Saudis push anti-militant line in Ramadan TV shows

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - Saudi media is using the holy month of Ramadan to tackle the sensitive issue of Islamic extremism, with TV soaps ridiculing militants and clerics crying foul at the way their religion is depicted.

During Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, but the evenings are a time for celebration when television channels across the Arab world go into overdrive with dramas and comedies offering a chance to tackle difficult social issues.

Reformers in the Saudi royal family want to use the media to promote liberal policies in a country where a hard line school of Islam often known as Wahhabism exerts a strong influence.

Long-running Saudi comedy "Tash Ma Tash" this year broke taboos with its depiction of Islamic extremists at a school for militants jokingly named the "Terrorism Academy," named after the popular global TV franchise Star Academy.

"The program pushes the envelope and we need it to be pushed. These issues have been addressed in the past but it's more direct now," said liberal activist Hussein Shobokshi.

"People are being challenged to differentiate between the human and the divine part of religion. It's on the human side that we need to work," he told Reuters.

Clerics and others are furious, saying the humor ridicules Islam itself. The believers at the school are depicted as simpletons robotically repeating mantras about "infidels," which are in fact part of mainstream Saudi religious discourse.

"Media in the Islamic world must not adopt people who deride God's religion, its holy men and their supporters, or who produce such drama serials and propaganda," Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Shathry recently said in one of many edicts against the show.


Religion plays a central role in everyday life in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and home to its holiest shrines.

But Wahhabism -- seen as a key ideological driving force behind militancy -- has been under fire since the September 11 attacks of 2001 when 19 young Arabs, including 15 Saudis, killed 3,000 people in the United States.

In 2003 Wahhabi radicals in Saudi Arabia launched a violent campaign to topple the Saudi royal family, which has been closely allied to Washington for decades.

Underlining sensitivities, Saudi state television has declined to air the show. It is being carried on MBC, a popular pan-Arab network based in the less restrictive United Arab Emirates, whose Saudi owner is close to the Saudi royal family.

In one scene, the two main characters are in a Cairo nightclub on a secret sex weekend away from their wives.

"But we couldn't have this sort of thing in our country, could we?" one says, as if trying to convince himself.

"Oh no, we have something special," the other replies.

The idea that Saudi Arabia has "something special" -- or "khususiyya" in Arabic -- is often cited by Islamist hardliners to hold back liberal reforms in one of the world's most conservative societies that even prevents women from driving.