As usual, a new controversy has emerged during Ramadan, this time the “Omar” television series. This program has marked a real transition in the history of Arab drama; whether in terms of the courage of the subject matter, the impressive production values, or the extent of the audience, being screened on a number of Arab television channels from Qatar to Lebanon, Tunisia and Algeria. The series has also been dubbed and translated in Indonesia and Turkey, as well as through some private Arab and Muslim oriented media outlets in France. After Ramadan, the series will also be broadcasted in Malaysia, and later on in the US. In fact, I believe that this is the first Arab television program to be dubbed and translated into other languages.
It is clear that the controversy over the program’s religious permissibility or impermissibility remains a subject of disagreement in all its major and minor details. Yet some of those who oppose the “Omar” series tend to exaggerate and aggravate the situation through their sermons, and as such are only demonstrating weaknesses in their jurisprudential stances. It is clear that “Omar” is neither a piece of historical research, nor a prophetical biography or a cultural study; rather it is a work of drama that incorporates the writer’s vision. The characters and texts develop gradually and the writer uses means of intimation extremely skillfully.
It must be obvious to any observer that such controversies have prevailed for years. However, this time, some religious preachers are targeting the news and entertainment broadcaster “MBC” in particular. They are even appearing on other television channels to issue fatwas against MBC from there. In this endeavor, they never utter a word of criticism against the channels that host them, simply because these channels serve as a platform for their interests. Some preachers attack MBC on supposed “religious grounds”, yet in reality they simply believe the channel has not granted them enough exposure. Others are jealous of MBC’s influence and outreach, believing that religious preachers should be the sole source of social guidance.
Drama, as first expressed by the theatre throughout ancient history, transformed at the beginning of the twentieth century into a more influential and a widespread industry through the art of cinema. Cinema cannot be considered a mere trivial commodity because it has an intellectual, entertainment and cultural impact, and most importantly, its political influence has now become highly significant.
The leadership of the Russian Bolshevik revolution, from Lenin to Stalin, was fully aware of the political importance and influence of drama, specifically the cinema. In 1922, Lenin described cinema as “the most important of all the arts for us”. In 1924, Stalin warned that the cinema was the biggest means of mobilizing the masses. This was before the invention of television, which allowed films and drama works to be screened in every single household.
For decades, our region has been engaged in a political struggle between the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia. In this struggle, religious, political, sectarian and ideological elements have all blended in with ambitions of influence and motives of sovereignty. Over time, the struggle spread widely and flourished wherever there were different interests and objectives. Considering the powerful influence of drama, it can be used politically to promote one version of events here or another one there. By its very nature, cinema can convey messages that a book, a research paper or an article cannot, because its large audience incorporates categories that are not usually exposed to news or analysis, let alone the act of reading itself that requires effort and time.
In the background of such a struggle there is the sectarian element between the Sunnis and the Shiites, which has a strong political and religious presence in the region. The key point here is that the Shiite ideology adopted by Iran is basically one that glorifies images and uses them to create everlasting portraits. Iran uses drama at the heart of its religious ceremonies to recall history on sacred occasions such as that of the killing of Ali and Hussein. If it true that the heart of Sunni ideology is the Sharia’a, and what is permissible and impermissible in Islam, then it is also true that the crux of Shiite ideology lies in its rituals, emotions and drama.
The profound role of drama in Shiite ideology and Iran’s adoption of the art have paved the way for the promotion of the drama industry in both a distinguished and dangerous manner. For years, Iran has been producing dramas to chronicle religious events according to its own ideological view, producing works on the biographies of a number of prophets and Abrahamic religious characters. Now, Iran is aiming to produce a work on Islam and its early history from its own perspective, aiming to exploit this ideologically and politically.
Intellectually and culturally speaking, we do not need to emphasize that sectarianism is utterly rejected and that each sect is entitled to exhibit its own vision and give its own account of religious events. However, politically the situation seems different, especially when this account of events becomes a weapon in the battle of influence and in the war of domination, where Iran has left no stone unturned.
In modern history, although the Soviet Union was wary of cinema, the US transformed the industry into a new power to add to the existing elements of strength in its possession. Through cinema, the US managed to spread its own elements, principles and thoughts, and most importantly its policies. It has promoted its own account of modern history and international struggles from World War I and II, the Cold War, and contemporary conflicts.
Considering the high illiteracy rates in the Arab world, a question arises: Will we see a depiction of the history of Islam, designed for a mass audience, in this particular period? What would the political impact of this be? Are different forces competing to create such a work of drama in order to serve their interests on the ground today? Or is this scenario a mere theological struggle that does not exist in reality?
The political impact of drama is undeniable, and by accessing the broadest category of audiences, visions and ideas can be consecrated. In fact, this is how many theological struggles transformed into major political factors in both ancient and modern history.
For decades, Iran has been undertaking sectarian and ideological promotion together with political promotion. In the former case, we can see the struggle between different Marjas and loyalties, between followers of the Wali al-Fiqh and some Shiite Marjas who opposed this, uphold older believes, and champion rapprochement with the Zaidi school of thought. In the latter case of political promotion, Iran seems adept at attracting numerous groups of political Islam and its symbols to serve its project under the slogan of jihad and resistance [against Israel], despite the objection shown by traditional Islamic institutes such as al-Azhar, and others that have withstood the tide.
The “Omar” television series was aired and all objections were futile, yet political conflicts will continue to be waged through drama as long as man remains on earth.