DAMASCUS, Syria, AP -A new television series being broadcast around the Middle East tells the story of Arabs living in residential compounds in Saudi Arabia and the militant Islamists who want to blow them up so they can collect their rewards in heaven — 72 beautiful virgins.
The show”s message: terrorism is giving Islam a bad name, and Muslims are suffering because of the actions of a few.
The programs, which began last Tuesday on the first day of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, have come under a blistering attack on the Internet in Arabic language chat rooms.
The critics are demanding the Saudi-owned and Dubai-based Middle East Broadcasting Corporation, a popular Arabic satellite television station that bought the show and broadcasts it across the region, cancel it.
Others lambasted its Syrian Muslim director and producer, Najdat Anzour, as an infidel for tarnishing the image of Islam. But still others have praised the groundbreaking series.
Perhaps the most controversial thing about the new program is its title: "Al-Hour Al-Ayn," Arabic for "Beautiful Maidens."
Islamic militants have taken a reference in one of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and made it their belief that martyrs who die defending God and their honor will meet more than 70 virgins in paradise. For militants throughout the Middle East, suicide bombers are martyrs.
The Quran, Islam”s holy book, tells of beautiful maidens in paradise but does not mention any number. The Prophet”s saying (or Hadith), adopted by militants, speaks of 72 virgins in heaven as a reward for virtuous men. But there is no mention of martyrs in the saying.
One of the show”s writers, Abdullah Bjad, is a Saudi and self-described former militant who was consulted on religious aspects of the script. He said that just before one of the 2003 attacks on a residential compound in Saudi Arabia, an attacker who was in contact with his superiors was "heard on the mobile phone counting down the seconds to the ”beautiful maidens.” His last words were: ”One second to the ”beautiful maidens.” He then blew himself up."
The show”s director Anzour said his work is based on that string of bombings against residential compounds in Saudi Arabia that began in May 2003.
"The series is aimed at those who have not made up their minds about terrorism yet," he said, puffing on a cigarette in his studio in Damascus.
"We want to tell them that Islam is a religion of tolerance, peace and dialogue," he added. "It”s not a religion of violence."
An advertisement for the show aired on different Middle East television stations before it debuted made clear its anti-terrorist theme.
It said the show was dedicated to "all innocent victims of terrorism."
MBC said the show”s critics had complained the actors were not qualified to tackle such an issue and that the title and the entire series denigrated Islam. The outburst of anger on the Internet forced MBC to issue a statement in response. It urged viewers to watch all 30 episodes before passing judgment.
The station denied the show mocks Islam and said it was using art as a medium to confront terrorism.
The show is also being broadcast on local television in Syria and Lebanon.
Anzour said he wanted to focus on the victims of such bombings through the story of five families from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan who, like tens of thousands of Arabs, went to oil-rich Saudi Arabia to make a living.
Anzour also focused on the influence of underground clergymen luring young men from the more moderate message of other clerics and brainwashing them into becoming suicide bombers.
Bjad, the former militant, said the show”s "provocative" title was just one reason it has come under attack. He said it has incensed militants because it touches on the violent actions of al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia and on Islamists whose radical mind-set offers justification for those who want to commit terrorism.
Bjad, 35, said he decided to work on the show because it offered a way to counter such radical views.
"In the serial, we refute every militant argument by referring to the Quran," Bjad told The Associated Press from Dubai.
Mishal al-Mutairi, a Saudi actor portraying a would-be suicide bomber, said he is not worried about being involved in such a controversial project.
He told Al-Hayat newspaper that Aznour was trying to undermine attempts to justify terrorism on religious grounds and to "purify the concept" of the beautiful maidens.
"No one can deny that one of the reasons that push terrorists to commit terrorism is a concept in terrorist literature: ”Blow yourself up so you can meet ”beautiful maidens,”" al-Mutairi said.
"Beautiful Maidens" is not the first Arab television show that has provoked controversy. In fact, almost every Ramadan, one show in the Middle East is singled out either because it is perceived as ridiculing Islam or because it deals with a controversial social issue, such as polygamy.
Last year, some television stations canceled "The Road to Kabul," which chronicled life under Afghanistan”s former Taliban rulers, after Internet threats from Islamists against everyone from actors to television executives if the show portrayed the Taliban in a negative light.