A few days ago, Agence France-Presse (AFP) quoted Egyptian Islamist MP [and lawyer] Nabih al Wahsh demanding the imposition of the ‘hirabah penalty’* on Egyptian media figure, Hala Sarhan, whom he accused of fabricating an episode of her television talk show that dealt with prostitution. The penalty that Mr. al Wahsh demanded to be applied was cross amputation [severing the right hand and the left foot] followed by crucifixion.
According to the Islamist MP, famous for launching legal proceedings against new artists in the entertainment industry under moral pretexts, the application of this penalty is a legal duty against those who promote vice. This piece of news passed unnoticed as part of the clamor that surrounds Sarhan whose latest talk show episode aired statements by girls who had claimed they practiced prostitution only to later appear on other television channels accusing Hala Sarhan of paying them money to make these statements – claims that were denied by the Sarhan.
But al Wahsh is not the only one demanding the penalization of Hala Sarhan; a chorus of Islamists and nationalists have jumped on the bandwagon threatening damnation and destruction. Reactions to episodes that deal with sensitive social issues have exceeded the bounds of normal debate in terms of their content and approach, matters that are worthy of serious discussion. However, what transpired was the brandishing of the fatwa sword against a television program that supposedly has other mechanisms to control its performance. This reflects a substantial defect in the relation between the mediums and general outlets of media, and the laws and media mechanism operatives within the framework of these laws.
For Islamists and nationalists to take on the task of censorship upon themselves is the physical embodiment of this defect. If not firmly and decisively addressed, this matter could lead to the establishment of a supervisory and control mechanism such as the one relied upon by the Taliban.
The issue may be summarized as three girls who said they received money in return for making false statements on television. So who gets to decide in such a case?! Arab legislation is still not on par with the new criteria in the realm of media.
The greater problem lies behind the driving force that led these Islamists and loyal nationalists against Hala Sarhan, a fact that can, or rather should, be discussed. What motivated those groups is the fierce resistance that the Arab media has erect in the face of dealing with actual problems, which include prostitution and violence against women, in addition to a multitude of thorny issues that afflict Egyptian and Arab societies in general. However most of the time we deny their existence under the claim that our societies are free of such ‘plagues’.
The charges cited by those who demanded the prosecution of Hala Sarhan were termed “propagation of vice” and “offending the values of the Egyptian society and falsely depicting it”, which means that these people are not arguing about the manner in which serious social problems were tackled, but rather are denying the existence of these problems altogether and considering enforcing Taliban-style punishment. It is as though we are required to keep our crises from surfacing in public discussion, thus keeping them hushed and even acceptable problems by virtue of the ‘penalty of hiraba’!
* Hirabah is a term used to cover all unprovoked attacks that ruin innocent people’s lives. Classical Islamic law, Shariaa, prescribes various punishments for the different types of crimes, all with strict rules of evidence and leeway for extenuating circumstances, however the hirabah penalty is reserved for the most heinous of crimes as it violates the very purpose of Islam.