Ramadan television always throws up some controversy or talking point in the Arab world, but never of the nature of this year’s talking point. Hardline Saudi religious scholars are saying enough’s enough on the fun and frolics of Ramadan television and demanding trials for TV channel owners that could impose the death penalty.
What’s more, these owners are in fact Saudi royals and their friends. The main culprit is MBC1, owned by a brother-in-law of former King Fahd, but others include billionaire playboy prince Alwaleed bin Talal, dubbed by the religious right in Saudi Arabia “the shameless prince” (al-amir al-majin). The clerics in Saudi Arabia have enormous influence and they are worried that liberals in government and their royal allies are plotting to caste them aside and secularise the country.
It is unlikely that Alwaleed or the family of Fahd’s sister are worried about the attacks. They live in a world apart of palaces, servants, private planes and cruise ships in France and probably no one could get near them if they tried. The clerics were careful to talk about a legal process in any case. In fact, one of them, Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan, said specifically that he wasn’t calling for vigilantes to take the law into their own hands.
For Saudi clerics, the process is all, since they have the unique privilege in the Islamic world of sitting as judges in the Sharia court system. That is the very definition of the Islamic state in their eyes. It’s not the first time the religious establishment has condemned liberals in any case. Even Osama bin Laden singled out Labour Minister Ghazi Algosaibi — a poet, former ambassador to London and confidante of the king — in a taped message from his hideout on 2006 attacking a liberal “fifth column” at home. But Algosaibi and other punching bags of the Islamists survived.
Interestingly, most Saudis would probably say Lohaidan and co. have a point. Everyone complains about cheap jokes and sexual innuendoes in some Saudi comedy shows on TV after sunset during Ramadan. Most would say that the “sorcery” channels on Arab satellites are wrong. But it’s a vague tut-tut of disapproval delivered in the knowledge that the clerics’ ability to stand up to the temporal power of the Al Sauds has always been limited despite their loud bark (the most notable modern example being the way they were forced to sanction the presence of US troops on Saudi soil to eject Iraqi troops from Kuwait). People will nod in agreement that “immodest” and “immoral” television must stop, but not fully compute the fact that for the clerical puritans “sorcery” includes horoscopes that so many follow and the romantic soap operas from Turkey that their wives are hooked on.