the last bit about Islamism being a palpable threat: if you can't say 'the precise extent" or even define the threat, you should not speak about threats. AQIM is not a "threat" to Morocco (as in it won't bring the country down), and if other Islamists are meant here (such as the PJD) I don't quite see the argument of this being a serious threat.

    The idea of a Sunni, Salafi Morocco being encouraged in the 1970s by Hassan II (or rather tolerated through his promotion of certain Istiqlal figures, traditionalists mostly, and tolerance for others who shared his goal of fighting the left is true, but is it still relevant?

    I would argue that the single most important thing about Muhammad VI's reign has been his "reform of the religious field," in which he has re-asserted the "Sunni, Malekite character of Moroccan Islam" while carrying out major efforts to train imams and create a conservative but not radical consensus among the ulema. Not everyone is on board of course, and there are plenty of Salafists who disagree (and they are targered by this message) as well as the like of al-Adl wal Ihsan, whose Sufi radicalism is based on opposition to the "Commander of the Faithful." While Muhammad VI has carried this reform as the most effective symbolic method to strengthen's the monarchy's claim to power, it has put him in the position of having to act more explicitly as a religious leader. His attack on the non-fasters, on the hyper-secularist magazines Nichane and Tel Quel a few years ago, as well as on Shias more recently are explained by this renewed claim to moral leadership being made through religious conservatism. As opposed, say, to moral authority granted by being a genuine reformer.

    On to Egypt, where moral authority by the regime hit rock bottom a long time ago and the big worry is how bigoted the police has become. Here I think the issue is more one of general moral decay (I don't mean this in religious terms) and utter confusion about the directions the country is taking. In this regard, Sara al-Deeb of AP has a good piece about Egypt's own Ramadan troubles:

    The Associated Press: Ramadan brings out Egypt's split personality

    Two furious debates have been raging through the season in the Arab world's most populous nation. On one hand, rumors that police arrested Egyptians violating the daily Ramadan fast raised dire warnings from secularists that a Taliban-like rule by Islamic law is taking over.
    On the other, Ramadan TV talk shows on state-sponsored television featuring racily dressed female hosts discussing intimate sex secrets with celebrities have sparked outrage from conservatives, denouncing what they call the decadence that is sweeping the nation.
    So is Egypt being taken over by sinners or saints? Egyptians have always been a boisterous combination — priding themselves on their piety, while determined to have a good time.
    Ramadan, the final day of which is Saturday in most of the Islamic world, shows the contradictions. Egyptians widely adhere to the dawn-to-dusk fast, in which the faithful abstain from food, drink, smoking and sex from dawn until dusk. After sunset, while some pray into the night, many Egyptians party with large meals and a heavy dose of TV entertainment produced specially for the month.
    But the confusion comes from the government as well. It has often promoted strict Islamic principles in an attempt to co-opt conservatives and undercut extremists whom the state has been battling for decades. But it also increasingly dominated by businessmen who this year are more heavily than ever promoting Western-style secular culture.
    There is no explicit law in Egypt to punish those not abiding by the fast, nor are there religious police to enforce Islamic rules as in Saudi Arabia. Many restaurants still serve during the day, and coffee shops can be seen with their doors cracked open, patrons hidden inside sipping tea or smoking water pipes.
    But independent newspapers reported this month that police arrested more than 150 people for openly violating the fast.
    Most of the reports have been unconfirmed. But Ahmed, a 27-year old fruit vendor, told The Associated Press he and 15 other people were arrested in a market in the southern town of Aswan on Sept. 5, for smoking in public.
    "I was slapped, kicked around," Ahmed said, refusing to give his last name fearing further police harassment. "They asked me why I am not fasting ... They insulted me and used foul language."
    Ahmed said he was kept in the police station for nearly six hours, then let go. "Now I am fasting, I swear," he said.
    Police officials refused to confirm if Ahmed and others were arrested for not fasting, saying only they were rounded up for investigation.

    Original reports spoke of 155 people being arrested in Aswan,so it could be that this was a localized policy, much like arrests of Shias in Hurghada were not state policy but the result of over-zealous, bigoted police officers.

    More shockingly, the Interior Ministry appears to have endorsed the arrests of non-fasters and adopted it as standing policy, as Bikya Misr and al-Shorouk have reported. Without, apparently, any more legal ground then they feel it's a disturbance to public order. I don't think this is a question of the state competing with Islamists to be the most pious (indeed, one could make the argument that the Quranic injunction "there is no compulsion in Islam" is a libertarian credo. The problem, in Egypt at least, is more that moral authority has dwindled to such an extent that police officers of all ranks feel that they can enact their personal bigotry unto others. Who knows what the back story of the arrests in Aswan is, but it tells us one thing: the law does not matter; it's what the pasha says that does.


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    Ramadan TV

    The excellent Culture et Politique Arabes site has a detailed analysis of the commercial underpinnings of Ramadan entertainment (Al Quds Al Arabi estimates that the Holy months brings in $100 million in TV advertising revenues). The post points out that the Egyptians got the jump on other Arab countries this year--in an increasingly competitive TV market--by starting to air their Ramadan soap operas a night before everyone else. The post also mentions the lack of Ramadan spirit in the new Egyptian TV channel El Qahera wa En-Nas (Cairo Centric in English) whose yellow posters all across Cairo have been promising "Ramadan's most daring TV." The campaign has clearly already raised some hackles, as this article in Islam Online describes what they consider to be a controversial exchange on one of the stations' talk shows, in which the director Ines El Daghidi, to the question "When do you think you might take the veil?" replied يا رب ماتكتها علي'' ("Oh God, don't decree this for me"--I think). What's extraordinary is that  apparently this "daring" station is considering editing the exchange out of the broadcast. Also read Amira Howeidy's piece on Ramadan television in Al-Ahram Weekly, Made to Measure.
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