Arab television audiences grow – so does criticism from Islamists, conservatives

Bab al-Hara

Many Arabs were shocked and appalled this month when a prominent Saudi cleric declared that it was permissible to kill the owners of satellite TV stations that broadcast “immoral” material. 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 TV show ever – the dubbed Turkish series “Noor” – calling it “replete with evil, wickedness, moral collapse and a war on the virtues.” He also urged Muslims not to watch the series, which portrays the lives of moderate Muslims who drink wine with dinner and have premarital sexual relations.

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 that Disney 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 TV 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 sexual relations 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. Recent surveys released by Arab satellite television networks suggest that TV dramas are reaching larger audiences than ever before.

You really can’t put the Genie of TV back in the box once you allow some access. People will find ingenious ways to hide satellite dishes and stream television from the Web.

Of course, if it was easy to stop, governments from Beijing to Washington would have shut it down altogether. So-called regulation is what they will continue to rely on. And community values will continue to be the talking point for censorship.

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