Al Azhar to review soap operas

In the latest development on the growing power of "official Islam" in Egyptian public life, the Ministry of Information has decreed Al Azhar will now review new soap operas:

Cairo - Egyptian television dramas will soon be subject to review by a panel of religious censors, sparking an outcry by authors who say the move is a threat to their creative freedom and livelihoods.


Information Minister Mamduh al-Beltagi told reporters that he wanted to ensure better quality Egyptian television series, which have been overtaken in popularity by Syrian productions in recent years.


He said that under the new rules, only shows that are "responsible" and "respect the values and traditions of Egyptian society" will be allowed to hit the airwaves.


"The media cannot be transformed into instruments to distill poison under the pretext of artistic licence," he said.


Certain programmes will now be presented to the clerics of Al-Azhar, the world's highest Sunni Islam authority, and the small but powerful Christian church before being broadcast, Beltagi said.


The minister has already axed a television miniseries called A Girl From Shubra, a tale of the relationship between a Christian woman and a Muslim man during the Egyptian struggle for independence in the 1940s.


The ban sparked a deluge of criticism from writers but Beltagi defended the move saying the programme "deals with relations between Christians and Muslims in a way that undermines national unity".


There are going to be a lot of different interpretations of this. It could be, as the article seems to suggest, that the current sectarian tensions in Egypt are making the state adopt a more cautious take on TV programming, especially after the brouhaha that followed 'The Girl from Shubra'. It could be simply yet another control freak aspect of the regime. A lot of people will see the US behind this, especially after the scandal of 2002's 'Headless Horseman' 'Knight Without a Horse' serial, which featured among other things the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a historical document. And I'm sure more reasons can be found. But it's rather worrying that at a time when Arab media satellite is exploding with new types of exciting content (good or bad), state TV is adding yet another layer of censorship and control.

There is another element to this, too: why is Al Azhar increasingly becoming the official referee on what is Islamically correct when Sunni Islam, at least, is not meant to be clerical?
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.