Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- An episode of Saudi’s popular satirical comedy series ‘Tash Ma Tash’ entitled “Terrorist Academy” has stirred up a controversy that caused disputes among members of the Saudi society. From the first day it aired, the debate on whether the episode should have been banned or broadcast was the widely discussed bone of contention, with supporters of the show referred to as ‘secularists’ while those opposed were labeled ‘fundamentalists’. The matter escalated to the point where during the ‘taraweeh’ prayers (evening prayers in Ramadan), a number of imams prayed for the damnation of the show’s cast and crew, calling upon God to destroy them and “freeze the blood in their veins”. Meanwhile, others are campaigning to issue an official fatwa to boycott all the companies that sponsor the series, and to top it off the show’s two main stars have received death and mutilation threats, while on a well-known fundamentalist website, a fanatical volunteer offered to blow himself up along with the two stars – to gain God’s reward.
The episode in question depicted Islamic extremists in a school for militants jokingly called the “Terrorism Academy”, named after the popular global television franchise ‘Star Academy’. Critiquing conduct and concepts associated with religion in a mocking manner has been met with the overt displeasure of those who are opposed to this satire. They claim that it belittles sacred Islamic concepts such as ‘jihad’ and ‘hijra’ (the Prophet’s (pbuh) emigration from Mecca to Medina), as well as some Islamic rituals such as the use of ‘siwak’ (a small branch used by strict Muslims to clean their teeth, believed to be part of the Prophet’s (pbuh) Sunnah). It all boils down to: Is it permitted to criticize the practices of groups affiliated with religion in a satirical or comical way, as Arab drama does?
On this issue, Sheikh Salih al-Sadlan, member of the Saudi Senior Ulema Commission and staff member of the Imam Muhammad Bin Saud Islamic University, told Asharq al-Awsat, that “It is necessary to be careful when presenting issues related to the religious conduct of those affiliated to religion in a comic manner as it may violate some systems or traditions, and this directly touches upon religion.” Adding that, “Whoever fears for his religion and his creed should steer clear away from presenting and discussing such issues this way, especially when it is only the behavior of a small minority.” He concluded by saying that he advises against using such methods to provoke laughter, warning that the consequences of deriding religion are grave and could lead to infidelity. Yet, Sheikh al-Sadlan was opposed to the calls of violence against the actors and producers of the program, considering these invocations improper. He said that the official authorities should arrest anyone who threatens to kill any of the actors, or anyone else for that matter, because inciting murder is forbidden by Shariaa law.
Sheikh Abdullah Bin-Bih, member of the Jurisprudence Council in Mecca, was not as critical of the subject tackled by the popular series. He said, “In principle, criticizing, deriding, or being sarcastic about the ‘correct’ religion is strictly banned, and the culprit would be committing a grave sin, but criticizing practices unrelated to religion, such as incorrect religion, or mocking non-religious issues in religion, is allowed.” Sheikh Bin-Bih also added that criticizing the Commission for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue, which is not infallible, should only be done in a rational way after investigating the credibility of the issues at stake in order to avoid slander and defamation. Believing that criticism should only be used to rectify deeds, not to spread chaos in society, Sheikh Bin-Bih explained that employing satire to mock behavior attributed to religion is something Islamic societies are not accustomed to, which could lead to it being taken out of context and turned into slander. Comparing it to walking on broken glass, he said that it might indicate a “submission to an international agenda that tries to harm Islam and some of its institutions.”
However, Islamic thinker Zayn al-Abidin al-Rikabi has a different take on the matter, he said, Life is not about complete austerity, it’s natural for man to look for entertainment, pleasure, and amusement.” He added that every era has its form and modes of entertainment, and that this era’s happens to be comedy. Al-Rikabi explained that comedy has various different mediums and expressions including criticizing human behavior. He did not exclude satire of a religious nature by virtue of religious practices being part of human activity, which is not infallible. Still, he stipulated three conditions: Avoiding injustice, refraining from degradation, and preserving the ‘humanity’ of the person in question. He also said that although Islamic tradition is against extravagance and indulgence, a person with these qualities has rights that should be respected and protected. He added that for comedy to gain wider intellectual and social respect, it should include criticism of the moderate religious conduct and in good humor so that it’s not perceived as an attack on Islam and Muslims, and without it reaching the point of indecency, which society disregards, as it disregards the differentiation between the strict conduct and moderate conduct. Al-Rikabi also said that just as the comedy critic is allowed to mock excess, he too, should accept criticism of his work, which is not infallible. This criticism can be made in the press, on the internet, in a mosque, or from any other platform, as long as it abides to the three aforementioned principles.
Replying to the question regarding the prevalent social reservations in dealing with matters related to religion, Muhammad al-Mahmud, Saudi writer on Islamic issues, said that there are three elements worth considering: First, the criticism of phenomena that are not exclusively related to Islam, such as the beard, for example. Describing it as a religious symbol does not mean criticizing Islam since it is a common human feature. Second, in the case of issues that are specifically Islamic, such as jihad, the criticism should be directed to its method of practice and exploitation, which does not mean criticizing the Islamic rite itself. Al-Mahmud believes that zealots always try to link practices to the original ritual so as to evoke religious sentiment. Third, is the clash between fundamentalists and liberals in terms of the former trying to make everything into a religious issue while the latter deflect that fixation and try to divest certain phenomena of their religious characteristic.
Regarding the role of mosques, and the various preachers who participated in rekindling the recent controversy, Muhammad al-Mahmud believes the mosque is controlled through the exploitation of its symbolic holiness and that the power of religious reformation or progressiveness has disappeared. He believes that the mosque has become restricted to the traditional reserved religious discourse, or the provocative one, which exploits the month of Ramadan and other religious occasions by using internet websites and some satellite television channels. This discourse, he said, is only confronted by the official religious discourse (of the official religious institution), which by virtue of its official nature tries to ‘rationalize’, but does not take initiative to put an end to such discourse. Al-Mahmud added that there are points of convergence over some concepts between the two discourses.