Islamist groups claim religious ban on viewing TV series showing Arab Jewish coexistence

MBC TV series accused of promoting “normalisation with Israel”.
Wednesday 13/05/2020
Arab actors at a shooting set during filming of MBC's Ramadan series "Umm Haroun" in Dubai. (Reuters)
TV fatwa to the rescue. Arab actors at a shooting set during filming of MBC's Ramadan series "Umm Haroun" in Dubai. (Reuters)

LONDON –Islamist organisations, especially groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, have joined hands with Turkish and Qatari media against pan-Arab TV channel MBC, accusing it of “normalisation” with Israel.

The hostile campaign has targeted MBC since the beginning of the fasting month of Ramadan, during which TV viewership usually spikes across the Arab world, after the Saudi-owned channel broadcast of a drama series showing coexistence between Arabs and Jews during last century.

The League of Palestinian Religious Scholars in Gaza issued an unusual fatwa Tuesday prohibiting viewers from watching Arab TV channels accused of “promoting normalisation with the enemy.”

“We are looking with suspicion and disapproval at this frenzied campaign by certain Arab media that are promoting normalisation by broadcasting particular Ramadan series,” Hamas leader Marwan Abu Ras said at a press conference in Gaza.

Who’s afraid of coexistence? A scene from “Umm Haroun,” a television series aired during Ramadan. (MBC Group via AP)
Who’s afraid of coexistence? A scene from “Umm Haroun,” a television series aired during Ramadan. (MBC Group via AP)

“Watching these channels is prohibited by religious law and boycotting them is a legal duty, because their plans bear goals that support the enemies of the Umma, the Jews,” he claimed.

For its part, the like-minded International Union of Muslim Scholars condemned what it described as “misleading” media and their “vile” series that “defend enemies and occupiers,” calling on the Islamic nation to “protect Al-Aqsa Mosque and Jerusalem.”

The two TV series sparking most of the controversy are “Exit 7” and “Umm Haroun,” both broadcast since the beginning of Ramadan on MBC.

However, Islamist organisations were silent on the Libyan series “Zanghat Arreeh,” broadcast by Islamist-affiliated TV channel Salam. According to sources, the channel is owned by Ali al-Sallabi, a member of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, a Muslim Brotherhood-linked group. In “Zanghat Arreeh,” Jewish characters take up a lot of drama space, prompting many viewers to wonder if the series is not ironically intended by Islamist managers of the channel to woo Israelis and other Jews of Libyan origin.

Commenting on the campaign against MBC, art critic and political writer Farouk Youssef told The Arab Weekly: “I suspect that this whole affair was coordinated with the political leadership of Hamas, which dominates the Gaza Strip.”

The militant Palestinian movement Hamas has strong ties to Turkey and Qatar.

“However, the irony is that the fatwa has led to an increase in the viewership of the two series, doubtless out of curiosity, which was not the case before the matter was made that of religious duty,” he added.

Many other Islamist organisations posted statements on social media urging viewers to boycott the two series. “The malicious drama infiltrates every home. Boycott the series Umm Haroun,” some said.

But the writers of “Umm Haroun,” Bahraini brothers Muhammad and Ali Abdul Halim Shams, said at the beginning of Ramadan that the series does not intend to convey any political message. Muhammad Shams added that some people started talking about the series and reached a judgement well before they even watched it. “The only message is mainly about the character of Muslims and their treatment of non-Muslims based on love, goodwill and peace,” he said.

 File photo shows the cast and characters of “Umm Haroun,” an MB television series aired during Ramadan. (AP)
Radical narrative. File photo shows the cast and characters of “Umm Haroun,” an MBC television series aired during Ramadan. (AP)

The MBC group said that its viewership data shows that the series topped all other Gulf dramas in Saudi Arabia during the month of Ramadan, and is among the 5 best drama series in all other fields.

The group’s spokesman, Mazen Hayek, pointed out that the show’s central message is humanitarian, as its main character is a nurse who treats all people regardless of their background.

Hayek explained that the series also focuses on tolerance, moderation and openness, and shows that the Middle East was once a region where acceptance of the other was the norm, before stereotypical and ideologically-loaded interpretations of the region were propagated by religious militants and extremists over the past decades.